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Muslim athletes’ Olympic excellence shuts down stereotypes and prejudices

Fears have been eclipsed by their athletic exploits

Before the opening ceremony, the only mention of Islam in relation to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games was linked to terrorism and security. While scores of Muslim Olympians from a range of nations — both men and women ready to compete on the highest stage — were on the ground in Brazil, media focus on Muslims panned outside of Rio, fixating on ISIS and fearing a “potential terrorist attack.”

More than a week into the 2016 Games, fears of a terror attack have been eclipsed by the athletic exploits of Muslim athletes, and the prevailing stereotypes attached to that looming threat were outpaced by the images of Muslim excellence.

Islam at the Rio de Janeiro Games was on full display. However, punditry about fear of terrorism was gradually silenced by the achievements of Muslim athletes such as Mo Farah, Sara Ahmed, and Ibtihaj Muhammad, who represented their faith loudly amid a surrounding context of suspicion, racism and anti-Islam prejudice.

Performing under pressure

On Aug. 13, Mo Farah, the Somali British long-distance runner, sought to claim back-to-back gold medals in the 10,000-meter run. In the midst of the race, the prohibitive favorite and devout Muslim, locked his legs with another runner and fell on the track. He bounced right back up, strategically wove his way past the pack, and sprinted past a Kenyan rival to claim gold.

Farah fell on the track again. This time to pray. He bowed his head in familiar Muslim fashion before a stadium of adoring and awed spectators. That performance was just as dramatic as racing past “Kenya’s Paul Kipngetich Tanui by half a second in a flat-out sprint at the end.”

Britain's Mo Farah celebrates winning the Men's 10,000m during the athletics event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 13, 2016.

Britain’s Mo Farah celebrates winning the Men’s 10,000m during the athletics event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 13, 2016.


While Farah’s run captured him his third gold, his prayer countered the damaging stereotypes of Muslims held by thousands at the games, and the millions more watching around the world. For Farah, and scores of Muslim athletes from Muslim-majority nations and Western countries such as Great Britain, faith was not incidental, but central to their excellence in sport:

“I normally pray before a race, I read dua [Islamic prayers or invocations] think about how hard I’ve worked and just go for it.”

Weeks after the United Kingdom’s Brexit from the European Union, a vote in great part driven by rising anti-Islam prejudice, Farah also prayed after his gold-medal winning race. Coverage of Islam, for a fleeting but powerful moment, was entirely positive.

The weight of gender stereotypes

Eighteen years old, Arab and head-scarved. This trilogy of adjectives typically conjures up ideas of compulsion and subordination, and images of frailty and disempowerment. However, world-class Egyptian weightlifter Ahmed is anything but. She can out-lift most women in the world, and across gender lines, has the kind of physical power few men possess.

Donning all black with a red headscarf, wearing the colors of her nation, the diminutive Ahmed lifted a combined weight of 255 kg to claim the bronze medal in the 69 kg weight class. The feat, given her nationality and ethnicity, was unprecedented. Ahmed became an instant icon in her native Egypt, becoming the first female medalist in the nation’s 104-year history in Olympics competition. She became the first “Arab woman to win an Olympic medal in weightlifting.”

Sara Ahmed (EGY) of Egypt competes.

Sara Ahmed (EGY) of Egypt competes.

REUTERS/Yves Herman

Unlike Farah, Ahmed’s faith was conspicuously expressed without prayer, and her gender and headscarf carried a distinct set of stereotypes with them. Yet, she powered past those stereotypes, stepped onto the medal stand, and claimed her rightful place in history.

As she bowed her head to receive her medal, Ahmed represented world-class power, strength and Muslim womanhood, momentarily disrupting Orientalist tropes that enabled headscarf bans in France, and trite oppression narratives in America and everywhere else.

Fencing off American racism and anti-Islam prejudice

Muhammad was a star in the Muslim American community long before she stepped onto the global scene. The ascent of the African-American Muslim fencer with the quintessential Muslim surname and radiant smile paralleled the rise of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, whose vision of “Making America great again” is, in great part, founded upon his proposal to “ban all Muslims.” Muhammad’s blackness spoke to the distinct perils created by intersecting racism and anti-Islam prejudice that black Muslims like her must endure, combined with the racism black Muslims face within broader Muslim spaces.

Muhammad symbolized much more than her country or the headscarf she wrapped around her head. While popular media fixated on narrow manifestations of faith, juxtaposing her image with Trumpian ideas, Muhammad championed a cause long ignored by non-Muslims and Muslims alike: the distinct experience of African-American Muslims, the biggest plurality of the faith group deeply rooted in America. In response to Trump’s Muslim ban, Muhammad responded:

“I’m African-American. I don’t have another home to go to. My family was born here. I was born here. I’ve grown up in [New] Jersey. All my family’s from Jersey. It’s like, well, where do we go?”

Muhammad’s story was about far more than being “the first U.S. Olympian to wear a hijab during competition,” and claim a bronze medal. It was also about the erasure of black Muslims, dismissing the notion that Islam in America was exclusively “foreign” or “immigrant,” “Arab” and “South Asian,” and most trenchantly, that black Muslims in America stand at the dangerous intersection of rising anti-Islam prejudice and systemic anti-black racism and violence.

Muhammad claimed bronze. But her story, and the ignored narratives her Olympic excellence made possible, is golden.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at the Wayne State School of Law, and a Scholar in Residence at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society’s Initiative for a Representative First Amendment. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.