After the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11, when Muslims across the country came under increased scrutiny, the now disgraced public relations guru Max Clifford said the only way for British Muslims to repair their image in the public eye would be to produce a homegrown David Beckham.
Eighteen years on, when England’s Cricket World Cup-winning captain, Dublin-born Eoin Morgan, was asked if it was the luck of the Irish that helped them win, he smiled and replied: “We had Allah with us as well. I spoke to Adil Rashid, he said Allah was definitely with us. I said we had the rub of the green. That actually epitomises our team. We’re from quite diverse backgrounds and cultures and guys grow up in different countries.”
An England captain would never have been able to say that 10 years ago, and, more importantly, the British public would never have been so relaxed about this statement in the past. So has sports now started to change the perceptions of British Muslims?
I first witnessed these changes during the 2012 London Olympics as I cheered “Go Mo, Go Mo, Go Mo” with the 50,000 other spectators in the Olympic Stadium and millions watching on television, as (now Sir) Mo Farah won the 5,000 metres, claiming his second gold of the games. But it was only when a white English mother turned to her young son in front me and said “when you grow up, I’d love for you to be like Mohamed Farah” that the enormity of the statement made by this black, immigrant, Muslim by not just being accepted but wholeheartedly celebrated by mainstream society truly impacted me.
Years later, it wasn’t, however, a British Muslim Premier League footballer who was to really make a sea change in the way British Muslims are perceived by the public, but a hero born in Egypt. Research by Stanford University found a drop of just under 19 per cent in anti-Muslim hate crimes on Merseyside in the period since Mo Salah signed for Liverpool in 2017, as well as the halving of anti-Muslim tweets by Liverpool fans compared to other Premier League clubs.
Muslim sporting heroes in Britain, from Cricket World Cup winners Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali to Olympic gold medallist Sir Mo Farah and Champions League winners Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, are all loved by adoring fans for being great sporting heroes who just happen to be Muslim. Through their confidence to practice their faith at the greatest sporting stages, they have helped to reclaim the true spirit of Islam. Either by being able to say Allah Akbar (God is great), prostrate in gratitude, or to even run away from the sprays of champagne after a victory, they have normalised and given respect back to ordinary British Muslims who are just like everyone else. They have demystified the faith on mainstream British platforms, and there is no greater example of the effects of that feat than hearing celebrating football fans from all faiths singing “If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me, if he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too.”
Harris Bokhari is founder of the Patchwork Foundation