There has been widespread media coverage this week, on BBC News, and in the Independent, Telegraph, Guardian and Daily Mail as well as local media, of a controversial new sponsorship deal between Newcastle United FC and the loan company, Wonga. Coverage has focussed on the advice from the Muslim Council of Britain that Newcastle’s Muslim players boycott the Wonga logo on their football shirts due to the conflict arising from the company's practices and shari’ah principles. The high-interest, short-term loan company has been described by some critics as a ‘legal loan shark’.
From the Independent:
“Newcastle United's £24m shirt sponsorship deal with Wonga was engulfed in fresh controversy last night when the club's Muslim players were warned that wearing the new shirts would infringe Sharia law.
“The intervention from the Muslim Council of Britain will heap further pressure on the club as it seeks to deflect widespread criticism after unveiling a four-year deal with the short-term loan company.
“Of the Newcastle team who took the field against Manchester United on Sunday, four are practising Muslims – Demba Ba, Papiss Cissé, Cheick Tioté and Hatem Ben Arfa.
"Wonga… drew criticism from MPs for the level of interest charged on its 30-day loans.
“The deal drew a stinging attack from Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle City Council, who said: "I'm appalled and sickened that they would sign a deal with a legal loan shark. It's a sad indictment of the profit-at-any-price culture at Newcastle United. We are fighting hard to tackle legal and illegal loan sharking and having a company like this right across the city on every football shirt that's sold undermines all our work."
“Whilst it is accepted that Wonga have not behaved improperly it came in for further criticism from the Muslim Council of Britain. Under Sharia law, a Muslim is not allowed to benefit from lending money or receiving money from someone. This means that earning interest is not allowed.
“Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, assistant secretary general of the MCB, said: "There are two aspects to this. We have the rulings of the religious law and we have the individual's choice and decision on how they want to follow or not follow that rule.
"The idea is to protect the vulnerable and the needy from exploitation by the rich and powerful. When they are lending and are charging large amounts of interest, it means the poor will have short-term benefit from the loan but long-term difficulty in paying it back because the rate of interest is not something they can keep up with. The Islamic system is based on a non-interest-based system of transaction."
The article states that former Spurs striker, Frédéric Kanouté was exempted from wearing the logo for the gambling website, 888.com on his shirt whilst playing for Seville because gambling contradicts his religious beliefs.
Others who have criticised the deal include the general secretary of the Football Association, Alex Horne, Rt. Hon. David Miliband MP who is the non-executive vice-president of Sunderland AFC, and Stella Creasy MP, who has led a sustained campaign against Wonga (see here and here).
Newcastle’s managing director has defended the deal, stating that "Throughout our discussions, Wonga's desire to help us invest in our young playing talent, the local community and new fan initiatives really impressed us and stood them apart from other candidates."
Newcastle United is one of a number of football clubs which has high-profile Muslim players, and appears to have embraced this diversity in the past. In May this year it was reported that Newcastle United’s manager, Alan Pardew was considering introducing a prayer room at the club’s ground for its Muslim players. At the time he stated “You have to respect that some players have a different religion to most of the footballers in this country… It’s important that whatever the religion, we take care of it and understand it.”
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