In his February 25, 2018 column in the Jordanian daily Al-Ghad, 'Alaa Al-Din Abu Zeina wrote about Egyptian star footballer Muhammad (Mo) Salah, who has been playing for Liverpool since June 2017. Abu Zeina noted that Salah has managed to cause even racist British soccer fans to cheer for him and to change their attitude towards Islam, to the extent that they have even written a chant promising to convert to Islam if he keeps scoring goals. He added that, even if Salah's fans do not convert, he and other leading Muslim football players who do not hide their faith help to improve the image of the Islamic religion, culture and nation. In this, they contrast with the Muslim extremists who wage so-called jihad against the West, and who purport to vanquish it by means of bombings and beheadings, but in fact achieve only failure.
On March 17, 2018, after Liverpool beat Waterford in a match thanks to goals scored by Salah, Egyptian journalist Husam Al-Haj wrote that a Liverpool fan had tweeted: "What Salah has done this season is completely unbelievable. I have formally converted to Islam and I hereby declare that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah."
The following are excerpts from Abu Zeina's column:
Muhammad Salah prostrating himself during a match (image: al-Arabiya.net)
"Western media and social media have recently focused on how British Liverpool fans have been cheering the Egyptian football player Muhammad Salah. There is nothing new about [fans] cheering a brilliant player who scores goals, whatever his ethnicity or religion. But what is noteworthy in Salah's case is the positive tone taken by the British public towards Islam thanks to this Arab player.
"[One of] the chants [created by his fans] says: "'Mo Salah, if he's good enough for you, then he's good enough for me. He is sitting in the mosque, that is where I wanna be. If he scores another few, then I'll be Muslim too.' The British newspaper Daily Express called this chant 'wonderful' and 'brilliant,' without commenting on its reference to religion but only on Salah's achievements and his path [to success] that made him worthy of this glory. The American Washington Post wrote [a report] about this chant [titled] "Liverpool soccer fans are quite literally singing the praises of a Muslim player." As evident from this headline, this phenomenon is puzzling, because it is new.
"Muhammad Salah is not the only Muslim player in the British football league and in other major European leagues. Europe has many leading Muslim players that are admired by the European public. Many of them express their Muslim identity by reciting the Fatiha [the first chapter of the Quran] before taking to the pitch. But Muhammad Salah is unique in the way he celebrates his goals: he kneels on the pitch and prostrates himself in gratitude to Allah, clearly expressing his Muslim identity. The public no doubt understands the meaning [of this gesture], and that is why, when he scores goals, the fans declare they will follow him to the mosque.
"What makes the song that the British fans sing in Salah's honor new and puzzling is [a fact] that the Washington Post explained, citing the website of Fare, Football Against Racism in Europe, a London-based non-profit organization that studies the phenomenon of racism in football. A report about the last three football seasons in Europe led the website to conclude that British football fans were responsible for the largest number of racist, nationalist and Islamophobic incidents in all of Europe's stadiums during this period. The organization's director, Piara Powar, said: 'This is the first time I’ve seen such an exuberant, overt, positive appreciation that includes [a player’s] religion.' There are other songs that express the Liverpool fans' love for Muhammad Salah, in which they call him 'The Pharoah' and 'The Egyptian King.' One of them goes: 'He’s running down the wing, Egyptian king!', and another says: 'We brought the lad from Roma and he scores in every game. He’s Egyptian and he’s brilliant and Muhammad is his name!' Piara says: 'Salah is playing very well, which excites fans, making them more apt to accept his ethnic and religious background when they may have not before. Good players break down barriers. We know that an appreciation of someone as a player does lead to a look into their identity and, for many fans, an acceptance of their identity.'
"Liverpool fans have not converted to Islam because of Salah, of course, but the positive attitude he inspired them to express towards Islam is important. There are some among us who exclude Salah – clearly a devout Muslim – from the fold of Islam [i.e., accuse him of apostasy] because they think [football] is a foolish game which distracts people's minds from what is important. But the alternative image of Islam proposed by these fanatics leads to nothing but destruction, [for it consists of] murder, beheadings, chopping off hands, bombings, and the killing of innocent civilians, which paint Islam as an aggressive and excluding religion that threatens to eliminate all members of other faiths and is hostile to civilization. What good can come from such a presentation of the Arabs and Muslims and their culture? [What does it do] except invite hatred, contempt and a siege [on us]?
"The many Muslim football fans who declare their religious affiliation through a simple [gesture] – reciting the Fatiha on the pitch – do their religion, their culture and their nations a greater service than today's extremist jihadis. Ultimately, it seems that bombings and beheadings do not turn the Arab and Muslim [countries] into superpowers or help them [solve] their problems. While Salah caused racist Britons to sing songs in his honor and praise his religion, the jihadi suicide [attackers] who kill some innocent civilians in London or Paris and [then] claim they have vanquished the West or conquered Rome have certainly never achieved this."