Basketball, Imperialism, and the Third Universal Theory
On Friday the 27th of January, Donald Trump declared a “Muslim ban,” a measure that could (but definitely won’t) affect Thon Maker and Luol Deng, both of whom were born in Sudan, one of the seven countries affected. The silently but faithfully observed separation of sports and politics has thus once again been thrown into question: several NBA personalities—mostly marginal—authored stern tweets of admonishment in response to Trump’s ludicrous executive order, and the NBA has sought assurances that their players will be above this particular law as well.
By Wednesday the 8th of February, however, reigning MVP and politically disinterested coward Stephen Curry decided that even he could not stand idly by while Trump went to town. Curry decided it was time to get political, courageously calling Donald Trump an “ass” when asked what he thought about his new president. The gloves were finally off! Yet this remark was not made in response to the Muslim ban, or to any of Trump’s various other crimes; Curry was merely concerned that his corporate sponsor Kevin Plank had brought him into personal disrepute (he has a brand to maintain, yet Republicans buy shoes too—a difficult bind!). In fairness, it is quite hard to condemn Donald Trump for, say, authorising a dramatic increase in drone murders when you publicly boast about playing golf with the original drone king himself.
Sadly, it becomes ever clearer with each passing day that the NBA has successfully purged all of its radical elements (“I don’t get in people’s faces and out in the streets with a bullhorn doing it that way,” explained Curry, cravenly). Nowadays, to pledge support for the very establishment media that fostered the Islamophobia in which we are currently marinating is considered a defiant act of resistance.
“People still have the right to be an ass, you know?”
This was Bill Maher’s response following the NBA’s decision to ban racist slumlord and serial sexual harasser Donald Sterling (formally the majority owner of the LA Clippers) from any association with the league. Yet Maher may as well have been addressing Curry’s recent remarks: both Donalds are vulgar racists and misogynists who enjoy—and profit from—ruining people’s lives, but if they’re simply being asses then what’s the problem? There’s no law against that, is there? Lighten up! Curry’s indictment of Trump is so toothless, so superficial, that even a cretin like Bill Maher can sweep it into the dustbin.
I mention Maher because he and his sidekick Sam Harris deserve almost as much blame as the New York Times and the Washington Post for fostering an environment in which a “Muslim ban” is even conceivable. Maher and Harris are ostensibly critical of Trump and posit themselves as enlightened and progressive liberals, and it is for precisely this reason that their brand of ignorant and hateful rhetoric is so poisonous.
The pair recently held a discussion on their popular HBO show (A Safe Space for White Guys, I believe it’s called) during which they pondered how they might “win a war of ideas with the Muslim world” and castigated “the left” for “[allying] themselves with Islamists.” The full episode contains far too much thinly-veiled imperialism to unpack here; the essential point that I would like to focus on is the fact that these two blockheads sat down opposite one another in front of a studio audience in 2017 and announced their intention to “defeat terrorism” by “reforming Islam.”
“We are not going to reform Islam,” Maher declared, “if we can’t talk about it.” Harris—whose entire “career” has essentially been one ceaseless, uninformed rant about Islam—naturally agreed, adding that “we” also need to “encourage, empower, and oblige Muslims to talk honestly about this” by “[empowering] the actual reformers in the Muslim world.”
Harris and Maher thus demonstrate that they are little more than textbook orientalists, for discussions such as these are an essential component of what Edward Said described as “the corporate institution for…dealing with [the Orient] by making statements about it, authorising views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short…for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” The only thing distinguishing these two from their ignoble European forerunners is that the latter at least had the aptitude to learn Arabic and pick up a fucking book once in a while.
For Harris—a bumbling fraud who bought himself a PhD in neuroscience so that his orientalist babbling might have a veneer of credibility—Islam is some kind of fossilised relic resistant to “modernity” and the superior cultures of America and Israel. It is what Edward Tylor—a Victorian anthropologist concerned with (in his words) “the religions of the lower races”—called a “survival.” That is, “processes, customs, opinions and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home.” Survivals were thus “proofs and examples of an older condition of culture out of which a newer has been evolved.” They “allow the ethnographer to reconstruct earlier cultural patterns and ultimately define the evolution of [superior, Western] culture.”
