FROM THE RED SIDE OF THE FIELD: Muslims in the English Premier League

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Written By Dispatch contributor: Mickey GallagherNOTE: Dispatches represent the views of writers and do not represent official positions of Seattle DSA at large. “If he’s good enough for you,He’s good … Read more

Written By Dispatch contributor: Mickey Gallagher
NOTE: Dispatches represent the views of writers and do not represent official positions of Seattle DSA at large.

“If he’s good enough for you,
He’s good enough for me!
If he scores another few,
Then I’ll be Muslim, too!”

– Sung by Liverpool supporters at Anfield, their home stadium

You must be saying to yourself, what is THAT? It doesn’t sound like anti-Muslim sentiment, but why are English Premier League football (soccer) fans singing about converting to Islam? The “he” they are referring to is Mohamed Salah, a winger for the Liverpool Reds, who over the past two seasons has scored 70 goals in all competitions. An Egyptian, Salah is one of four Muslims on Liverpool, the others being winger Sadio Mane (another prolific scorer) of Senegal, midfielder Xerdan Shaqiri of Switzerland and Naby Keita of Guinea. In all, there are over 50 Muslims currently playing in the Premier League, which features arguably the best players in the world.

But 27 years ago, there was only one: Mohammed Ali Amar – known as Nayim – was the first player who professed Islam to play in the Premier League. Although Nayim, a Spaniard, had a relatively undistinguished career with Tottenham, it was still a breakthrough. For the 2018-19 season, of the 20 teams in the League, 19 had at least one Muslim player.

And while anti-Muslim abuse has been relatively rare – racist incidents involving Black players are much more frequent – in February, Salah was the target of an Islamophobic verbal attack during a game against West Ham United in East London. A West Ham supporter was recorded showering Salah with insults about his religion. Fortunately, football clubs are now much more aggressive in identifying these thugs and banning them from all future matches.

Because of the increasing presence of Muslim players, clubs have become more sensitive to their religious requirements. A number of teams provide prayer rooms (Muslims are expected to pray at five set times every day) and a few stadiums have made prayer rooms available to fans as well. The League now employs a Muslim chaplain who travels to game sites throughout England and Wales, in addition to giving spiritual advice to players.

Helping Muslims to remain true to their faith during the month of Ramadan has become a priority for all League teams. During Ramadan, Muslims are to fast (no food or liquids) from sunrise to sunset. This presents a number of difficulties for both clubs and players. Teams want their Muslim players to be able to practice and play in games without players breaking their fast and still be competitive on the field. Some like Salah have broken their fasts on game days, which is permitted as long as they make up the missing time. Others have attempted to both fast and play with varying success. Teams have tried to accommodate players by moving training times to the evening and by helping players to change their training regimen to avoid dehydration.

In another mark of respect to Muslim players, an award after each game for the “Man of  the Match” – which had previously been a bottle of champagne- was changed to a small trophy. Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol.

For many, if not all, Muslim players, their faith is extremely important to them. Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba – named to the League’s Team of the Year – is a practicing Muslim and has made two pilgrimages to Mecca (each Muslim is obligated to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once if at all possible). He spoke out forcefully after the Manchester Arena terrorist attack in 2017: “This is not Islam and everyone knows that.” Pogba’s actions reflect his faith: in 2016, he contributed to a donation of 100,000 euros from UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) to the International Committee of the Red Cross to help landmine victims in Afghanistan. Pogba also donated a substantial amount of money at a charity auction so that Samuel, an 11-year old United fan with cerebral palsy, could become the team mascot for the next season and lead the team onto the field. A member of the 2018 World Cup Champion French team, Pogba donated his boots (playing shoes) to a charity auction where they were expected to bring in 50,000 euros ($56,500). His religious motivation for all of these donations is “zakat” – giving money to the poor and needy – which is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and is required of all Muslims.

Spectators at Premier League matches wouldn’t know if a player was a Muslim, unless that player scored a goal. When Mohamed Salah scores for Liverpool, right after celebrating with teammates, he kneels on the ground and presses his face against the grass for a few moments (Mane and Shaqiri do this as well). He is performing sujood, which in Arabic means “prostration to God,” and he faces in the direction of Mecca as it is the holiest city in Islam. Sujood is considered a very special act of worship in Islam, as it is symbolic of the humility a Muslim feels before Allah and is considered to be the nearest a believer can be to Him. A British television analyst made a comment in 2012 that it looked like a player was “eating grass” when he was performing sujood. He was roundly criticized for this and apologized, saying that he didn’t understand the religious significance of the act. There is no reason to not take him at his word as ignorance of the practices of Islam permeates the non-Muslim world. Fortunately, television broadcasters have become more knowledgeable about Islam and there hasn’t been a recurrence of that behavior.

Not everyone sees the Salah chant as a good-natured gesture of greater acceptance of Muslims. A University of Manchester professor, Asif Majid, has argued that while the Liverpool chant may appear to be a positive in Muslim/non-Muslim relations, it really isn’t. It is, he believes, predicated on Salah’s continued success in scoring goals for the Reds. “Being praised by non-Muslim Liverpool supporters as ‘good’ is positive, of course. But it is conditional. The chant makes clear that it is only ‘if’ Salah continues to score goals that his displays of Muslimness will be accepted. It is only ‘if’ he remains good that he will continue to be worshipped by them. It is only ‘if’ he furthers professional excellence that opinions about Islam may shift.” Professor Majid may be right, but I doubt it. Context is important here. The chant is certainly a celebration of Salah’s prowess as a prolific goal scorer. But the inclusion of a reference to his faith – obviously done in a tongue-in-cheek manner – as only worthy of respect if he continues to be a star for Liverpool misses the nuance of the chant. The idea that Liverpool supporters would actually consider converting to Islam is patently absurd – and that is part of the joke. Salah himself was not offended by the chant; he saw the humor in it and even translated it into Arabic.

Anti-Muslim sentiment is obviously still strong in the United Kingdom – Brexit is evidence of that. But there has been a discernible evolution in the attitude of many English football fans toward Muslim footballers. Certainly there is still a long way to go – but one hopes that it is indicative of a shift in how Muslims are viewed in English society as a whole. I’m sure there are Liverpool supporters who don’t want a Muslim family to live next door, but are more than happy to cheer for a Muslim on the football field. For them, at least it’s a start. The legacy of Jackie Robinson is proof of that.