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April 11, 2021

Chess war

Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti has asked the Kingdom’s “good Muslims” to give up playing chess. First of all because it is a waste of time, secondly because it augments enmities. We find it hard to believe that in the country of petrodollars Saudi subjects are so caught-up with work or religion that they have no time to waste. In fact, we could even say that they are wasting a lot of time, the more so since the patriarchal regime allows them not to worry about the household either.

What could the Saudis be doing all day when they are not engaging in oil business or in the spread of Wahhabism in the world and even in Europe? Chess was for some a more intellectual way of spending time than shopping or tourism. Here it is, condemned by the kingdom’s highest religious authority. Former chess players – let us point out that chess has not been banned, but only seriously disconsidered – will now have to find other activities in order to vent out their aggressiveness. These may be less benign than chess.

We, as Europeans, listen to such a piece of news with a smile on our face. We should be worried instead. Because if there truly is a “clash of civilizations,” it is not so much one between the Christian and Islamic civilizations.

The cultural war is being waged on other levels – chess for instance. Moreover, more worrisome is the fact that chess is banned in Iraq, and was banned in Iran too for a while. Let us point out that chess is a Persian invention, spread first through the Islamic world and then in the European one. Where it now finds refuge when it is oppressed in the world it originates from. Consequently, the problem is not strictly civilisational, because one of the basic laws of cultures is permeability – the influences are countless and the circulation of values unpredictable. At this hour, the conflict is one between political theologies. The West – a notion now extended to the rest of Europe too – promotes a consistent dose of secularism. In other words, it seriously limits the religions’ say in political, social or cultural issues.

It is a relatively recent result, because as early as a century ago, Pope Pius X was shown, far from indiscrete eyes, a tango dance performance, in order for him to decide whether it should be red-listed or not. Coincidentally, the Supreme Pontiff did not dislike tango, but he disliked many other things, whose disconsideration based on religious reasons saddened many. Today, a Pope or a Patriarch no longer has such powers of cultural arbitrage. Patriarch Daniel for instance, in order to remedy his rumpled image, even took a step back and amended his statements against rock, statements made after the tragic fire at the ‘Colectiv’ nightclub. Let us imagine Pope Francis discouraging Catholics from playing chess. He would only generate hilarity. A Saudi Grand Mufti can afford to make such statements without being publicly derided by Muslims.
Compared to the ease – judged by Western standards – with which people are executed in Saudi Arabia, or to the seriously discriminatory status given to women, repudiating chess seems a trifle. Yet, the problem is more significant than it seems to be.

First of all, apart from the hypocrisy of those posing as busy persons despite the fact that they are not having a gruelling time working – contrary to what happens in other regions of the world where work is almost slavery for many –, to demonize wasting time denotes the religious authorities’ fear of having a loose hold over the believers. As in many other religious practices, the trend is to fill the believers’ daily life with all kinds of religious chores – which, in most cases, allow for a very efficient control of behaviour and implicitly of mentalities.

Having more free time also means the chance of choosing your activities on your own, so of partly detaching yourself from the prestige of some religious directives. To play chess, for instance, involves making more use of your mind. You first do it on the chessboard, using combinations of moves, but subsequently you can get the hang of it and do it in your own life. Chess is a lesson in your own freedom to choose.

The other reason – stimulation of resentment between opponents – is even more worrisome. The West has been experiencing a sports renewal for over a century. The relation between sport and politics has inevitably been an ambiguous one, but nevertheless, overall, the encouragement of a competitive system organized on various levels has channelled human aggressiveness in a more benign manner than that of the too frequent wars.

In fact, one of the reasons why Islamists manage to so easily recruit followers ready for battle is also the lack of alternatives for the natural aggressiveness (augmented by certain social contexts) of young Muslims.

Instead of cutting throats or blowing themselves up in large crowds, it would be better if they were to play chess. Unfortunately, religions sometime become the adversaries of civilizations, refusing practices that decisively contribute to the humanization of man.

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