It is in this way that, by observing (representations of) the “Muslim world,” Harris is able to peer back through the mists of time and gaze paternalistically upon the swarthy hordes, seeing them for what they really are (“the enemies of our civilisation,” in the words of Andrew Neil). Islam must be reformed because it is incompatible with modernity and with liberal democracy (and with any number of other things). This, sadly, is not an uncommon view. As Aziz Azmeh explains,
Islam…has been represented as a cohesive, homogeneous and invariant force, indeed an otherness so radical that it is possible to speak of it as a historical enemy, much in the same way as communism was addressed in some circles. It is represented as a repellent exoticism by mass psychological mechanisms very like those involved in anti-Semitism. Yet the median discourse on Islam in [the West] is not predominantly or always overtly racist or quasi-racist. What we have is a cultural differentialism; we are presented with supposed differences of ‘culture’ within a discourse which can either be xenophile or xenophobic: both are premised on irreducible and impermeable difference.
But Islamophobia is a “propaganda term,” according to Harris. “Islam is not a race,” he insists later in the show; “Islam is a set of ideas…and we have to be able to criticise bad ideas.” Of course, in the real world, there is no single, monolithic, or essentialist Islam to which one can refer. When discussing the various problems that abound in the “Muslim world,” one cannot ignore both the colonial past—as Nazih Ayubi argues, Muslim regimes were built on the remnants of the authoritarian empires they conquered, and this inheritance, rather than “Islam,” accounts for the type of political orders that have emerged in much of the Middle East—and the colonial present, in which the United States sponsors the most oppressive (and profitable!) regimes and overthrows progressive and benevolent leaders. As Bronwyn Winter writes,
If women are poor or illiterate it is seen as the fault of religion rather than, for example, ante-Islamic tradition, the class system, or the continuing effects of colonialism, for the relationships of economic dependence of former colonies on their former colonisers continue to this day. Islam did not create these economic conditions, although Islamist movements have clearly been able to take advantage of them.
For a truly incisive critique of these Islamist movements, we must turn away from the likes of Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and their braying studio audience of crypto-fascist liberals, and turn instead to anti-imperialist revolutionary and international fashion icon Mu’ammar Qaddafi (whose brutal and entirely unjustified murder Maher evidently found hilarious).
If it should come as a surprise to you to learn that Qaddafi actually had interesting and intelligent things to say, and wasn’t an insane despot, this is completely understandable: in keeping with a long tradition of ignorant and unflattering representations of Arabs in popular media, Qaddafi himself was often ridiculed and demonised—sometimes simultaneously. Yet Qaddafi, unlike the decadent and uncultured politicians of Europe and the United States, actually wrote fairly extensively on a variety of subjects, from religion and politics to sport (more on that later).
Unlike Harris and other new atheist charlatans, Qaddafi was firmly grounded in Arab Islamic culture and traditional, religious-based thought. The Quran and Islam were among the basic sources of inspiration for much of what he wrote, and he was therefore in a position to critique Islamist movements in a way that was both informed and relevant to a Muslim audience. Take for example the following passage from his essay Prayer on the Last Friday:
Begin teaching your children the books of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Return to God and Liberation Party. Print them and reprint them and shut yourselves up in mosques and at home studying them till Judgement Day. Their titles show you clearly how effective they are: Religious Statutes on Growing Beards and Smoking; Decisions of the Sunna on Using Shampoo and Henna; Fundamentals of Entering Heaven for Free. There are also the books of Ibn Taymiyya, which explain the wisdom of eating with three fingers, eating while in a reclining position, or eating from wooden and metal plates. And do not forget the prayer mentioned above [a prayer that would “make the Jews unable to see their vital targets in the Arab world” and stop Americans from bombing Libyan factories]: it is especially for the military wing of the Democratic Brotherhood Islamic Party, and concerns counter-strategies. It is also related to a prayer for the economy, a simple invocation that you only need to recite a mere one hundred times per second. It has been thoroughly tested, and is effective against prices rising without justification, and against exploitation that takes place without support from a revolutionary theory, or even a revolutionary party.
