Imagine you are a teenager who loves football. It is Ramadan and playing during the day while you fast is tough. So you join the Midnight Ramadan League, a community initiative, which organises matches after iftar, when the day's fast has ended and before the next early morning meal of suhoor. But playing football after ending a fast and late at night is a struggle because of the fatigue.
This is the opening scene of an advertisement by EA sports for Fifa 21, about the story of British Muslim teen Qaiser.
Qaiser's younger sister Aaminah kicks a ball at him because he’s dozed off before iftar. “Stop being lazy,” she scolds him. After the family ends their fast together, Qaiser heads off to the league at night. He’s exhausted when he plays, and gets knocked over by a tackle. Hamza Choudhury, a Fifa ambassador and midfielder from Leicester City appears, gives him a hand and says: “If I can do this, so can you”.
I will be honest. I am no football fan. But I don't need to be one to appreciate the ad's depiction of a person's motivation and his struggle to resolve competing tensions in life. The sense of being part of something bigger, and the feeling of being given a hand in that endeavour – or being the one to lend a hand – are worthy sentiments. The experience of trying to navigate life while holding on to your goals is universally refreshing.
In fact, the director Bassam Tariq commented: “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever direct such an unapologetically Muslim commercial with my fellow sisters and brothers in faith.”
Unfortunately, as studies show, too often in popular culture in non-Muslim majority countries, Muslims are not typically depicted as being equal to everyone else: people with aspirations, goals and struggles – just like everyone else. Troublingly, Motivations of the Muslim community, espeically in some cultures, are too often seen as suspect.
A study published in the UK in 2019 by the Muslim Council of Britain found that media reports on Muslims contribute to a rise in Islamophobia. The "negative and misleading" coverage of the Muslim community is not new.
More than 100,000 news articles and broadcasts in the UK in 2018 were analysed and "serious problems" were identified in the way Islam and Muslims are written about. In some print media, the study found 59 per cent of articles associated Muslims with negative behaviour, while more than a third misrepresented or made generalisations.
Citing statistics to keep underscoring the constant negativity surrounding Muslims is tiring. But no matter how many statistics you quote, these facts rarely change some minds or perceptions.
That is why personal, humanising stories that portray Muslims being, again, just like everyone else – and this should hardly be a surprise – are so important. And it is also why it warms the heart when Muslims are easily and without a fuss established into a general mainstream narrative.
Take for example, the actor Riz Ahmed being nominated for an Oscar. Or Nadiya Hussain winning the TV show The Great British Bake Off and becoming a national treasure in the UK. There are many such heartening examples and it is always nice to see more.
Honest, normal portrayals of Muslims in popular culture and in the mainstream are a relief. They are not yet the norm but such portrayals are a reminder of an obvious but often forgotten fact: that it is just fine to be who you are, without explanations, justifications or caveats.
So when you see an ad like this one, is a joy as well as a shock to the system – to watch TV without being on edge that a portrayal of who you represent could undermine your humanity. It means being able to relax and be your full self.
The aim of the ad was to raise representation of British Asians in professional football. In 2020, only 0.25 per cent of the UK’s professional footballers were British Asians, compared with 7 per cent of the population and 9.7 per cent of recreational footballers. About two thirds of UK Muslims are of Asian heritage.
I love the ad also because the narrative is so natural, normal and celebratory. It does not explain or announce itself as an ad about being Muslim or Asian.
Anyone who watches it can tell that the ad also harbours a feeling of inclusivity. Any young Muslim football player – or any Muslim viewer, for that matter – comes away feeling as important and significant as anybody else – any other footballer, viewer, shopper or consumer.
When a brand or an organisation or a business really sees you, regardless of faith and belief, with no discrimination or preconceived notions, it fosters well-being, as it would have for the thousands of viewers of this ad.
Being treated equally as a consumer or audience is not a given. In our culture it is significant and noteworthy. And during Ramadan it feels particularly special.
Shelina Janmohamed is an author and a culture columnist for The National