Moeen Ali drama to Beijing Olympics boycott, new challenge for sportsmen — call out bigotry


British cricketer Moeen Ali | Wikimedia Commons


Text Size:

It has been a week of multiple conversations about sports and social justice – whether it was the way British cricketers reacted to Bangladeshi novelist Taslima Nasreen tweet targeting Moeen Ali, US Commissioner of Major League Baseball Robert Manfred pulling out of the big game from Atlanta over Georgia’s new voting law, or debate over whether US athletes should boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics because of Xinjiang. Should sportspersons step forward and take a position or kneel over bigotry and injustice?

When writer-activist Nasreen weighed in on England cricket team’s player Moeen Ali earlier this week, she caused a stir on Twitter. “If Moeen Ali were not stuck with cricket, he would have gone to Syria to join ISIS,” she tweeted.

It was unclear if Nasreen was reacting to a story about the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) allowing Moeen Ali to wear the team jersey without any alcohol sponsors due to his religious beliefs — a story that was later debunked by the cricket team’s CEO Kasi Viswanathan.

Regardless, Nasreen’s tweet was a blatant example of anti-Muslim bigotry and the blowback was swift, particularly from four English cricketers. While Jofra Archer didn’t think Nasreen was “okay”, Saqib Mahmood, Sam Billings and Ben Duckett referred to her as “disgusting”, and Duckett and Billings also called on people to report her account.

 

In response to the criticism, Nasreen initially said “haters” had decided to “humiliate” her due to her opposition to Islamic fundamentalism, despite knowing that her tweet was “sarcastic”. However, she deleted her tweet not long after Jofra Archer said it was the least she could do.

Moeen Ali’s father, Munir Ali, also questioned why of all the possible targets, Nasreen chose to attack Moeen’s religion. In a brief but moving piece for The Indian Express, Munir said, “For now, I would ask her to pick a dictionary and see the meaning of sarcasm. It’s not what she thinks it is. It’s not spewing vile poisonous stuff against someone you don’t even know and then retracting it by saying it was sarcasm.”


Also read: Daren Sammy shouldn’t wait for apology from IPL teammates. India is in denial about its racism


Outrage vs silence

Many Indians on Twitter — journalists, activists and cricket fans alike — not only commended the English cricketers for standing by Moeen against bigotry, but also criticised current Indian cricketers for not speaking up in previous instances of racism or hate speech.

Such criticisms of Indian cricketers are fair and accurate, in light of the farmers’ protests and the Wasim Jaffer controversy.

After pop-star Rihanna and climate change activist Greta Thunberg tweeted in support of Indian farmers protesting the new farm laws in early February, the biggest names of Indian cricket were out in droves using the same hashtags and same messages to deride “external forces” for spreading propaganda about India’s “internal matter”.

However, when the time came to offer words of support towards prominent Indian ex-cricketer and coach Wasim Jaffer, who faced flimsy allegations of communalism during his tenure as Uttarakhand coach — an “internal matter” within Indian cricket — there was silence. It was left to former cricketers like Anil Kumble and Irfan Pathan to stand by Jaffer.

Test vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane went so far as to claim complete ignorance on the issue. It is hard to believe that someone who did not take the time out to inform himself on a problem affecting a fellow Indian cricket stalwart would consider himself qualified enough to comment on an issue completely unrelated to cricket. But perhaps #IndiaSupportsWasimJaffer did not have as nice a ring to it.


Also read: Michael Holding gives ‘powerful message’ on racism in cricket, Harsha Bhogle praises Sky Sports


More than meets the eye

Based on this huge contrast between responses, it would be easy to say that Indian cricket reflects a broader culture of not using its influential platform to the fullest extent, and leave it at that. However, such social media situations involving public relations and media managers are more complicated than that.

The England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB), for instance, has been at the forefront of promoting the #BlackLivesMatter movement within the sport, alongside Cricket West Indies (CWI). When England hosted the West Indies in the World Test Championship last July, both sets of players took a knee and players like Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler also publicly supported the movement on social media.

 

However, English cricket was rocked by a racism scandal of its own last summer, when Pakistan-born English all-rounder Azeem Rafiq leveled a series of allegations against his former domestic team, Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

Similar to what we have seen in India, Rafiq received a great deal of support from former players such as Rana Naved ul-Hasan, and Isabelle Westbury for coming out with his story. But current members of the England men’s team (including those who played alongside Rafiq at Yorkshire and the England U-19s team like Test captain Joe Root) stayed silent.

Fast forward to January 2021, when Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Siraj were subjected to alleged racist taunting and abuse by audience members at Sydney Cricket Ground during an India-Australia World Test Championship match. Siraj’s fellow Indian team members were quick to support him for calling out the abuse, as did Australia off-spinner Nathan Lyon.

None of this is intended as any engagement in whatabouttery or trying to play a game of ‘which cricket team does a better job of standing up to bigotry’.

Rather, the varied responses to these situations show how both English and Indian cricketers have failed to fully support members of their own communities when it is a so-called “internal matter”.

It is far easier for the players to call out bigotry if the bigot in question comes from afar, or has little to no direct potential impact on their livelihoods. Would Archer’s or Billings’ response be as rightfully caustic if Nasreen belonged to the ECB? Would they have supported Rafiq if the accused were not a storied cricketing institution like Yorkshire?

Similarly, would the Indian team have stood by Jaffer if the half-baked accusations came from a foreign team, and not the Cricket Association of Uttarakhand? Or would they have supported Siraj if he were attacked by local fans on the basis of his religion?

Only the cricketers themselves can honestly answer these questions, but they do deserve a great deal of commendation for supporting Mohammad Siraj or Moeen Ali, when they could have easily either wilted in the Australian conditions or let Nasreen’s comments slide.

Ultimately, such so-called controversies only lend themselves to one issue — why do people feel that cricketers (or any celebrity) owe them a public comment or response to any major issue?

Addressing this would involve analysing misplaced celebrity worship, toxic fan culture, and figuring out how to achieve serious progress on bigotry through direct action and organisational work. But why spend time delving into such nuanced issues when you can tweet at cricketers instead?

Views are personal.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it

India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.

But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.

ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.

Support Our Journalism