Try telling a room full of foot­ball play­ers you don’t drink beer

Nine-year CFL vet­eran Obby Khan re­flects on play­ing and liv­ing his faith

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - IBRAHIM (OBBY) KHAN

Ibrahim (Obby) Khan played nine years in the CFL for Ot­tawa, Win­nipeg and Cal­gary be­fore re­tir­ing in 2012. In the wake of the shoot­ings at a Que­bec City mosque and the ban on Mus­lims im­posed by U.S. pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, The Spec­ta­tor’s Drew Ed­wards asked him to re­flect on his faith, his ex­pe­ri­ences in foot­ball and his re­ac­tion to re­cent events.

Imag­ine telling a room full of foot­ball play­ers you don’t drink beer or can’t go out for wings and ribs … be­cause you are Muslim.

This was the sit­u­a­tion I faced as an 18-year-old fresh­man at Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity. I was away from my fam­ily, my home and my re­li­gious com­mu­nity for the first time in my life. I was stand­ing in the locker room at the end of my first train­ing camp and ev­ery­body was go­ing out for food and drinks to cel­e­brate the start of the sea­son. I was in­vited along, of course, but I didn’t know what to say. I was ner­vous. How would my team­mates re­act? What would they say?

“I don’t drink al­co­hol, I don’t eat the wings or ribs (they are not Ha­lal) be­cause of my faith,” I said quickly, get­ting it out of the way.

They re­sponded with a lot of ques­tions. Many had never met a Muslim be­fore, never mind played with one. They knew lit­tle about my faith, and what they did know — this was right be­fore 9/11 — was of­ten mis­guided or just plain wrong. I pa­tiently an­swered them all.

Fi­nally, they said, “Who cares? Come any­way.”

This was an “aha” mo­ment for me, per­haps the first time I re­al­ized I could be who I am and peo­ple would re­spect me for it, even love me for it. I did go to par­ties, bars and events, and be­came a part of the fold, on the foot­ball team, on and off the field.

I would pray when I had to pray, fast when I had to fast. I went on to have some of the best years of my life, and some of those team­mates are some of my clos­est friends.

My mother (Re­hana) and fa­ther (Iftikhar) em­i­grated from Pak­istan in 1979, look­ing for a bet­ter life for their grow­ing fam­ily. They were one of the first Muslim fam­i­lies in Ot­tawa, pioneers in their own way. My fa­ther helped es­tab­lish the first mosque in his com­mu­nity, and be­cause you couldn’t buy ha­lal meat, I have vivid memories of go­ing to the farm and slaugh­ter­ing the an­i­mals our­selves, pro­cess­ing the meat and shar­ing it with other Muslim fam­i­lies. We prayed five times a day, we went to the mosque all the time — we grew up with Is­lam very present in our lives.

My fa­ther taught me that no mat­ter where we go or what we do, we are an ex­am­ple of what Is­lam is. We look a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, we act a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, we might dress a lit­tle dif­fer­ent so peo­ple will al­ways be look­ing at us, and we have to em­body the best things of what our faith teaches us.

Dur­ing my nine years play­ing in the CFL, I had count­less dis­cus­sions about race and re­li­gion. In the pros, it’s very dif­fer­ent: if col­lege is a broth­er­hood, the pros are a busi­ness. My team­mates didn’t re­ally care that I was Muslim, or that I didn’t drink al­co­hol, or that I fasted, as long as I did my job. My faith was a talk­ing point, but there were never any neg­a­tive feel­ings or heated mo­ments.

The op­por­tu­nity for ed­u­ca­tion was al­ways there, and most peo­ple were gen­uinely cu­ri­ous. I vividly re­mem­ber sit­ting in the locker room one day, talk­ing politics with a few African-Amer­i­can play­ers and a few Cana­dian guys. When the con­ver­sa­tion moved to re­li­gion, and I started talk­ing about Is­lam, some of the Amer­i­cans were sur­prised. One of my team­mates said, ‘All we know about Is­lam is what we see on TV, and that ain’t good. You guys are ter­ror­ists and hate the West. He said, ‘Mus­lims are hated more than black peo­ple in the States now.’ This was in 2007. Things are even worse now.

While I never overtly ex­pe­ri­enced Is­lam­o­pho­bia or racism in the locker room — my coaches were, al­most uni­ver­sally sup­port­ive when the needs of my faith in­ter­fered with foot­ball — that isn’t to say I haven’t felt it.

When I travel to the United States, I’m rou­tinely stopped and ques­tioned, in some cases held for long pe­ri­ods of time. When I signed with Cincin­nati Ben­gals of the NFL in 2004, I was stopped at the bor­der de­spite the fact that I had my con­tract, a let­ter from the Ben­gals and my equip­ment. The U.S cus­toms of­fi­cer didn’t be­lieve me. They held me for more than an hour be­fore fi­nally let­ting me go. When I was trav­el­ling back from Pak­istan in 2007, I was held in cus­toms for al­most six hours, freed only af­ter a Google search con­firmed that I was in­deed a pro­fes­sional foot­ball player with the Win­nipeg Blue Bombers.

It is easy to feel an­gry af­ter these ex­pe­ri­ences. It’s even eas­ier af­ter the events of this past week that saw the mur­der of six Muslim men in a Que­bec City mosque and the re­stric­tions on Mus­lims en­ter­ing the U.S. by new Amer­i­can pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

I’ve used the plat­form of be­ing a leader of the team in col­lege, a pro­fes­sional ath­lete and now a mem­ber of the busi­ness com­mu­nity in Win­nipeg to ed­u­cate peo­ple the best I can. But we all need to speak up. When you see some­thing or hear some­thing that’s not right — and we all know what’s right in our souls — we all have an obli­ga­tion to do and say some­thing. And not just for Mus­lims but also for this coun­try’s indige­nous peo­ple, the LGBTQ com­mu­nity, women: the chal­lenges of ig­no­rance and per­se­cu­tion, and the need for change, ex­tend to all of us.

My son will be re­quired to rep­re­sent his Is­lamic her­itage in the same way his fa­ther does and his fa­ther be­fore; to demon­strate that it is a re­li­gion of peace, faith and spir­i­tu­al­ity. In some ways, so much has changed — it’s easy to think you’ve made it when you can buy ha­lal meat at Wal­mart — but the events of the past few days have shown that there is so much to do, if we can only find a way to do it to­gether.


Ibrahim (Obby) Khan writes an es­say for The Spec­ta­tor on his life as Muslim in the CFL and what it’s like to be a Muslim in Canada today.

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