An angry backlash

Updated: September 24, 2004, 3:40 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Unlike Shawn Green, the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder who chose to miss a game this weekend for religious reasons, Andrea Armstrong is not a two-time All-Star in the major leagues.

Far from it -- she is a 22-year-old basketball player from Oregon. Like Green, however, she recently was faced with a daunting decision involving the dynamics of faith and team. That protracted decision and the aftermath became national news.

Andrea Armstrong
Andrea Armstrong
Armstrong, a highly touted player out of North Bend High School in 2000, attended Kansas State University but last year transferred to the University of South Florida in Tampa. There, she was a scholarship player and co-captain for the 2003-04 season. Armstrong was raised by Catholic parents, but last year she began a dialogue with Muslim students that led to her conversion to Islam. Armstrong adopted the traditional Muslim women's dress of a head scarf, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Muslim codes require that a woman's skin be covered when they are where men can see them.

University of South Florida women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez said that Muslim dress was not appropriate for games or practices, and Armstrong apparently agreed. But after Armstrong returned to school in late August, she appeared for the team photo wearing the traditional hijab. According to Armstrong, Fernandez reiterated his policy, prompting her to leave the team -- Armstrong told the St. Petersburg Times that Fernandez forced her to quit -- two weeks ago. Two days later, after a meeting with university officials, her $22,000 scholarship was restored and Armstrong was told she could wear her Islamic clothes. Five days later, after a series of episodes inspired by the controversy, she quit again.

"I am concerned that this is dividing my team, school and community," Armstrong said in a handwritten statement released by the university. "Because of this concern I believe it best to withdraw from the team."

Armstrong could not be reached for comment.

Ahmed Bedier, director of the Tampa office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, attended that meeting with Armstrong. According to Bedier, Armstrong was surprised by the angry backlash her story created.

There were hateful e-mails. There was a negative reaction on campus and a lot of talk on local radio shows and around the country. There were postings from on-line forums that were forwarded to her.
Ahmed Bedier, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations
"There were hateful e-mails," Bedier said. "There was a negative reaction on campus and a lot of talk on local radio shows and around the country. There were postings from on-line forums that were forwarded to her.

"One person even followed her to her home, which was frightening to her because she didn't know what his intentions were. He was waving a newspaper and asking questions. It got to the point where she was worried about her personal safety."

Bedier said he believes that an anti-Muslim climate was created after the 9/11 tragedies.

"It's the reaction of leadership after 9/11 that has somewhat polarized the nation along religious ideological and social lines," Bedier said. "Ideology plays a big role in the current administration and that is filtering down. It's empowering certain groups in our country to be very vocal in their narrow-minded vision of what America is. They have this idea that you're either with us or against us -- it's not just terrorism, but in all arenas.

"Andrea Armstrong is a white American woman, born to Christian parents. She just happened to make a choice on religion, and now she's an outcast."

Bedier talked to Armstrong last weekend and said she was feeling better about the situation because she was no longer a distraction for her former team. Armstrong, according to Bedier, is thinking of becoming a basketball coach after she graduates.

This is not a question of Islam, but a question of American society. Why did the American public respond in this way to a Muslim? It shows a certain level of anxiety -- animosity might be a more accurate word.
Leonardo Villalon, expert on Islamic politics
Leonardo Villalon, the director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, specializes in Islamic politics.

"This is not a question of Islam," Villalon said, "but a question of American society. Why did the American public respond in this way to a Muslim? It shows a certain level of anxiety -- animosity might be a more accurate word.

"After the end of the cold war, one started to see that there was a feeling in America that the next danger was the Muslim world. And then 9/11 fed that. U.S. foreign policy concerning the war in Iraq has fanned the flames. But the Iraqis had nothing to do with al-Qaida. There's this belief, 'They must be terrorists, they're Muslims.'

"I'm not sure Andrea Armstrong is about Islam at all. It's about how Muslims are perceived today in America."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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