Qaddafi relentlessly mocks “modern Islamist parties” for encouraging people to read “reactionary, I mean traditional, books” and promoting divisions in society: “May God guide Muslims to the right path, lead them to fight one another, call each other unbelievers, be disunited so that they can…[unite] under the banners of Washington and Tel Aviv.” His is an effective critique because it addresses legitimate and existing grievances (the aforementioned Islamist movements), and suggests practical solutions (don’t vote for them; pick apart their ideology). It is also funny. This, my friends, is how it is done.
Very interesting, I’m sure. But what does any of this have to do with basketball? I’m so glad you asked!
The complete destruction of Libya by NATO imperialists (which began six years ago this month) may already be quite familiar to enthusiastic basketball connoisseurs thanks to a peculiar book by Alex Owumi, an obscure journeyman who, as it happens, currently plays professionally here in the UK. Qaddafi’s Point Guard is ostensibly a book about Owumi’s first-hand experience of the 2011 Libyan “revolution”—just two months after signing a contract with Al-Nasr Benghazi (the team he alleges belonged to “the infamous dictator Mu’ammar Qaddafi”) in December 2010, Owumi finds himself caught in the middle of the Arab Spring, and hijinks ensue.
Owumi adopts a more traditional, hands-on approach in his orientalism than does Sam Harris or Bill Maher. Like the colonial agents of the British and French empires, Owumi daringly travels to a remote and exotic land (Libya, Owumi recounts, is “this desert land”; “literally just desert”; “no fast food chains and no cinemas”) and, after having quickly become an expert on local life, returns with hair-raising tales of brutality and depravity. There are a few inconsistencies in his story, however. For example, the accommodation he is provided by Qaddafi’s son (who is perfectly polite and apparently very generous) is both a “beautiful apartment” with gold-trim couches, fine china, and “flat-screens everywhere,” but also a cockroach-infested dump, since that’s what he claimed to live on for two full weeks while a civil war raged outside his windows in the streets of Benghazi.
What is most striking about Owumi’s account, however, is his treatment of Mu’ammar Qaddafi himself (whom he never actually meets). Qaddafi is depicted as an eccentric tyrant who is so determined that his basketball team win all of its games that he will have his players beaten if they fail him. Guards armed with AK-47s loiter about the Al-Nasr Benghazi practice facility, and Owumi’s Libyan teammates are covered in scars from the abuse they receive whenever they lose. As Said remarked of Arab Muslims, “[f]or no other ethnic or religious group is it true that virtually anything can be written or said about it, without challenge or demurral.” Owumi’s account is far-fetched, and, as we shall see shortly, makes no sense whatsoever, yet it has been accepted uncritically because it conforms with the images of Qaddafi that are typically familiar to most Westerners.
Owumi’s book, it turns out, is not really about Qaddafi at all; rather, it is a self-aggrandising tale of resilience and determination, the kind of thing that makes for a great TED talk or an edgy Vice article. To the extent that it discusses the lived experiences of Libyans at all, it simply repeats the US State Department’s narrative: they lived in constant fear under a ruthlessly oppressive, basketball-obsessed tyrant. In what way was Qaddafi oppressive? Owumi doesn’t say. The fact that Colonel Qaddafi is a bad guy is taken for granted; simply invoking his name is enough to terrorise Owumi’s TED audience: “the Qaddafi family—yes, that Qaddafi family.”
The United States was consistently hostile towards Qaddafi from day one. Officially this was because of his supposedly close ties with the Soviet Union which led to concerns over the spread of communism (though Qaddafi was not a communist). Later, the Lockerbie bombing (which was nothing to do with Qaddafi or Libya) supplied a pretext to frame Qaddafi as a terrorist threat and ultimately justify the “humanitarian intervention” that resulted in his gruesome death (much to the delight and amusement of Hillary Clinton). There is much about Qaddafi that is rarely mentioned in Western corporate media, however.
