By Salma Abdalla and Grant Jarvie
Few Muslims in British public life and British sporting life have been as open about their Muslim identity. This short evidenced research blog presents a series of voices around a set of themes, primarily Liverpool voices. They are a reflection on the impact of one footballer credited with changing social attitudes to perceptions about Islam in Britain since arriving at Liverpool Football Club in 2017. They resulted from a six-month period of fieldwork during 2017-18.
Athletes as social and political game changers
Mo Salah is part of a significant history of talented sports people who have used the highly visible public platform provided by sport to shed light on a number of social and political causes. A number of athletes have fought and aligned themselves to different social and political causes.
Ten Key Facts:
• Born in Nagrig, in the Gharbia district of Egypt (10% of people live in poverty).
• Salah’s football journey has included El Mokawloon Basle, Chelsea, Fiorentina and Roma.
• 2017 joins Liverpool Football Club for £36.9 million.
• In October 2017, Salah scored the penalty that sent Egypt to their first World Cup finals in 28 years.
• Stanford Study reports a reduction in hate crime in Liverpool, dropping by 18.8%. since Salah the club.
• Scored the opening goal in the Champions League Final
• The Salah effect linked to changing attitudes towards Muslims on Merseyside.
• Has supported struggles for women in Egypt stating that We need to change the way we treat women in our culture”.
• 2019 Times 100 list of influential people.
• Salah has maintained a close relationship with his family, neighbours and friends in Nagrig. He nurtures this relationship by supporting various development projects in village, ranging from youth centres to schools and hospitals.
Effect on Muslims as a source of pride and belonging:
“I think he has made the Muslim community in Liverpool and across the globe very proud. He has been a torchbearer of our faith in difficult times. He has broken many different barriers related to Islamophobia” (Male Muslim Liverpool Fan 1).
“My obsession or pride towards him isn’t because he is Mo Salah, my pride is because he is a Muslim doing amazing in the game and I love the fact that the second he does something wrong white people will jump to protect him” (Male Muslim Liverpool Fan 2).
“I am not a football fan but now Salah makes us talk about football. We feel proud and we show our support for him (Non-Football Muslim 1).
“Salah is showing that there’s avenue within sport and that you can do that as a Muslim and as an Arab, which is changing perceptions of local communities (Female Muslim football Fan 1).
“He has changed the many different negative perceptions that people hold about the Muslim community and Muslim players (Male Muslim Liverpool Fan 1).
“I don’t know if he has made convers to Islam but he has opened people up to thinking about Islam in a different way…” (Non-Football Muslim 2).
“I think Salah challenges perceptions of what a Muslim is in Britain at this point in time” (Female Football Fan 2).
Wide acceptance and personality:
“Perhaps it comes down to success and I think regardless of a player’s background, religion, ethnicity, if you’re bringing your club success then fans are going to get behind you… (Female Football Fan 2).
“They footballers make millions and while Salah never speaks about it – he wants to do charity, he wants to do things for the community and he acts as a normal human being – he can make an impact because he is all about family, love of community and people in Liverpool relate to him” (Male Football Fan 4).
“He is experienced at being a Muslim or Islamic …. People are aware of the way it is talked about but he manages to do it in a way that is completely non-threatening” (Male Football Fan 5)
“He is unapologetically Muslim, the beard, the prostration, the hand in the air and his name is Mohammed.. it is all of these things and on top of that he is a brilliant footballer” (Male Football Fan 2).
Most respondents agreed that the context, the place and the rise of Salah in Liverpool cannot be ignored.
“Liverpool is quite inclusive in that aspect and they seem to tie together as a family because of historical things that they kind of experienced together , their anthem you’ll never walk alone has a kind of encompassing feeling” (Female Football Fan 2).
“It’s fantastic it is exactly what we need in these times .. To see this wonderful young man, full of joy, full of love, full of friendship, full of everything in a world where we struggle to understand all the things happening on the planet”
“Mo is a very smart person and his role is very influential. In the world at the moment, it is very important that you have people like Mo”
The qualitative voices presented here add to some of the quantitative empirical work around what many are calling the off-field Salah effect. The voices talk to the impact of the player in Liverpool but equally a number of commentators have also reflected upon the impact of the footballer upon an Egyptian youth looking for role models.