Taslima Nasreen thinks it's impossible anything extraordinary can come out of hardworking, devout Muslims. Moeen Ali proves her wrong.
A recent tweet by self-proclaimed secularist writer and feminist Taslima Nasreen sparked uproar in the cricketing world.
In it, she suggested English cricketer Moeen Ali "would have gone to Syria to join ISIS" were he not stuck with the sport. Ali is a visibly Muslim player who sports a beard on the field and is seen, rather comically, squiggling away during post-match champagne celebrations.
The reaction was swift. And it was angry. His teammate Jofra Archer squarely asked if she was okay. Another—Sam Billings—asked people to report Taslima's Twitter account.
Nasreen has since deleted her tweet.
It wasn't just the boy's club that surrounded Ali. Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, also lashed out at Nasreen.
Nasreen has since deleted the tweet and claimed it was sarcasm. She also criticized the backlash, saying it was an attempt to humiliate her because she "tries to secularize Muslim societies and oppose Islamic fundamentalism." (I don't understand how this works but okay.)
Nobody was ready to buy her explanation, including Ali's teammate Archer who like many didn't see anything funny about it.
Nasreen's deleted the original tweet, but not before leaving vestiges of Islamophobia for everyone to see. It's unclear what prompted her sudden attention towards Ali, or cricket in general. But the most plausible explanation seems to be news reports that Moeen Ali had requested his team at the International Premier League to remove the logo of an alcohol brand from his jersey.
(In a clarification, the CEO of his team Chennai Super Kings said Ali had made no such request. Which further raises questions about who'd spread these rumours, and why.)
Why it matters to speak out
Anyone who points out prejudice against Muslims and rallies against Islamophobia will tell you this: it's actually not fun at all. Calling out Islamophobia—whether it's on the streets, in politics, pop culture or media—is an extremely boring and draining exercise.
But then comes a moment like this tweet and you don't have a choice but to speak up, hoping that societies don't become immune to these sentiments. Personally, It's also to ensure that I don't get immune to these sentiments.
Here's why it matters that I speak out against this tweet, and rally behind Moeen Ali. One of the reasons is that there aren't too many like Ali in the world of cricket. Heck, there aren't too many like him in this world.
I mentioned that he's a visibly Muslim player. But he's also a popular cricketer: a valuable all-rounder for the English team, a stand-in Vice Captain of the national side, part of the World Cup-winning team and now pegged to be an important addition to his team in the Indian Premier League. The owners of Chennai Super Kings snapped him from another team in an auction for $1.3 million-dollars.
Moeen Ali plays for Chennai Super Kings at this year's IPL. Picture: CSK Twitter
Beyond statistics and numbers, Ali's presence on the big stage offers a much needed visual relief to young Muslims who crave for role models on the big stage. Let's consider alternatives for a moment. Look towards Bollywood: and you have the stereotype of a Muslim man wearing a skullcap who spilled a bottle of Muslamic eyeliner into his eye and is prepping to stir up some shit in the underworld scene of Mumbai.
Look towards Netflix, and there's a Hijabi Muslim who's saved by a white messiah before she goes rogue—and suddenly feels empowered without the Hijab.
Turn towards the news, and a Muslim's getting beaten up in India while others are filming it on their cellphones. Turn towards French politics and suddenly everyone has more opinions on a Muslim woman's body than a Renaissance painting.
Moeen Ali is often the stand-in Vice Captain. In 2019, he was part of the English team that won the ICC World Cup. Photo: Cricket Australia.
The post-9/11 imagination leaves young Muslims, especially Muslim men, with few options: you're either travelling to Syria to join ISIS or you're relinquishing your Muslim identity to integrate into the rest of society.
Nasreen herself plays up this binary by suggesting that cricket saved Moeen Ali from joining a terrorist organization. What's sarcasm to her is actually very firm, internalized Islamophobia.
In her limiting and 'othering' worldview, it's almost impossible anything extraordinary can come out of hardworking and devout Muslims. It's like her alternate world conjured by 'sarcasm' — one where Ali joins ISIS — is more palatable than him just putting his head down and focussing on cricket.
But when Ali enters the picture, he smashes this binary out of the stands. He's made a mark for himself, with the beard and all of that.
What we learn from his father
Here's another problem with Nasreen's comments: it diminishes Ali's journey to cricketing fame. Because it's definitely not come easy.
At the back of the controversial tweet, his father Munir Ali penned an article where he expressed anger at Nasreen. He also took the opportunity to contextualize his son's rise to fame, the struggles he went through to enrol his kids into sports. He also recounted the early days of his Moeen's cricketing career, and reflects on this once incident:
"I remember sitting at the ground at Worcester years ago when Moeen walked out to bat. A loud voice shouted, “shave off the beard!”.
This, coupled with other 'murmurs' about Moeen's faith, compelled the father to talk to his son about it. But Moeen shrugged off the criticism and didn't relent.
Father Munir Ali (right) with his son Moeen. Photo: The Hindu.
As if cricket was ever meant to be a homogeneous world, Ali continues to embrace his faith, and his cricket. And in his father's words, Islam has helped Moeen become a better cricketer:
"I saw that it [Islam] helped calm down his body, and the deeper he [Moeen] got into religion, the calmer he got. It had a really beneficial effect on his cricket and life. I had nothing to worry about."
This tells me Moeen Ali is a solid cricketer not despite Islam, but because of it.
Taslima Nasreen's Islamophobia clashed with cricket. And she lost. She lost because Ali's teammates would have none of it. They showed there was no tolerance for these twisted remarks in the world of sport.
And she also lost because her rhetoric failed to change Moeen Ali and what he does best - play cricket and sport an admittedly lavish beard.
And as long as every young Muslim girl and boy looks up to Ali and believes they can be successful not despite Islam but because of it, Taslima Nasreen fails a little more every day.