Mohamed Salah changed attitudes. Other athletes can too.
Mohamed Salah is one of the best forwards in the English Premier League. He is a Muslim, playing in a league that has a reputation for racism and Islamophobia. But that hasn’t stopped Liverpool fans from rallying around their star. Mohamed doesn’t give a lot of interviews about his faith. You won’t see him leading a lot of protests or marches. But he does put his faith on display — very publicly and very consistently. And since he’s started playing in Liverpool, Islamophobia in the surrounding area has dropped significantly. Now, social scientists are wondering what Mohamed’s popularity can teach us about how athletes can change attitudes.
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IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, HOST:
In 2019, Chelsea fans posted a video on social media.
GROUP OF CHELSEA FANS [SINGING]:
Salah is a bomber, oi oi! Salah is a bomber, oi oi!…
NEWSCLIP WITH BRITISH WOMAN SPEAKING:
There’s been another instance of racism involving Chelsea supporters…
NEWSCLIP WITH BRITISH MAN SPEAKING:
The video appeared to show six supporters chanting, “Salah is a bomber,” repeatedly, on their way to the club’s Europa League quarterfinal first leg at Slavia Prague…
IBTIHAJ: Mohamed Salah plays for Liverpool. He is a Muslim playing in a league that has a reputation for racism and Islamophobia. But a few days after that video was posted, when Liverpool played Chelsea at home, he put his faith and talent on full display.
NEWSCLIP WITH BRITISH MAN SPEAKING OVER NOISY CROWD:
Salah’s going to have a go! [CROWD CHEERING] Absolutely sensational from Mohamed Salah!
IBTIHAJ: After taking a minute to hug his teammates, he dropped to his knees, touching his head to the pitch, and began to pray.
It’s uncommon these days to see representations of Muslims or of Islam that have that much widespread support. You do obviously have notable exceptions. You have your, like, Muhammad Alis and Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Mo Farah in the UK, who’s a runner. But in the Premier League and in soccer, I’d say this was still relatively new.
IBTIHAJ: From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Mohamed Salah doesn’t give a lot of interviews about his faith, but he does put his faith on display, very publicly and very consistently. Here’s reporter Niko Emack.
For lawyers Asif Bodi and Abubakar Bhula, growing up in Preston, England, watching, cheering and supporting Liverpool, has become a lifelong tradition.
Probably when I was in primary school, maybe about seven, eight years old —
NIKO: That’s Abubakar.
ABUBAKAR BHULA: Liverpool were sort of top of the league at the time, winning everything in sight. So it was quite easy to support them at that time.
ANOTHER BRITISH MAN:
When I was 18 — this is quite a funny story —
NIKO: That’s Asif.
ASIF BODI: I had a Saturday job in a department store, and all the games in those days were just on Saturday afternoon at 3 o’clock. So there wasn’t any games on any other evenings or any other days like Sundays, as there are now. So what we did — I had a friend there, an English friend who was also a Liverpool supporter. So we — we used to share the ticket, and we used to tell our employers that we were sick on alternate Saturdays, and it took them three years to find out that we weren’t telling the truth. And when they did find out, we obviously left before they could fire us. [CHUCKLES] So it’s quite funny, that.
NIKO: It wasn’t until he was around 20 years old that Abubakar was able to attend his first game at Anfield. But after an unforgettable experience of seeing his favorite players in the flesh, it didn’t take long for him to become a season ticket holder. Years later, Asif and Abubakar would meet at their local mosque, begin practicing law together, and embark on a friendship founded in their love for Liverpool Football Club. The two men would regularly attend games together. Sometimes, Asif would bring his son. For true fans like them, there was nothing better than soaking in the atmosphere of a game.
In the Muslim faith, there are five daily prayers, and depending on what time of the year it is, the window to pray can be very small.
ASIF: I mean, there are certain prayers that you can — you can pray within a big window, if you like. So, for example, at the moment, we can pray the mid-afternoon prayer between 1:15 and 5:00 p.m. But there are certain prayers, like the early evening prayer, which you have to pray within 15 minutes or half an hour of the time.
NIKO: If they were attending a game during one of these windows, all it would require is some extra planning.
ASIF: Well, usually what would happen was — we, we have a friend who lives near the stadium, so we, we’d usually go on the upper floor of his store and pray there. It’s actually an Arab friend who lives a stone’s throw away from the ground.
NIKO: Asif never really worried about it. After all, he says, he’s always felt like Liverpool and Merseyside were more tolerant than other parts of the UK.
ASIF: It was one of the first places where Islam was introduced to the UK, as well — I think it’s the site of one of the oldest mosques in the UK, as well.
NIKO: Asif remembers once going to a Champions League game with a friend. And it was difficult to find a place to pray.
ASIF: We found a little — a block of apartments, and they had a courtyard, so we went inside the courtyard and started praying there. And one gentleman, a middle-aged gentleman, came out of his house and said, “What are you doing, guys? What are you doing praying outside?” And he invited us into his house to pray. And that was wonderful.
NIKO: But in March of 2015, two years before Salah would sign for Liverpool, Asif and Abubakar traveled to Anfield to watch their side in an FA Cup quarterfinal. Prayer time fell just after kickoff.
ASIF: So it wasn’t possible to pray before we entered the ground, so we waited until half time.
ABUBAKAR: We, we didn’t actually pray in the seats, you know. We tried to find a quiet place, and we asked one of the stewards and he said, “Just pray, pray under the stairwell.” So we went there, and I knew, you know, we weren’t obstructing anybody or causing a commotion or anything. We were just quietly going around our business, you know. It takes about five minutes.
ASIF: My son was with me. He’s — he was probably 10 years old at the time.
NIKO: But when they finished praying…
ASIF: My son said, “Oh, some bloke at the top was, was taking pictures.” And we thought nothing of it. We thought, maybe he’s just taking a picture for his own, you know, memory or whatever, just to, you know, show other people. But then we discovered afterwards they had been uploaded to Twitter or one of the other social media accounts.
NIKO: The tweet read: “Muslims praying at half time at the match yesterday #DISGRACE”.
ABUBAKAR: Just a very — a grainy picture of two people in the stairwell in prostration. So, you know, nobody would be able to, sort of, recognize us. But later, when the club got involved, I think, and then, when the media got involved, that’s when our names came up.
ASIF: After that, it just snowballed and you know, it got into the mainstream media.
NIKO: Their experience was written about in the Guardian and the BBC.
ABUBAKAR: And I suppose I felt a bit like a celebrity, to be honest. It was, you know, like five minutes of fame, as it were. And in a sense, I just felt, probably more than anything, just proud that, you know, I wasn’t — not proud of the fame, as such, but just proud of the fact that, you know, we weren’t letting bigots or anybody stop us from, from doing our duty. So, you know, obviously that’s our belief, that we have to pray five times a day and — come hell or high water, regardless of circumstances, wherever we are, we have to say our prayers.
NIKO: Asif doesn’t use social media, so when the photo was making its rounds, he didn’t have much of a reaction.
ASIF: I don’t have time, you know, for Twitter and Insta and all these things. I’m too opinionated, I’d probably get myself into trouble if I’m on these sites anyway. But when this person uploaded this onto Twitter, the photo with the comment “disgraceful,” I’m thinking well, you know, can you elaborate on that? What makes you think it’s disgraceful? It’s OK having a one-line, a one-line comment, but you’ve got to be a bit more explanatory, haven’t you? You’ve got to say why.
NIKO: Like Asif’s friends and colleagues, fans from around the world stepped up to defend the two lawyers. Liverpool Football Club worked quickly with the Merseyside Police Department to investigate the incident, and the social discourse that followed paved the way for Premier League teams to build multi-faith prayer rooms in their stadiums. Naturally, Liverpool was one of the first. And just two years after the incident at Anfield, Liverpool signed Mohamed Salah, one of the world’s best strikers and above all, a Muslim man who celebrated his goals by praying to God. Asif and Abubakar weren’t the only ones who noticed.
ASIF: It was very nice because, you know, people would, you know, message me every time he scored and say, “Look, he’s doing the same as you did.”
ABUBAKAR: It’s a prostration of gratitude. The prostration of gratitude a Muslim can do at any time when, for example, something good happens. So obviously, every time he scores, he’s happy about it. So, so, so he prostrates in gratitude to the Lord. So when he does it, it’s, it’s great. It gives you an affinity to him because, obviously, he’s a Muslim as well.
NIKO: And the fans loved him for it. All of this caught the attention of Salma Mousa and some of her colleagues. Salma was an Egyptian-Canadian political scientist. She’s currently an assistant professor at Yale, but at the time she was getting her Ph.D. at Stanford University.
It really started when we started reading news headlines about how Salah is changing people’s attitudes, and at the same time, we were watching the games, and we see him praying and, you know, prostrating — he puts his head toward the ground — and even though you have so many Muslim players at the elite level, you don’t really see them doing that. They’re not so visibly Muslim, I would say. So for example, Paul Pogba — a lot of people might not even know he’s Muslim. So to see that kind of very visible practice, and then we see — I think the turning point was when we saw the video of the Liverpool supporters.
GROUP OF LIVERPOOL FANS [SINGING]:
If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me! He’s sitting in the mosque, that’s where I want to be!
SALMA: And they’re singing, “If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim, too. And sitting in the mosque, that’s where I want to be.”
GROUP OF LIVERPOOL FANS [SINGING]: Oh Salah-la-la-la-lah, la-la-la-la-la-lah! Oh Salah-la-la-la-lah, la-la-la-la-la-lah!…
SALMA: That’s where I was like, “OK, we need to study this, we need to actually test if this is really changing attitudes.” Because this is not the kind of chant that you hear every day.
IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game, from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates.
IBTIHAJ: And now back to our story about faith, Liverpool and Mohamed Salah.
NIKO: When it comes to football, Salma knows what she’s talking about. She fell in love with the game while spending her summers in Egypt as a kid.
SALMA: My only, like, real die-hard teams used to be the Egyptian national team and somewhat Zamalek, which is one of the big teams in Cairo. My family is just a big supporter of that team, and we have been for generations. Then, to be honest, following Salah kind of got me a little more interested in European football. I was kind of just neutral watching, and then I found myself watching Basel and then watching Chelsea and then watching Serie A —
NIKO: All places Salah used to play.
SALMA: — and so everyone asks me, “Are you going to still be a Liverpool fan when Salah leaves?” And so that is going to be the true test of my Liverpool fandom.
NIKO: For Salma, Salah’s arrival at Liverpool was the perfect chance to study the two things she loves most: politics and football. And at Stanford, she found other people who shared her passions.
SALMA: So my other coauthors are Ala’ Alrababa’h—he’s Jordanian, and he’s just a mega-soccer — you know, he’s just a freak. He’s just obsessed.
NIKO: Will Marble, another political scientist, was the third member to join the team.
SALMA: And he’s really interested in anything to do with sports, like he’s a big Sixers fan, Eagles fan, so you can guess where he’s from.
NIKO: And finally, the group welcomed Alexandra Siegel. She was doing a research fellowship at Stanford at the same time as Salma.
SALMA: She’s one of the best in the world at scraping and analyzing things like tweets, Reddit posts, YouTube comments. She’s figured it out, totally. She also has a background studying the Middle East and speaking Arabic, and so she was really interested in this idea. So it was kind of a — if I can say, it was kind of a dream team that happened to be at Stanford at the same time.
NIKO: Before beginning their study, Salma and her team needed a research question: Does exposure to celebrities from a stigmatized group reduce prejudice towards that entire outgroup? The team analyzed social media posts and combed through police reports. In the end, they surveyed 8,600 people and analyzed close to 15 million tweets in the UK. Their findings are quite inspiring. According to the study, over the last two years, there were 18.9% fewer hate crimes than predicted, and a 53% fall in anti-Muslim tweets among Liverpool fans. “Overall, we interpret these results to support the hypothesis that Salah’s arrival at Liverpool FC caused a decrease in extreme acts of bigotry.” End quote.
Mohamed Salah is a tireless advocate for his community and his faith, but the word “activist” is rarely mentioned in unison with his name. And unfortunately, that word has been used to discredit athletes around the world. Just ask Colin Kaepernick, Naomi Osaka and Marcus Rashford. And, at times, it seems like Salah is aware of this.
SALMA: You can’t get around the fact that the guy is Muslim, you know? His wife wears a headscarf, he prays, his name is Mohamed.
NIKO: But, for the most part, Salah doesn’t talk about his faith. So when the fans serenade him after a game, he quickly acknowledges it before going back to talking about goals and teamwork.
NEWSCLIP WITH BRITISH ANNOUNCER SPEAKING OVER SINGING CROWD:
Are you enjoying that, Mo? The fans are enjoying it as much as you. It’s a big, it’s a big statement, isn’t it, for Liverpool?
Yeah, it’s a good song. I like it. But you know, and then I said many times, I play for the team. I try to score each game for — to help the team, to get a point, to, to win a games. That’s the most important thing for me.
BRITISH ANNOUNCER: Congratulations, Mo. Thanks for your time.
NIKO: But it should go without saying, not every Muslim player around the world can change attitudes just by going about their business.
SALMA: So Salah is amazing at what he does. He’s amazing for the national team, for Liverpool. He’s, he’s brought Liverpool to these new heights that they haven’t seen in decades. He’s a nice guy. He generally doesn’t take any kind of political stances, like, he’s not a polarizing figure whatsoever. So you have this kind of model minority image, right? So he’s nearly perfect. And so the question for us is: Does this mean that minority players have to be nearly perfect to change attitudes? When they mess up, is there going to be a huge backlash? What happens when they stop scoring?
NIKO: We saw this on full display during the European Championship this summer. After playing two periods of extra time, the final game between England and Italy was decided by PKs. England’s fate now rested on the shoulders of three Black players, all under the age of 23.
NEWSCLIP WITH BRITISH MAN SPEAKING OVER NOISY CROWD:
The teenager Bukayo Saka, one of the youngest players ever to play in the European Championship. He’s gotta score here to keep England alive… [SOUND OF BALL BEING KICKED; CROWD CHEERING] and he doesn’t! And Italy are champions of Europe!
