Images on Soccer Balls Offend Muslim Sensibilities

By Patrick Goodenough | November 12, 2008 | 4:34 AM EST

Images from a Saudi flag on a soccer ball are drawing complaints from Muslims in South Africa, host of the 2010 World Cup.

( – An Islamic clerics’ group in South Africa is protesting the appearance of Koranic text in advertising and promotional merchandise for the soccer World Cup, which the country is hosting in 2010.
At issue are soccer balls featuring images of flags of the world, including those of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. All three flags include words from the Koran.
The Council of Muslim Theologians, based in Johannesburg, said in a statement that the use of text which Muslims consider sacred “has the potential of offending adherents of the Islamic faith.”

Saudi flag

“We would therefore like to bring to the attention of publishers, advertisers, printers, publicists and all concerned about the sensitivities the Muslim community has about the use of any type of media with sacred Islamic text,” it said.
Although Muslims comprise less than two percent of South Africa’s population, the community is an influential one, with activists frequently protesting against Israeli and American policies.
(South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup is the first time the competition is being held in Africa. Described as the world’s largest sports event, it will involve the world’s 32 top national soccer teams – likely including the United States, which has qualified for the past five World Cups – competing over a month in mid-2010.)
This is not the first time the multi-flag soccer ball has upset Muslims. In the summer of 2007, U.S. troops in Afghanistan were accused of insulting Islam after they distributed balls, some of them featuring the flags, to children in Khost province.
Media reports said at the time that local mullahs complained, and around 100 people held a protest demonstration. A U.S. military spokesman was quoted as expressing regret for causing offense, and saying “the distribution of soccer balls was done in the spirit of goodwill, something that we hoped would bring Afghan children some enjoyment.”
The offending balls on that occasion included a Saudi flag, which features a sword and the Arabic script for the “shahada” – the Koranic declaration of faith that states, “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.” Because of Islamic sensitivities, the Saudi flag is never flown at half-staff.
The Iranian flag features stylized text repeating the phrase Allahu Akbar (Allah is greater); Iraq’s national flag also includes the phrase, in the middle of the central white stripe.
Allah everywhere
Muslim groups have on numerous occasions complained about images or words being used in ways they consider blasphemous, and Western business interests invariably back down.
In 2005, Burger King restaurants in Britain withdrew an ice cream product after Muslim customers said a label design – a stylized swirl of soft serve – looked like the Arabic script for “Allah,” when viewed sideways. The Muslim Council of Britain commended the company for “sensitive and prompt action.”
Pamphlets have circulated in Muslim countries alleging that the famous swirly-scripted Coca Cola symbol, if viewed in a mirror, resembles the Arabic words, “No Mohammed, no Mecca.”
In a “myths and rumors” section on its Web site, the Coca Cola Co. dismisses the charge, noting that “the trademark was created in 1886 in Atlanta, Georgia, at a time and place where there was little knowledge of Arabic.”
“The allegation has been brought before a number of senior Muslim clerics in the Middle East who researched it in detail and refuted the rumor outright,” the company says, and its Web site links to a ruling in 2000 by the top cleric in Sunni Islam, the grand mufti of Al-Azhar, Egypt.
Two years earlier, the owner of Walls ice cream, Unilever, was forced to scrap a new logo for use in the Middle East after Muslims in Gulf states said the symbol – a pair of intertwining red and yellow hearts – looked like the word “Allah” in Arabic, when viewed upside down and backwards.
In 1997, Nike pulled more than 38,000 pairs of basketball shoes after the Council on American-Islamic Relations said the logo – the word “air” in flame-like lettering – looked like “Allah” in Arabic, again, when viewed from a certain angle.
Nike also launched a program of “sensitivity training on Islam” and donated a children’s playground to an Islamic center in Falls Church, Va.  In return, CAIR pledged to urge Islamic organizations and governments worldwide to cancel any planned boycotts of Nike.
And in 1994, Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld designed a dress incorporating an embroidered pattern copied from Arabic lettering on India’s Taj Mahal monument. He was unaware that the lettering included the phrase “They are the ones who found guidance,” which appears a number of times in the Koran.
After wearing the dress on a Paris catwalk, German model Claudia Schiffer received death threats, prompting her mother to make a public plea for her safety. An Indonesian clerics’ body also called for a boycott of Chanel.
Lagerfeld apologized, burned the garments, and said he would destroy all photographs and negatives of the dress.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow