Monday, July 30, 2007

WHEN IRAQI SOCCER PLAYERS WERE TERRORISTS

Malcom Lagauche - July 30, 2007

The only unifying incident in Iraq since the illegal March 2003 U.S. invasion has been the success of Iraq’s national soccer (the correct name of the sport is football, but I’ll use the word soccer so U.S. citizens will understand) team. It won the Asian Cup by beating Saudi Arabia on July 29, 2007.

The success of Iraqi soccer has been used as propaganda in the past by George Bush. During his 2004 presidential campaign, he cited Iraq as a "free country" that could now participate in world sports after the Iraqis’ qualification for the Olympic Games. But, some players took offence at Bush’s patting himself on the back. The team captain told reporters that if he was not playing on the national team, he would be fighting with the Iraqi resistance to rid his country of foreign occupation.

Most countries leave politics aside when their teams are involved with international competition. Nations who despise each other praise the efforts of their teams without mentioning political differences.

The same is happening in Iraq. Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds, government stooges, and resistance fighters are heralding the Iraqi victory over Saudi Arabia. The unity won’t last long, but at least for a few days, all Iraqis had a common success to celebrate.

In 1993, the Iraqi national soccer team almost qualified for the World Cup competition that was held in the U.S. Beyond all expectations, they went to the finals of the qualifying tournament before losing.

At that time, Iraq was not under occupation by the U.S. and there was a huge controversy about allowing the Iraqi team to play in the U.S. if it qualified. Not allowing them to play would have set a precedent in world sports. The Iraqi loss in the finals stopped the debate.

During the anti-Iraq tirade prior to the team’s loss, a San Diego sportscaster, Ted Leitner outdid everyone else in the subject. On air, he berated Iraq and Arabs. Leitner had made many other bigoted statements about varying groups: Native Americans, Japanese, French, and others during his radio career, yet he was never held responsible for hate mongering. A few months ago, we saw a long-time radio host, Don Imus, fired for using a denigrating racial and sexist remark. Leitner’s statements over the years have been even more hateful than Imus’, yet he still holds his job. Leitner is Jewish and, coincidentally, he has never castigated Jews or Israel. What a surprise.

In 1993, a few dozen Iraqi-Americans and non-Arab-Americans protested outside the offices of KFMB Radio in San Diego about Leitner’s racist overtures. The late Milton Simms covered the event for The Alternative newspaper.

Leitner Gets Red Card

by Milton A. Simms, Jr.

In a symbolic gesture, on November 6, dozens of human rights advocates "carded" KFMB sportscaster Ted Leitner, expressing their outrage to what was widely considered to be inflammatory remarks he made during an October 26 Channel 8 sports segment which were directed against the Iraqi national soccer team.

Leitner was taken to task after he claimed that, "They (the Iraqi soccer team) want to come to Los Angeles and bring their terrorists and murderers and get visas and have a great time ... stay out. Stay away. Don't get me started."

Following the incident, Channel 8's switchboard lit up with telephone calls from people throughout the station's viewing area who expressed anger over the alleged racist statements. Several organizations swiftly gathered their resources and sent statements to Channel 8 management demanding that Leitner issue an on-air apology.

Public reaction to Leitner's statement snowballed, resulting in the November 6 demonstration held in front of the KFMB studios on Engineer Road in San Diego. The protest was sponsored by the San Diego Chapter of the Peace and Freedom Party of California, The Alternative newspaper, News International, and the Iraqi-American Friendship Committee. Dozens of citizens marched on the sidewalk and in the parking lot at the Channel 8 facility. In addition to the signs most marchers carried, each demonstrator was given a "red card."

Jeff Archer, Alternative editor, described the symbolism behind the cards. "We decided that part of the protest should be soccer ... to the American public it means nothing, but in soccer, displaying a red card means that you're out of the game," he explained. "The referee issues a yellow card as a caution ... a red card and you're gone. Today, we're giving Leitner the red card."

Many of the demonstrators were Iraqi immigrants who have lived in the United States for several years. The other members of the group represented Americans from all walks of life. A general opinion threaded through the obvious anger and outrage at Leitner's comments when Leitner himself considered the entire matter a joke.

No one at the demonstration was laughing.

"He criticized the possibility of issuing visas to the Iraqi soccer team to come to the United States, accusing them of possibly blowing up American military sites," said Eric Kalabat, restaurant owner, college student, and Kuwaiti native. "I believe he is just trying to improve his personality on television on the account of the poor Iraqis. You know, Iraq suffered a lot during Desert Storm where a quarter-million people were shot in the back. To have the Iraqi team come play in the United States should not be an issue. Iraq has participated in the Olympics (Los Angeles, 1984) and Leitner should not make statements like that. I hope he doesn't do it any more. Not only against Iraqis, but against any minority community."

Jim Fife, chairperson of the San Diego Chapter of the Peace and Freedom Party of California, acknowledged the theory put forth by Channel 8 management, which in a letter to Archer stated that Leitner's attack against the Iraqi soccer team was a joke. "But everybody knows it is not a joke," Fife asserted. "If he made the same kind of joke about blacks or Latinos, or any other group, nobody would treat it as a joke. They would see it for what it is. There are thousands of people dying in Iraq because of the blockade. Anything that promotes that, or hate and animosity toward the Iraqi people, is tantamount to aiding and abetting murder."

Husayn al-Kurdi, president of News International, was upset about the manner in which Leitner tried to pass on his remarks as a joke. Al-Kurdi stated, "Desert Storm was no joke to the hundreds of thousands who have died because of the brutal actions of the United States."

Other marchers attended the demonstration out of concern that racist remarks uttered by anyone must be addressed as detrimental to mankind. "We had a retreat this morning for the Coalition of Peace and Justice in the Americas and we heard about the group that was organizing here," said Ramon Espinal. "We stopped our meeting to come and support this action. We think it is very important to stop this slander and hate against the Iraqi people who are people just like anyone else. We should fight against hate-mongering and sport is a good way to promote friendships."

At one point, Channel 8 newsman Doug MacAllister strolled across the street with a cameraman in tow to shoot file footage of the demonstration. Apparently, MacAllister was not aware of the Leitner controversy. Liz Svensson, a well-known activist associated with various human rights organizations, briefed the station's weekend newscaster about the demonstration. When asked for a reaction, MacAllister quipped, "Yeah, Ted does various things to get a rise."

Archer later noted Leitner's past ventures into political commentary, adding that, "He (Leitner) does not know enough about politics to do it astutely."

According to Adil Zaia of El Cajon, "The Iraqi people are human beings, they are not terrorists. We want to live here. Leitner is a sportsman ... he should love everybody. It's sports, not politics. The Iraqi team has the right to come to the United States to compete. They had permission from FIFA (worldwide governing body of soccer)."

KFMB management sent Archer a letter which suggested that Leitner said his remarks in jest and did not intend them to be offensive to the Iraqi-American community. The letter went on to espouse upon KFMB's "record" of working with people of all ethnic backgrounds. "But Leitner really didn't address a thing," Archer noted. "The station was inundated with calls, but Leitner never returned them personally."

It is no secret that Leitner has cultivated a love-hate relationship with many of his viewers. Several times during the demonstration, cars drove by the gathering, slowing down long enough to read the placards held by the protesters. "Leitner Sucks" and other expletives pointed at the broadcaster were well received by Leitner's detractors.

Most of the KFMB staff is off on weekends. Archer and company had hoped to meet with station management and discuss the matter. A staffer poked her head out of the door and politely asked the group to move off station property and back to the sidewalk. But the young woman said she would "call somebody" to come down and address the gathering. However, Ian Rose from KFMB radio appeared and took statements, promising to immediately broadcast their concerns.

Archer called for Leitner to referee a few Iraqi-American soccer matches, while Kalabat added, "Ted has appointed himself referee for the world."

Todd Strom (Iraqi-American Friendship Committee) unleashed a poignant statement saying, "We're trying to bind civilizations and people together. But to inject political statements and to take sports away from that pedestal is detrimental. Leitner should keep his broadcasts more in line with sports ... there is plenty to talk about in that regard. The politics and hatred involved in it is something that is secondary and has a better place in the political arena."

Rose listened to the group's complaints, paused, and said, "Ted Leitner didn't become famous in this town by playing it safe." Strom added, "I don't think he has to play it safe. I think there is enough controversy and interest in the world of sport in itself."

Rose said he was unaware of Leitner's indiscretions. Although cordial, Rose continued to make light of the situation. "I heard that someone was asking for directions here so we thought there was some kind of demonstration. I wasn't aware of it until I came out here."

Rose took a head count and gathered comments to air on the radio. One Iraqi woman stepped forward to express her dismay. "As an Iraqi-American, I would like Ted Leitner to know that it is alright to be against certain political parties or a government as a whole, but it is not OK to be against a people as a whole."

The following Monday, November 8, Leitner appeared on the Hudson and Bauer morning show on KFMB Radio. He constantly talked about "the protestors" and voiced his mock relief that they weren't outside.

After Leitner mentioned that he played high school football in New York for the Roosevelt Indians, he then said that he would probably be fair game for another protest. He said, "They can have Thursday, after the Iraqis."

While trying to further make light of his previous remarks, Leitner then talked of Iraqi terrorists lined up at travel agents in Tehran (which is in Iran) awaiting tickets to "monster America."

In September, Hudson and Bauer had made racial remarks concerning Yasser Arafat minutes after the PLO/Israel peace accord was signed. In a spoof, they said they would dine with Arafat and have "barbecued camel." Then, machine gun noises were heard in the background and they stated Arafat must have pulled a machine gun out of his sock.

After hearing Leitner's added insults, another protest was planned for November 20. According to Archer, "Leitner doesn't know when to stop. In addition to his political ignorance, he also is deficient in geography. Tehran is not in Iraq. It is in Iran."

Moreover, Archer sees an even more sinister scenario by Leitner, Hudson and Bauer using racial stereotypes. He added, "Anybody who's not a true red-blooded American will come under fire. On the day Leitner got his countries mixed up, he and Hudson and Bauer were not content to stay with Iraqi-bashing. They also knocked the Japanese and the French."

On November 20, about 50 people showed up for another demonstration at KFMB. Various speakers talked about the similarities of Leitner's attack on Iraqis and the current anti-immigrant fever in vogue in San Diego County. Art Salzberg, an activist for senior citizens and racial equality, stated, "My parents came to this country at the beginning of this century. If the current mood against immigrants was in place, I would now be a stateless person.

Reza Mirza, publisher of Mid East Reader, is of Iranian origin. He said, "This country is made of immigrants. We are all immigrants. Statements of this kind made by Leitner, Hudson and Bauer are dangerous."

Despite two demonstrations and the escalation of racial remarks made on KFMB Radio and Channel 8, the station has yet to offer an apology or ask for a dialogue. A short letter was sent to several groups that complained. Ironically, the letters were the same despite different groups writing about different complaints.

Those who organized the demonstrations are not about to give up. According to Archer, "Nothing has changed. Actually, the situation is worse now than it was prior to our first protest. The airwaves belong to the public. KFMB only rents them and there is no place for racial slurs."

1 comment:

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