Representation in sports can change hearts and minds.
In a world where we are divided, constantly picking political sides or having debates about religion, it might seem surprising that football unites us all. At the core of football is unity and allyship, with support from players, bosses, and fans. I ask myself how one team can unite so many people from so many different backgrounds, all of them cheering on for the same goal? [pun intended :)] If anything, it’s heartwarming that as individuals, we are able to come together and put aside our differences — I hope — for more than just one season!
When fans come in with negative perceptions about Muslims, but are met with exceptional sportsmanship, values, and on-field loyalties from Muslim players in the teams they support, it forces a modification of their pre-existing beliefs. People with pre-existing beliefs have the opportunity to reflect upon Muslim players, and Muslims in general, beyond their narrow, misinformed vision. That’s not to say that sports are a magical cure-all to dispel Islamophobic feels, but sports have proven to unite people and change hearts and minds, because to fans of football, this sport is the second closest thing to their hearts after family.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that representation on the field can reflect to changes in feelings and attitudes.
In the past, we’ve seen members of football clubs like Chelsea chant Islamophobic slurs in regards to players, in particular to Liverpool’s living legend, Mo Salah. The differences between these two teams is that one is accepting, welcoming, and understanding of Islam (not to mention a six-time European champion), and the other isn’t!
Despite the hate he has been subject to, a recent study by Stanford University showed how Salah is singlehandedly tackling Islamophobia both on and off the pitch. Hate crimes in Liverpool have decreased by 19 percent, and online anti-Muslim commentary has decreased by an astounding 50 percent.
However, not everyone feels the same way. Some Muslims have taken to expressing how the media only polarizes us a little less as a result of Mo Salah’s visibility, and society only treats us as human beings if we’re the best in world at what we do. The claim is that the hype surrounding Mo Salah is giving off a dangerous narrative to young Muslims, suggesting that if they’re not the crème de la crème, then they won’t be accepted because they’re not allowed to make mistakes.
…to have world-class players like Salah and Mané actively represent Muslims is a huge deal, regardless of whether you’re a Liverpool fan or not. For them to make sujood on the pitch, at every match, in front of the whole world makes me feel proud to be a Muslim! tweet
While Islam is highly stigmatised within the media, to have world-class players like Salah and Mané actively represent Muslims is a huge deal, regardless of whether you’re a Liverpool fan or not. For them to make sujood on the pitch, at every match, in front of the whole world makes me feel proud to be a Muslim! Just look at the lyrics from this song about Salah: “If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too,” and “If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me, sitting in the Mosque, that’s where I want to be.”
If the positive representation Mo Salah has inspired doesn’t inspire those that hold biases to reconsider how they treat their Muslim neighbours, I don’t know what will.