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Salah effect cuts UK’s Islamophobia but don’t count on ‘Sallu effect’ to do that in India

Stanford researchers find Mohamed Salah's presence in Liverpool has halved Islamophobic tweets by club's fans and reduced hate crimes against Muslims by 18%.

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New Delhi: If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim, too
If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me.

It was this slogan chanted by Liverpool football club fans for Egyptian striker Mohamed Salah that triggered four Stanford University researchers to study what they now call the “Mohamed Salah phenomenon” and its effect on Islamophobia.

That a successful figure from a maligned community can help reduce prejudice was something many believed to be true based on anecdotal evidence but the data-backed Stanford University paper has now confirmed it.

The study found that the Egyptian footballer’s presence in the Liverpool Football Club as a “visibly Muslim player” has resulted in a significant fall in Islamophobic attitudes. It has created a buzz among scholars around the world to see if the theory of the ‘Salah effect’ can be extrapolated to find ways to tackle Islamophobia elsewhere — like the impact of Bollywood’s reigning trio of Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan. Does India have a ‘Sallu effect’?

‘Drop in hate crimes, Islamophobia among Liverpool fans’

Mo Salah of Liverpool Breaks Down Cultural Barriers, One Goal at a Time — The New York Times headlined a piece in May 2018 but such commentary was based on anecdotes.

The study, however, found that since Salah signed with Liverpool Football Club in June 2017, Merseyside county– where the club is located– witnessed an 18.9 per cent drop in hate crimes against Muslims.

The researchers also analysed 15 million tweets by UK football fans and found that those supporting Liverpool halved their rates of posting anti-Muslim tweets — a drop from 7.3 per cent to 3.8 per cent of the tweets — as compared to tweets of other major football club fans.

“The survey experiment suggests that these results may be driven by increased familiarity with Islam,” the study says.

Salah is often seen falling in sujood or Islamic prostration after scoring a goal. His sujood even featured in the hugely popular video game FIFA 2019.

“Salah’s conspicuous Islamic practice at the most elite level of global soccer is arguably unprecedented,” the study says.

“The fact that he practices his faith in a highly visible manner on the football field and also discusses his faith in interviews, for example, helps to familiarise fans with Islam,” Alexandra Siegel, one of the researches in the Stanford study, told ThePrint.

Mere celebrity status not enough: Critics

Some have countered the report’s findings saying measuring ‘celebrity-dom’ as a means of fighting prejudice may be facile.

The authors of the study said they don’t expect all high-profile members of minority groups to have the kind of effect that Salah has had.

“Familiarity alone does not necessarily reduce prejudice,” Siegel said. “But research suggests that positive contact in which individuals imagine positive interactions with members of another group generally leads to more favourable attitudes and less prejudicial behavior,” Siegel added.

“Indeed the ‘Salah effect’ is likely contingent on consistently positive media coverage and the fact that his public expression of his faith has not been politicised.”

Salah hasn’t made overtly political statements on contentious issues in public life but that precisely may have aided the impact he has had.

“The fact that football appeals to a wide audience and is generally apolitical facilitates the ‘Salah effect’,” Seigel said. “We would not expect to see the same effect under conditions where the high-profile individual becomes politicised either by the media or by their own actions.”

Athletes who make strong political statements have faced severe backlash. Seigel cited the case of the American football quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, an African-American whose political stances “stoke negative attention and exacerbate prejudice”.

The athlete remains unsigned by any NFL team three years after kneeling during the American national anthem as a protest against racism in America. This, despite his much-acclaimed sporting record.

Countering Islamophobia in India

As hate crimes against Muslims in India have risen in recent years, scholars are looking to see if there is anything similar to “Salah effect” challenging domestic Islamophobia.

“Muslim presence is quite visible in Indian media and Bollywood. But we can’t call them Muslim representatives,” said Hilal Ahmed, author of a new book titled Siyasi Muslims: A story of Political Islams in India. “Instead of figuring out who the ideal Muslim role-models are, what is needed is to celebrate Muslim plurality and Islamic diversity.”

The partition of India, and especially its residual bitterness, is what distinguishes the challenges faced by Indian Muslims from Muslims of other countries.

The Sallu effect — not quite the Salah effect

Bollywood’s Khans have ruled the industry for nearly three decades now. While it is often used as evidence of India’s secularism and pluralism, it may not have played out like the ‘Salah effect’ here, said experts.

Filmmaker Shabani Hassanwalia, who co-directed the documentary film Being Bhaijaan on Salman Khan’s fandom, said his fans do not see him as a Muslim man at all.

“In fact, a lot of Salman Khan fans are actually hardcore BJP voters and Hindutva supporters. For them, the two are divorced realities. They don’t see Salman Khan’s religion as part of his being,” Hassanwalia said.

“Why do Muslims have to bear the burden of being a ‘positive role model’ and have the constant need to say — look I am Muslim, but also a good person?”

But with changing times, however, Hassanwalia also added that “we cannot afford to constantly erase and negate religious identities”.

In 2010, actor Shah Rukh Khan starred in a movie called My Name Is Khan that talked about being a Muslim in the post-9/11 world. “For the first time, he brought to our attention that he’s a Khan,” Hassanwalia said. “In the public imagination, he could just be a Kapoor for all you know.”

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