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Discrimination Olympics: Meddling with Muslims in Sochi

Why Putin's Islamophobic policies pervade the Winter Olympics at Sochi.

Last updated: 17 Feb 2014 09:19
Khaled A Beydoun

Khaled A Beydoun is the Critical Race Studies Teaching Fellow at the UCLA School of Law.
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Rampant Islamophobia has cast a shadow of danger during these Olympic Games, writes Beydoun [Getty Images]

Sochi's more than 20,000 Muslims helped build the infrastructure and stages for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, where Muslim athletes from a range of participating nations will compete within these multi-million-dollar stadia, slopes, and structures, vying for gold and the glory that comes with Olympic victory.

However, for Muslims in Sochi, the rampant Islamophobia has cast a shadow of concern and danger during these Olympic Games. Coverage of the Sochi games mentions Islam and Muslims exclusively in the form of terrorist threat, head-scarved "black widows", and, the familiar conflation of religious observance with national security concerns.

Coverage of the Sochi games mentions Islam and Muslims exclusively in the form of terrorist threat, head-scarved "black widows", and, the familiar conflation of religious observance with national security concerns.

While the Opening Ceremony showcased the well-crafted face of a "New Russia", age-old Russian hate toward the LGBTQ community, and indeed, both indigenous and visiting Muslims, are also prominently displayed in Sochi.  

During its buildup, NBC's Bob Costas stated that the Sochi Games will, "take place against a backdrop of questions about policy differences, security, cost overruns and human rights issues, including Russia's anti-gay propaganda law". 

The firestorm against Sochi's brazen homophobia leading up and during the Olympics was fierce, capped by President Barack Obama sending a US delegation led by openly gay athletes. The message, from news desks and the Oval Office, was clear - the US opposed the structural homophobia built into the Sochi Olympics. 

No similar statements were made of the pervasive Islamophobia encircling the Games. Rather, the media and political rhetoric in the US toward Muslims and Islam are aligned with those of Russia, and linked inextricably to terrorism. American misalignment with Russia's per se homophobia, and its converging interests with Moscow's framing of Muslim threat, highlights the ever more relevant observation of Derrick Bell, who held that: "Domestic civil rights policies are only promoted when they advance majoritarian (white) interests abroad."

The policing of Muslims stateside, and its nexus to the "global war on terrorism", has - in large part - erased word of Sochi's brazen Islamophobia from news headlines, and, hushed the US government from calling into question the religious freedoms of Muslims in Russia.    

20,000 Muslims, zero mosques

Like its rigid stance against homosexuality, Islamophobia is built deeply within the brick and mortar of Russian law. New - like Old - Russia, violently persecutes its religious minorities. The Olympic City sits on the edges of the Caucasus Mountains - the site of the 19th century decimation and displacement of Circassian Muslims. In an effort to pacify resistance, the Czar followed by Soviet strategy focused on shuttering mosques, and eliminating religious centres and meeting spaces as a strategy to ethnically cleanse the indigenous Muslims. This Russian tactic of blanket suppression has outlived czars, the Soviet Union, and still lords over the Muslim population surrounding and within the Caucasus region.    

In the Mother Jones article "Why Sochi has no mosques", Tim Murphy writes that Sochi does not have a single mosque within its bounds for its 20,000 Muslim residents. The vast majority of these Muslims "migrated to the city over the last decade to take jobs building the Olympic facilities". The nearest mosque is in the village of Tkhagapsh, roughly 50 miles from Sochi. Likely in an effort to preempt disruptive protests, Anatoli Rykov, the interim mayor of Sochi, told reporters that talks to build Sochi's first mosque would begin after the Olympics. 

Prayers rooms have been availed to Muslim Olympians. The accommodation of Muslim athletes, however, is hardly a symbol of tolerance. But rather, a blatant effort to quell dissidence within the Olympic Village, while simultaneously, denying the rights of Sochi's Muslim residents to practice their faith.

Sochi's mosque-less limits is emblematic of a deeper animus toward Muslims. Conspicuous markers of Muslim identity, including beards or headscarves, legal status and Chechen or Circassian nationality, will instantly mobilise the 50,000 police forces patrolling the city.

In short, Sochi is no place for Muslims, and the Steering Committee's welcome for the Games' Muslim athletes will surely expire as soon as Olympic flame is put out. 

Sochi: A modern Potemkin Village?

The Sochi Games have been called a "moment of personal glory" for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. A $51 bn grand circus for the Russian strongman, showcasing his financial mettle and might for the entire world to see. However, Putin's arrogance is only one dimension of how these Games will be remembered after its end on February 23. 

Without question, Putin backs the modern Islamophobic policies in Russia today. However, the phobia that mixes with religious animus with empire, xenophobia and a racially narrow conception of authentic Russian identity, precedes the modern czar by centuries. Beyond the billion-dollar Olympic Structures that symbolise "New Russia" are deeply entrenched phobias and systems of hate that no sublime opening ceremony or state-of-the-art stadium can hide.

When the crowds are gone and the world's cameras are far away, Sochi will be remembered as a modern "Potemkin Village", built atop the hollowed pillars of hate that survived the fall of walls and the crumbling of iron curtains. After the final medal is awarded in Sochi, these will stand as the lasting symbols of the Winter Olympics 2014. 

Khaled A Beydoun is the Critical Race Studies Teaching Fellow at the UCLA School of Law.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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