NIKO: Salma was watching the game unfold on her television.
SALMA: And when I saw those three young Black players, all in a row, missing — right afterwards, I spoke with my coauthors and I’m like, “This is so predictable. We know exactly what’s going to happen now.”
NEWSCLIP WITH AMERICAN WOMAN SPEAKING OVER JEERING CROWD:
The three Black players who missed a penalty shot in the final, each the target of racist abuse online. [SOUND OF GLASS BREAKING] The morning after, In London…
NEWSCLIP WITH BRITISH MAN SPEAKING:
Hateful images and racial slurs targeting their social media profiles, with other slurs — some fans telling Saka to go back to Nigeria. He was born in London.
SALMA: So that’s the question for us now that we’re — that we’re investigating: How important is success? And we think it’s probably very important. You hear players like, I think, Eric Cantona and Mesut Özil and Lukaku — they’ve all said something along the lines of, you know, when the team is doing well, or when I’m doing well, I’m Belgian, I’m German, like, the team is French. And when we are not succeeding, all of a sudden it becomes, oh, the Congolese striker, oh, the Turkish immigrant, you know? And so that’s — this is something the players have talked about for a long time, and we want to put some numbers to that.
NIKO: Salma says that as an academic, her goal has always been to use science to help people get along better. And she hopes that with this research, she’s found a blueprint for similar studies about identity and prejudice.
SALMA: The one that comes to mind is Giannis from the Bucks.
NIKO: As in Giannis Antetokounmpo, professional basketball player for the Milwaukee Bucks. During the 2020–2021 season, he led the Bucks to an NBA championship and was named Finals MVP.
NEWSCLIP WITH AMERICAN MAN SPEAKING OVER CHEERING CROWD:
Inside for the slam! Thirty-nine points for Giannis!…
SALMA: There you have a kid who’s African, who’s a refugee, who’s done this amazing thing, you know, carried this team. No offense — his other teammates are also amazing — but you know, he’s kind of the talisman for that team. And for us, the natural question was, well, are people now going to change their attitudes about refugees? Are people going to be more welcoming of refugees and more supportive of refugee policy in the US? And that’s the kind of thing that we actually can answer with empirical data and we hope to answer in the future. But this needs one really important thing, which is that people have to know that he’s a refugee, right? Just logically, they have to know that about him, and I don’t think that many people know that about him. It’s not that public.
NIKO: Issues of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation are constantly politicized, which gives athletes an added layer of pressure to deal with.
SALMA: And unfortunately, when someone takes on a social justice issue, it could be the case that they are then polarizing, like, half of the fan base. And so you’re not going to see those effects.
NIKO: But by speaking up, athletes can use their platform to humanize a cause.
SALMA: And that’s a really big thing for us, because we don’t want the take-away from our study to be: Oh, celebrities should just shut up and dribble, and Salah only had this effect on Islamophobia because he tends to not take on any political stances.
NIKO: But just because he doesn’t pen any op-eds or lead protests in the street doesn’t mean Salah’s activism can’t be felt at all levels of the game.
ABUBAKAR: You see a lot of, sort of, people who are not Muslims — I mean, sometimes, I’ll go to see my nephew —
NIKO: That’s Liverpool fan, Abubakar Bhula, again.
ABUBAKAR: He’s a young lad playing football just in a small league in Preston, and he doesn’t even support Liverpool. But if he scores a goal, he’ll prostrate. Similarly, even people who don’t follow Islam, who are not Muslims — young kids playing on the park or whatever, you know — you’ll see them just copying him, emulating him. So it’s a good thing, yeah.
NIKO: Asif Bodi sees how things have changed for Liverpool’s Muslim fans, especially while using the prayer room at Anfield.
ASIF: Oh yes, we, we use it quite regularly. In fact, it’s, it’s been a victim of its own success, because it’s way too small now. And, sometimes, the place is full. They have to have, you know, people queuing up outside. I’ve even seen people praying on the grass outside because the room is not large enough. I’ve even seen people praying on the sidewalk and, most supporters, they just walk past without commenting at all.
[LIVELY SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Niko Emack and Karen Given, with help from Darius Boamah, Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation.
Next week on the podcast: As a young child, Ibrahim Al Hussein dreamed of representing Syria at the Olympics. His father was a swimming coach, and Ibrahim was talented. But by the time he was 22 years old, those dreams had been shattered.
[IBRAHIM AL HUSSEIN SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
When the situation in Syria erupted in 2011, my life changed entirely. No more training, and there was nothing left. After that, in 2012, the situation was even worse, and my parents went out of Deir ez-Zor, where we lived, to go to a safer place. But I couldn’t go with them for one reason: the military would conscript me, and I’d be obliged to serve with them. And that’s not what I wanted.
IBTIHAJ: That’s next week, on The Long Game.