In sports, being proud of your identity or reaffirming it comes at a cost. When English all-rounder Moeen Ali decided at the age of 19 to fully embrace Islam and wear his beard as a label, he knew what he was applying for.
It is a label for me to show that I am a Muslim and for other people to know that they can be strong in their faith and still practice the sport, Moeen had said in a statement. interview in 2014.
A British man of Asian descent who does not hold back religious or cultural meanings while playing the game continues to raise eyebrows even today.
Author Taslima Nasreen’s tweet about Moeen is the latest example: Had Moeen Ali not been imprisoned with cricket, he would have gone to Syria to join ISIS, the author tweeted Monday. Nasreen said she was sarcastic, but after severe backlash led by Moeens teammates who stood up for him, she deleted the tweet.
Or it is Serena Williams speaks out as a black woman over and over, or Colin Kaepernick takes a knee Against systematic racism and the launch of a global movement, athletes have landed in controversial discourses simply because they choose to proudly wear their identities on their sleeves.
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Moeen also belongs to that category. His debut wasn’t the first time we saw a cricketer clinging to cultural or religious signifiers. But for England it was rare. His entry into the English cricket line-up gave his country the opportunity to work towards multiculturalism and inclusivity. It sent the message that the 22 yards are all yours in international cricket, that it didn’t matter if you are Asian, Black, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh.
Sport sometimes has difficulty grasping the idea of belief, ideology and politics. And that battle, especially in cricket, seems much bigger. The International Cricket Council has repeatedly attempted to portray cricket as an isolated space in which it is somehow above ideological and political fuss.
However, the history of crickets shows that it is impossible to remain apolitical or neutral. Its wording, the people who had access to it, the countries playing it, its expansion and success can all be attributed to politics. Why, then, has it made navigating something as political as identity and ideology so difficult?
A role model
Perhaps Moeen Alis’s constant humility and calm demeanor will tell you that he personally doesn’t consider it as much of a hurdle as it seems. But just because he wears it well doesn’t mean it isn’t heavy. And that’s why Nasreen’s tweet was hurtful.
The presence of ethnic minorities in sports can often cast doubt on symbolic representation. However, that doubt becomes superfluous when it comes to Moeens’s place in England’s dressing room. It is the result of hard work, talent and now the experience. With nearly seven years with the national team, the 33-year-old is a core part of the England set-up and is admired by his captains Joe Root and Eoin Morgan.
In The Cricket MonthlyIn a November 2015 feature film about him, Moeen had made it clear that he loves cricket with all his heart, but for him a good person, the kind his faith expects of him, takes precedence.
God doesn’t care how many hundreds I score or how many wickets I took, he said.
Of course he can be seen as a poster boy for inclusivity and multiculturalism. Yes, he is the perfect antidote to Britain’s old anti-colonial image. And many Muslim households are likely to watch more closely when he’s on the screen. While it’s not his only burden, he’s previously admitted that he is a man with a mission when it comes to changing the image of his faith. He wants to be a role model.
To be a certain kind of person, one tends to keep their principles and ideology close together. If that means that someone wants to refrain from participating in team celebrations with champagne showers or endorse alcoholic drink brands on their jersey, they should be given that space without having to be reduced to stereotypes. It’s derogatory to Moeen, what he has worked for and his experiences with Islamophobia so far.
What Nasreen’s now-deleted tweet did was imply that no matter how many five wicket hits you have, or the centuries you’ve scored, you’re accused of being stuck with cricket. It doesn’t matter that you are an ambassador for an NGO who takes care of orphans, your name will be written in the same line as that of a terrorist organization.
When Moeen was reprimanded during the Southampton test in 2014 for wearing Save Gaza and Free Palestine wristbands, he agreed that this may not have been the right platform to express his views. He also received a death threat because of this. Although its intent was humanitarian and not political, the ICC insisted that the cricket field should not provide a space in which to allow the symbolic expression of views on political, religious or racial activities or causes during the match.
In his book, Moeen also spoke about an incident during the Ashes in 2015 that angered him. He was reportedly called Osama on the field, although the Australian cricket denied saying that to Moeen later. When I think about it Moeen wrote
I was not Osama. I had never been there. My English teammates didn’t think so. They knew I was a devout Muslim. They respected that, but did not find it strange or strange in any way. Moreover, the English fans did not do that either. The beard was no longer something to be mocked or abused, but accepted as much a part of English cricket culture as WG Graces beard. My religion may be different, but I was just as English as the rest of the team.
Cricket has made it clear that it cannot give its players the stage to affirm their identity, raise social awareness and drive public attention. There is a reason why Jason Holder was disappointed with the lack of solidarity during the # BlackLivesMatter movement which has not found its base in cricket.
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Cricket has to do more
While things are changing and players are willing to take the risk and be more proud of their beliefs and what they represent, cricket is falling behind. It insists on refraining from creating an environment that promotes social discourse and maintains an almost impossible neutrality, as if it existed in a vacuum. Sport and identity go hand in hand, and identity goes beyond that determined by your country. Athletes can simultaneously represent their country, their culture, their race and their religion. Cricket simply refuses to accept that nuanced possibility.
For now, England’s locker room seems to be at least superficially addressing that. It took a stand for Jofra Archer when he reported an incident about racism. Eoin Morgan has been praised for often interacting with a multicultural crew. Some members of the English set-up gathered around Moeen and called for Nasreen’s comment. One of them was Archer himself, who has been on the receiving end of xenophobia. Saqib Mahmood, Sam Billings and Ben Duckett also agreed to support Moeen.
It doesn’t solve the problem, and deleting a tweet doesn’t erase sentiments. Sport has always been about everything: nationalism, faith, culture, corruption and identities Muhammad Ali embodied it in his day and the likes of Serena, Osaka, LeBron James, Lewis Hamilton and Megan Rapinoe carry on that legacy.
Moeen was certainly not the first to be subjected to an attack on his identity and certainly will not be the last. He should not be asked to stick to cricket alone, nor is he stuck with cricket.
Samreen Razzaqui is an independent journalist, cricket writer and postgraduate student of Convergent Journalism at AJK Mass Communication Research Center, Jamia Milia Islamia.