In April 2015, Liverpool fan Stephen Dodd became famous — internet famous. He posted a photo on Twitter of two men praying during the halftime break at Anfield, the home stadium of Liverpool Football Club. The men, Asif Bodi and Abubakar Bhula, were pictured in sujood, the Islamic act of prostration, with the caption: “Muslims praying at half time at the match yesterday #DISGRACE.”
His tweet provoked an outrage, a police complaint and eventually the club committed itself to investigating the matter. It’s not clear what exactly happened to that investigation. Four years is a long time; the world has moved on.
At Anfield the passage of these four years is particularly felt. Liverpool are European champions and much of their success can be attributed to two players, the Egyptian Mohamed Salah and the Senegalese Sadio Mané. Both are exceptional footballers. They are also Muslims who celebrate their goals by dropping to the ground in sujood — just like the men in the picture shared by Dodd.
Salah’s popularity is particularly notable. One popular chant heard around Anfield these days goes like this: “Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah, Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah, 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.”
It’s unlikely that Salah has inspired a mass wave of Muslim conversions. But a working paper by political scientists at Stanford University has found signs that his popularity might actually have helped to tackle anti-Muslim sentiment in Merseyside.
One Facebook experiment with 8 000 British Liverpool fans gave respondents footballing facts and questions. A third of those surveys also included a slide describing Salah’s commitment to praying regularly. All users were then asked about their attitudes to Muslims. Of those who saw the slide about Salah’s faith, 23% thought Islam was compatible with British values, compared with 18% of the other fans. It’s not exactly a huge difference, but the experiment suggests that a reminder of a positive example of Muslims can alter opinions.
The academics also hunted for signs of broader changes in Islamophobic sentiment in Liverpool since Salah was signed. Here too, while the rest of the United Kingdom registered spikes in hate crimes — some attributed to better police reporting — Merseyside, by contrast, reported a slight fall.
The analysis of data sets on Twitter yield similar findings. What this translates to in simple terms is that Islamophobia in Liverpool seems to have been kept in check at a time when it was rising elsewhere because of an association with Salah, who has been able to rein in the prejudice of Liverpool fans.
Another popular chant at Anfield describes Salah as a “gift from Allah”. When he, and Mané, drop to the ground after scoring a goal in the din of celebrations at Anfield, it seems that exposure to people who are different to ourselves can truly help shift our bias.