King Idriss, whom Qaddafi overthrew in 1969, had previously secured Libya’s borders by hosting British and American military bases like a good colonial puppet. Upon seizing power, Qaddafi immediately had these bases removed and set about transforming Libya into a Jamahiriya (State of the Masses), as outlined in his Green Book, which ensured “direct popular democracy” without the constraints of a national constitution, parliament, or political parties. Before the US began imposing economic sanctions on Libya during the 1980s, it was a peaceful and prosperous country: In 1978, Libya had the highest per capita income of any African country ($6,800 US dollars), and Qaddafi had used Libya’s oil riches to build a generous welfare state in which every citizen was guaranteed food, housing, and clothing. How fortunate they are to have been liberated by NATO.
Of course, Qaddafi, like so many of America’s “enemies,” never posed any genuine military threat. Even the UK government admits that there was no justification for attacking Libya. The nature of the threat was, rather, ideological: Qaddafi’s Libya represented an alternative and competing social order that was superior to capitalism and liberal parliamentary democracy, and that therefore served as a dangerous example to people throughout the world, many of whom might begin to get big ideas of their own. This was the “threat” that Libya posed to America, which, as people are increasingly becoming aware, is not actually a democracy in any meaningful sense.
Similar attempts have been made to demonise other insubordinate figures, such as Fidel Castro and Kim Jong-Un, both of whom likewise pose(d) no actual military threat but have been relentlessly harassed and intimidated for their failure to bend to America’s will. Yet there is something else that unites all of these revolutionary figures: basketball.
Fidel Castro correctly identified basketball’s potential for training young revolutionaries by honing the skills—speed, agility, stamina, teamwork, and strategic thinking—that they would require as guerrilla fighters. Kim Jong-Un has begun to harness basketball’s potential to improve diplomatic relations and foster international solidarity. The Soviet Union itself was a basketball superpower, supplanting the United States as the greatest in the world at the 1972 Olympics with a convincing and emphatic gold medal win that still gives jingoistic Cold Warrior Doug Collins nightmares.
So what of Qaddafi? According to Alex Owumi, he was like any current NBA star—indeed, any capitalist: obsessed with winning at all costs. Owumi is clearly projecting, imposing his own ideology of competitive individualism onto the figure of Qaddafi. In fact, Qaddafi had quite different ideas about sports, explaining in his Green Book that “Bedouin people…don’t watch players playing a game; they practice their own games collectively and hold their own festivals, because they feel the spontaneous, inexplicable need for it.” Qaddafi regarded privately owned teams as “rapacious social instruments, not unlike the dictatorial political instruments which monopolise power to the exclusion of the people” because “no one person, or group of persons, can play a game of sports on behalf of the people.” Owumi’s book is pure slander.
Qaddafi goes on to outline the importance of sports in the revolutionary process:
The era of the masses that destroys the monopolising instruments of wealth, power, and weapons, shall inevitably destroy the instruments that monopolise social activities such as sports and horsemanship. The masses line up to support a candidate to act as their representative in determining their destiny on the impossible assumption that this candidate shall represent them and uphold their dignity and sovereignty and all related considerations, and are eventually alienated, as they watch a person doing what they should naturally be doing themselves. These same masses are like the crowds that do not play sports themselves, due to their inability to do so or because of their ignorance and because they are scorned by the monopolising instruments that are bent on distracting these numbed crowds that laugh and applause instead of practicing the sport monopolised by these rapacious instruments.
Sport, like power, should be for the masses, and just as wealth and weapons should be for the people, sport as a social activity should also be for the people.
