Playing the game, living the life of a Muslim

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 from certain countries imposed by U.S. president Donald Trump, we 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 Khan currently owns and operates a number of restaurants in Winnipeg where he lives with his wife and son.