What If Tim Tebow Were Muslim?

Posted: Jan 12, 2012 4:02 PM

That's the idea fueling a Washington Post blogpost on Tim Tebow, with the subtext that Americans are too religiously bigoted to love an athlete who is publicly religious and non-Christian.

Tim Tebow Broncos rear view The piece makes an incredibly flawed comparison, however, to politically controversial athlete Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Nuggets.

Abdul-Rauf was drafted as Chris Jackson and converted to Islam shortly afterwards. Sandra Fish, the Washington Post writer, writes that his religion led him to refuse to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner:

But in March 1996, about five years after his conversion, Abdul-Rauf decided his faith prohibited him from standing for the national anthem. He came to think of the American flag as "a symbol of oppression and tyranny."

The reaction was swift: the NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf for a game. The public outcry was brutal. Four radio station employees charged into a Denver mosque to play the anthem on a trumpet and bugle; they were charged with misdemeanors.

Abdul-Rauf was subsequently traded to the Sacramento Kings, and his NBA career never recovered.

Abdul-Rauf was villainized not for his religion, but for his stance that America was a tyrannical nation. But Islam doesn't command its followers to hold this view. And certainly, Tebow doesn't take any political viewpoints that are as controversial and unpopular as Abdul-Rauf has.

A more apt comparison may be made to other athletes whose public non-Christianity would make them better suited for comparison. Take my favorite athlete of all time, Hakeem Olajuwon. A Nigerian who immigrated to the U.S. to go to college and play basketball, Olajuwon struggled early in his NBA career before rededicating himself to Islam and becoming a more serious, devoted baller.

Olajuwon appealed to his faith in a way that everyone could relate to. In an interview, he said,

Before I started practicing my faith, I used to completely rely on myself. When I had done my best, I would be extremely frustrated if I didn't win. It would irritate and anger me. And that was causing me to be bad to others by fighting and swearing. But when I started practicing my faith, I learned that results are not my property. I started doing my best but then I left success and failure to my Creator. Now I was not irritated by failure and was not overinflated by success. That caused me to calm down and improve my behavior towards others on my team and we became a team.

These are values that are shared by Christians, Jews, Muslims, and believers the world over. Olajuwon didn't have the same hostility to the American flag that Abdul-Rauf had, either. Olajuwon became a naturalized American citizen in 1993 and played on the 1996 U.S. Olympic basketball team. There is not necessarily a tension between Islam and American patriotism.

There have been very prominent non-Christian athletes before whose religion hasn't held them back in the public eye. Choosing Abdul-Rauf as Tim Tebow's "Muslim equivalent" is the wrong comparison.

Tebow's Christianity can certainly be a lightning rod, but it's best to avoid inappropriate comparisons to irreligious political stances like refusing to stand for the national anthem. Make no mistake, public attitudes about Tim Tebow would be vastly different if he were Muslim, but there are plenty of examples of how he would still have a very devoted following.