Politicizing Mo Salah

Rabat – For three years in a row, the Premier League’s Player of the Year Award has gone to Muslim footballers—Leicester City’s Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez in 2016, Chelsea’s French defensive midfielder N’Golo Kanté in 2017, and Liverpool’s Egyptian star Mohamed Salah this year. The most sensational of the three, however, is clearly Salah, whose assists and phenomenal goal count led Liverpool to the Champions League final as well as a sought-after third place in the Premier League.

The Egyptian’s impressive season even prompted Liverpool’s fans to soften their perceptions of Islam, a religion they now associate with Salah’s attitudes on and off the pitch: cool, friendly, devoted, team-player, and humble. At some point in the season, every time Liverpool’s players walked down the pitch, Salah, who by now had been nicknamed the “Egyptian King,” was greeted by a boisterous and grateful public that chanted: “Mo Salah, Mo Salah, Mo Salah, running down the wing! Salah la la la la, the Egyptian King!”

Another chant, wholeheartedly embracing the player’s faith, states: “If he [Salah] is good enough for you, he’s good enough for me. Sitting in a mosque is where I wanna be… If he scores another few then I’ll be Muslim, too.” The message conveyed was clear: in just a season, Salah has succeeded in distinguishing himself from the crowd; no longer a mere footballer, he has become a symbol used to discredit the sea of biases and stereotypes that target Muslims and Arabs; as well as a role model and inspiration.

Before the May 26 final in Kiev (Ukraine), hashtags on Facebook and other social media called on “all Africans” and “all Muslims” to support Liverpool.

And so, when Real Madrid and Liverpool met on May 26, most of the world’s football fans had their eyes set on the direct confrontation between five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, and the “Egyptian King,” Mohamed Salah. For many, the Real Madrid game was an opportunity for the Egyptian star to make his mark on world football, securing his spot among contemporary football’s greatest.

Unfortunately, just over 30 minutes into the game, the Premier League Player of the Year sustained a shoulder injury, ending his participation in the long-awaited final. As he left the pitch, the “Egyptian King” was inconsolable and broken—his final showpiece of months of devotion and hard work was lost in seconds against Real Madrid’s veteran defender Sergio Ramos. With Liverpool’s front three players out, Madrid ultimately won the match.

Religious and Political Debate

But what followed Madrid’s win was even more interesting than Salah’s loss. Fans could not possibly understand Salah’s misfortune, much less during the season’s most defining moment. Some depicted Ramos as the incarnation of the Devil, a defender with a history of “dirty and inhumane tricks” on serious opponents. But, Salah was not just any opponent; he is a King.

Which is why, at one point, religion and politics entered the picture. Salah’s misfortune has become a rant against the geopolitical and global order, which favor the “strongest.”

Some have made that analogy that Ramos and Madrid symbolize the US and its allies in the North, while Salah and Liverpool represent the Global South. Like the developed world, some fans argue, Ramos and Madrid are allowed to be ruthless and violent without punishment or sanction. Just as the developed world’s financial aid comes with strict conditions, Madrid is suspected of having “bought off the referee,” preventing him from penalizing Madrid for its “dirty” and “disgusting” play. “How come Ramos was not even carded?,” some dejected fans asked.

Amid the contention, some religious clerics felt that it was their duty to provide some explanations to heartbroken fans, especially the Egyptian and Muslim ones. They suggest that there was some godly reason for the dramatic outcome.

On May 28, Kuwaiti Islamic cleric Mubarak al-Bathali tweeted that Salah’s injury was God’s punishment for his breaking of the fast on the day of the final. In that sense, Ramos was no longer a “devil;” he was an angel of God used to remind Salah of his religious duty. “God punished him. Unfortunately, he will bear the burden,” the Kuwaiti preacher said, explaining that “everything happens by the will of God.” He concluded: “May Allah Guide you, Mohamed Salah. Perhaps the injury will be good for you.”

The Al-Azhar Fatwa Global Center reportedly responded to Bathali’s tweet by issuing a statement that endorsed Salah’s breaking of the fast. The Center argued that it is legitimate to do so on special occasions and that hardship can, in fact, be a sign of God’s love for a believer. It concluded that al-Bathali should worry about himself and leave Salah alone.

While all of this may sound like an exaggerated show of attention, it is more understandable given the significance of Salah’s performance for his club and country this season. There are reports that Egyptian authorities have started using Salah’s image to boost support for its policies.

More pointedly, perhaps, in Egypt’s latest presidential elections in April of this year, over a million voters reportedly cast their ballots for the 25-year old star, even though he did not formally run in the election Salah came out as runner-up in the election, indicating the love and respect he has garnered at home. As Egyptians prepare to travel to Russia for the 2018 World Cup this summer, it remains to be seen whether the Liverpool star will recover from his injury in time to perform at the skill level that has earned him such widespread international acclaim.

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