Fredi Kanoute, Islam and the importance of giving back – The Independent

The former Premier League footballer is behind a project to build the first purpose-built mosque in Seville for 700 years. Tusdiq Din finds a feelgood story in the Andalusian capital.

Fredi Kanoute always knew he wanted to give back. Following his 2013 retirement, the former West Ham, Tottenham and Sevilla forward has given back to football via several charities, and especially to the city of Seville, where from 2005-2012 he stayed the longest in his career, and enjoyed the most success.

Twice lifting the Uefa Cup and the Spanish Cup, as well as a Uefa Super Cup, the 2007 African footballer of the year left a lasting legacy in the Andalusian capital, one which goes beyond football.

In 2007, the devout Muslim personally financed the €500,000 (then £346,000) purchase of a mosque, in a section of a residential building in the Ponce de Leon area of Seville, and now he is behind an initiative to build the first purpose-built mosque and cultural centre for 700 years to satisfy the needs of the growing Muslim community there. Before arriving in Seville, the Mali striker was aware of Spain’s Islamic history but was surprised at what he encountered of the reality of finding a mosque in which he could pray in regularly.

“When I arrived in Seville, I imagined a place where we could find one or two purpose-built masjids [mosques] easily because I knew the past of Andalusia, and I thought there were still some remains of this culture.

“But when I arrived I saw that it was more like on the shape of the buildings. You can still see a lot of calligraphy on the Giralda which used to be a minaret [of the historical Great Mosque of Seville]. You can still see the calligraphy on the door of the Giralda, for example. The names of the streets, there are some Arabic names, so you can feel the weight of history,” says Kanoute.

Seville’s Islamic history and culture dates back 800 years to a time when Islam, Judaism and Christianity all prevailed in largely peaceful co-existence.

Passing today’s traditional tourist horse & carts which share the roads with sleek modern trams, a short walk from downtown Seville’s Plaza de La Encarnación and the spectacular Las Setas overarching wooden structure, the Fundación Mezquita de Sevilla is what Kanoute secured for Seville’s Muslim community who were facing eviction in 2007. Ornate wooden ceiling-high screen carvings make for a grand entrance; however its capacity of 200, with limited space and ablution facilities, has meant that larger premises have been long overdue.

“You can see how small it is. Upstairs we have neighbours and sometimes during Ramadan [Traweah, night prayers] they complain about the noise,” the Spanish imam Abdul Ghani tells me. “We need – it’s not just a matter of a bigger place, but also to show the dignity of the Deen [Islam] in the city, to show people what Islam is. We need a nice building in a good area to show the people who we are, the Muslims, something that dignifies our worship in the city.”

In his 209 appearances for FC Sevilla, Kanoute scored 89 goals, and he has stepped forward once again with the Kanoute 4 Seville Mosque campaign for an initial funding target of $250,000. High net worth donors have also been approached, while Watford’s Abdoulaye Doucoure and Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy are among the Premier League players voicing support for Kanoute’s project, as is former Arsenal player Abou Diaby.

One of the drivers behind Kanoute’s pursuit of a purpose-built mosque in Seville is the growing number of Spanish Muslims there.

Ibrahim Hernandez is the president of the Seville Mosque Foundation, and Luqman Nieto – who has memorised the entire 30 chapters of the Quran – is the vice president. Both were born in Spain, and are key fundraisers alongside Kanoute.

“I found a fantastic community that is shaped of not only immigrants as we always picture the Muslims coming from outside. It’s like Spanish or second-generation converts, Europeans. They’re from there, from Andalusia,” remarks Kanoute.

Hernandez, who was a Spanish volleyball international in his early teens, is in an ideal position to not only lead the mosque’s funding campaign, but also to allay any concerns from his fellow countrymen, many of whom may not have stepped foot inside a mosque. Following the Friday Jumma prayer, we sit to chat, and he cites the 2003 opening of the first purpose-built mosque 156 miles away in Granada as an example of the challenges that the Seville project faces. The mosque, opposite the Alhambra, a Unesco World Heritage site, attracts tourists visiting the famous Andalusian landmark.

“We try to be as positive as we can. We have the experience of the mosque in Granada, which my parents, our parents, built over 25 years. There was great opposition to it, until the day it was opened. The day it was opened, people were welcomed, people saw the reality of it and then all the fears left. All of it is fear and lack of knowledge, and we know from experience that as soon as you sit with someone for five minutes, all the misconceptions they have of Islam are broken down.”

“Allah has placed us certainly in a very privileged position to be able to change the perception the people have of Islam, because we are not foreign to this country, we are not foreign to the culture, Hernandez says. “This is my culture, this is my country, and I love my country and I love my culture. But I am a Muslim and I am a proud Muslim, and I think that there is no incompatibility whatsoever in being European and being a Muslim.

“I am a very proud European and a very proud Muslim and this is something that hopefully will make it easy for people to understand that Islam is not something that is foreign to the country. It doesn’t belong to any country, it doesn’t belong to any tribe or any race whatsoever, Islam is something universal and it is something for all mankind.

“I think the new mosque will be a great and positive thing, not just for Seville but for the rest of Spain, Europe and the world, inshallah.”

In his seven years at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium, Kanoute was a fans’ favourite for Los Rojiblancos, and Seville has left a lasting and firm impression on him.

“It has this special flavour, this special light, and it has gone through the generations. And even though the majority of the people there are not Muslim, you can see that they have picked from that culture – the way people live together, the hospitality of people, their friendliness their everything – so I think it is a special place. That’s why maybe I’ve stayed there the longest and had the best success. As we know, when a person, not only a sportsperson, feels good in a place, there’s more chance they have of success.”

The successful completion of the fir

“It’s not aimed at only Muslims. We’ve received support and donations from people from outside of the community and that’s what we want to encourage people to do, because I mean, beyond the fact that it is a masjid, it’s also a cultural centre. I don’t believe in a masjid only to pray [in], but to bring people together, and to really make a change and make an impact on the community at large.”

He scored crucial goals throughout his career, but Kanoute points out that they will be of little value when he faces a higher test. “When I meet my Lord, when I meet God, he will not ask me how many goals I’ve scored – even though it would be nice to add these on my scale – but instead what I have done with my time here.”

For Kanoute, giving back to those who welcomed him can only be a win-win.

Articulo de ´Independent´, redactado por Tusdiq Din.