Judo Olympic bigotry: Egyptian Muslim refuses to shakes hand with Israeli Jew


In judo it is customary to bow to one’s opponent before a bout, and to shake hands afterwards. The first is a Japanese sign of respect and mandatory; the second is established etiquette and courteous.

Islam El Shahaby is an Egyptian Muslim judoka. He clearly had no problems competing against Or Sasson, an Israeli Jewish judoka, in the Rio de Janeiro Olympiad. But the Egyptian Muslim refused to shakes hands with the Israeli Jew after the bout. Perhaps he’s still sore about the Six-Day War, even though he wasn’t born. Much of the media focuses on the fact that El Shahaby lost to Sasson, and put the handshake refusal down to pique. The fact that, after a moment of prayer, he was reluctant to bow at the outset, and had to be urged to do so by the judge, rather suggests that the problem was expressing any manner of respect to the Israeli Jew at all.

But El Shahaby did compete: the Egyptian Muslim was prepared to be defiled by touching the Israeli Jew in combat, but not in a sign of fraternal respect. Some say we should laud the fact that the Arab world is willing to compete against Israelis at all. This is, they consider, enormous progress. It is reported that El Shahaby came under considerable pressure to pull out before the bout: “You dishonor Islam if you lose to Israel,” he was told. “How can you cooperate with a killer?” The Islamist mindset is polluted universally: in Egypt it is fused with nationalism. The extremist poison is bound to seep into sport, especially where Israeli Jews are concerned.

There really ought to be a penalty for bad Olympian sportsmanship which derives from unsporting prejudice like racism. If not personal – the downgrading of a judoka’s dan, or reducing rank from black belt to brown, for example – it ought to be some sort of action against the national team, to remind them of the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect.

The curious thing is how remarkably little fuss has been made of this Olympic bigotry, as though we should be grateful that the rest of the world deigns to compete with ‘Zionists’ at all. Imagine if this had been a Jew refusing to shake the hand of a Muslim. Imagine, even worse, if this had been an Israeli disrespecting an Egyptian. And imagine, worst of all, the global outcry and political condemnation if anyone of any religion or ethnicity had refused to shake the hand of a gay athlete. Stephen Fry would have been right onto it, as he was over the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

‘When a (courteous) greeting is offered you, meet it with a greeting still more courteous, or (at least) of equal courtesy. Allah takes careful account of all things’ (Qur’an 4:86). Reasonable Muslims the world over, devout or not, would heed such common courtesy. There is simply no place in sport for an attitude of ‘touch not the unclean thing‘, especially if you’re prepared to touch it in combat.