European Eye on Radicalization
Sport plays an effective role in spreading toleration due to its ability to transcend cultural, religious, and political borders, promoting a culture of mutual respect, while combating stereotypes. A prominent example is Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian striker for Liverpool, who managed to enhance the image of Muslims in Britain and elsewhere.
In the last few years, with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, and its ability to recruit Muslims from different European countries, directing some of them to carry out bloody terrorist attacks, hate speech against Muslims has been on the rise.
This fact was covered by the “State of Hate” report published by the anti-fascist group “Hope not Hate”. The polling performed by the group showed that while attitudes towards Muslims in Britain improved between 2011 and 2016, the terror attacks in the UK in 2017 had had a negative impact on perceptions, and were a key driver of the growth of the far right. The same report also reveals that 35% of people in the UK believe that Islam threatens the British way of life, compared with 30% who thought it was compatible. This should be taken in consideration against the background that discrimination against Muslims has been prevalent in the European societies in general during the last three decades.
A Positive Perception
Negative perception of Muslims in Britain may witness a change thanks to Salah. A study revealed that Salah’s spectacular rise has reduced Islamophobia among Liverpool F.C. fans. The study based their analysis on investigating three main indicators: hate crimes in England; an evaluation of anti-Muslim tweets among soccer fans; and an original survey experiment.
Merseyside, where Liverpool is located, witnessed an 18.9% lower hate crime rate after Salah was signed relative to the expected rate had he not been signed. The study also finds that the proportion of anti-Muslim tweets produced by Liverpool F.C. fans decreased from 7.2% to 3.2% after Salah joined Liverpool. In addition, a survey on Liverpool F.C. fans showed that Salah’s religious practices enhanced the belief that Islam is compatible with British values by around 5%. The results in general reveal that exposure to outgroup celebrities can reduce prejudiced attitudes and behaviors towards the group.
Another indicator of this positive change is Liverpool fans, who adjusted the 1996 Good Enough lyrics by Dodgy to celebrate the feats of the Egyptian striker. The adjusted lyrics say: “If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me, if he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too. If he’s good enough for you he’s good enough for me, he’s sitting in the mosque that’s where I wanna be”.
The song has gone viral despite the diverse backgrounds and political inclinations of those singing and listening. This reveals that Salah’s explicit displays of his identity, as evident in his pointing to the heavens and bending down to perform sujood (prostration) after scoring, are not only accepted, but readily celebrated by his fans in Britain.
Thus, Mohamed Salah, as a successful role model, has changed some of the negative perceptions that people have about Islam and its adherents. Many British people came to change their opinions about Muslims, whom they perceive as inward-looking and awkwardly conservative, as they began to perceive them positively.
Piara Powar, the executive director of London-based nonprofit FARE Network that studies discrimination in soccer, noted, “This is the first time I’ve seen such an exuberant, overt, positive appreciation that includes [a player’s] religion”.
Another positive impact of Mohamed Salah is that he presents a model for the Muslim minorities in Britain, and elsewhere. It should be taken in consideration that one widely-utilized tactic by jihadist terrorist organization is accentuating the sense of marginalization and alienation of Muslims in Western societies in order to be able to recruit would-be terrorists.
Salah, who came from a humble beginnings, managed to become a famous player with his determination and commitment, as he moved from playing for a local Egyptian football team to AS Roma and then to Liverpool. Thus, he represents a model for young Muslims to emulate, especially, as he is a devout Muslim, who prays with other team-mates Sadio Mané and Emre Can, celebrating every goal by prostrating himself to God.
Salah is, for the British Islamic community, a positive example of someone who is fully Muslim and fully integrated, after years of extremists claiming they had to choose one or other.
Negative perceptions of Islam have been on the rise, exacerbated by ISIS, and stereotypes have flourished that depict Muslims as irrational, intolerant, and violent, while their faith is held to be incompatible with Western civilization.
Islam is hardly exceptional in having violent elements. As Bruce Hoffman rightly argues: “The legitimization of violence based on religious precepts, the sense of profound alienation and isolation, and the preoccupation with the elimination of a broadly defined category of ‘enemies’—[all of these] are also apparent among American Christian white supremacists, among some radical Jewish messianic terrorist movements in Israel, and among radical Sikh movements in India”.
The rise of so influential a player as Mo Salah does not just present a brighter side of Islam; he can help correct these negative impressions and stereotypes, show how marginal terrorists are within the faith, and the compatibility of Muslim identity with Western societies.
 Omar Salha, Diplomacy and the beautiful game: Muslim footballers as ambassadors of faith, in: Alberto Testa and Mahfoud Amara (eds), Sport in Islam and in Muslim Communities, (US: Routledge, 2015), p. 205.
 Frances Perraudin, Third of Britons believe Islam threatens British way of life, says report, The Guardian, February 17, 2019, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2VIGMjI
 Omar Salha, op.cit., p. 205.
 Ala’ Alrababa’h, William Marble, Salma Mousa, Alexandra Siegel, Can Exposure to Celebrities Reduce Prejudice? The Effect of Mohamed Salah on Islamophobic Behaviors and Attitudes, Immigration Policy Lab Working Paper, no. 19-04, May 2019, pp. 1-2.
 Tusdiq Din, Mohamed Salah: Is Liverpool striker’s success improving engagement with Muslim fans?, BBC, March 1, 2018, accessible at: https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/43208945
 Jalal Baig, At the World Cup, Mo Salah is a force on the field — and for his Muslim faith, PRI, June 14, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2R7nuDI
 Jacque Talbot, How Mohamed Salah Is Reshaping Britain’s Perception of Islam, Sport Bible, May 27, 2019, accessible at; https://bit.ly/2F2rAI9
 Nabila Ramdani, Salah, Pogba, Özil … the Muslim heroes of English football, The Guardian, February 25, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2H0FRb4
 Jalal Baig, op.cit.
 Nabila Ramdani, op.cit.
 Bruce Hoffman, “Holy Terror”: The Implications of Terrorism Motivated by a Religious Imperative, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 18, Issue 4, 1995, p. 271.