Many observers believe that Mark Cuban, by maintaining affordable ticket prices for Mavericks games, is some kind of benevolent man of the people. In fact, the opposite is true. As Qaddafi explains, the seats in a basketball arena are in fact intended as a barrier, a partition that prevents the masses from taking their rightful place on the court. Mark Cuban wants to keep his rapacious instruments and will do anything to stop you from crossing that threshold and claiming what is yours. Qaddafi continues,
The multitude which crowds the stadium to watch a game, laugh and applaud, is a multitude of fools who are incapable of practicing sports themselves; they crowd the grandstands practicing lethargy and applaud those heroes who took the initiative, and who dominated the field and the sporting activities, and exploited all the offered means of support sustained by the masses. The grandstands of public athletic fields are actually constructed to obstruct access to the fields. These grandstands shall one day be vacated and abolished when the masses march into athletic fields to practice sports in crowds, as they realise that sports are activities to be practiced not watched.
Mu’ammar Qaddafi may no longer be with us, but his spirit lives on. Comrades, it falls to us to put his ideas into practice. The next time you are at an NBA game, do not be a fool practicing lethargy, but instead leap with vigour over the bleachers that imprison you: they are instruments of class oppression and must be annihilated. Of the Axis members mentioned above, only Kim Jong-Un remains. We must therefore stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of the DPRK against the capitalist dogs who, aware of basketball’s power as a subversive and revolutionary weapon, seek to keep the world’s athletic fields and arenas in private hands. I will see you on the court. Always remember the words of Mao Zedong:
The superior man’s deportment is cultivated and agreeable, but one cannot say this about exercise. Exercise should be savage and rude. To be able to leap on horseback and to shoot at the same time; to go from battle to battle; to shake the mountains by one’s cries, and the colours of the sky by one’s roars of anger; to have the strength to uproot mountains like Hsiang Yu and the audacity to pierce the mark like Yu Chi—all this is savage and rude and has nothing to do with delicacy. In order to progress in exercise, one must be savage. If one is savage, one will have great vigour and strong muscles and bones. The method of exercise should be rude; then one can apply oneself seriously and it will be easy to exercise. These two things are especially important for beginners.
There are three things to which we must pay attention in exercise: (1) perseverance, (2) concentration of all our strength, and (3) that it be savage and rude.
 Maher naturally goes on in this interview to warn against the dangers of political correctness, a favourite topic of his, really doing his best to take the heat off Sterling (perhaps aware that if similar standards were applied to him, his career would be over in an instant).
 It is interesting that Glen Greenwald at once acknowledges that the invasion of Libya was a crudely disguised imperial crime while still referring to Qaddafi in the approved manner: “a heinous dictator.” So firmly embedded is this idea.
 Qaddafi’s name has been spelled a variety of different ways over the years: Gaddafi (The Times), Gadaffy (Sunday Times), Gadafy (The Guardian), Kaddafi (Newsweek), Qadaffi (The Economist), and Khadafy (Associated Press). As far as I’m able to tell, his full name should be rendered Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi.
 March also marks the fourteenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq and the eighteenth anniversary of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (in which Britain dropped 531 cluster bombs, many of which fell on civilian areas).
 The nominating process is supposed to be neutral, but it is in fact subtly evaluative. To identify a political leader with a formal political role is usually legitimating, while to identify him or her with a previous non-political role is often delegitimating. The US media spoke of President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, President Reagan, President Bush, not of General Eisenhower, the millionaire Kennedy, the movie actor Reagan, the CIA head Bush. There is a strong tendency, however, to reserve the use of legitimating labels for pro-Western heads of state or government and delegitimating labels for anti-Western heads of state or government. Familiar references to “Colonel Qaddafi” in Western news media are a textbook example of this (in that I literally copied this example out of a textbook).
 Qaddafi bought most of Libya’s military arsenal from the Soviet Union and paid them a state visit in 1981, but theirs wasn’t a particularly close relationship: Qaddafi wasn’t hugely popular in North Africa and the Soviet Union didn’t want to compromise its own image in the region by supporting his military adventures.
 Italian Marxist theorist Franco Berardi remarked in 2015 that the European Union cannot survive because such a thing as a European Union never existed to begin with. Qaddafi offers a similar assessment of communism: “We cannot, however, say that communism has died, for it was never born!”
 Castro once referred to Qaddafi as a “reckless adventurer.”