In an exclusive and very personal interview, the new star of England cricket, Moeen Ali, talks to Mehdi Hasan about sport, faith and being British.
"I do let people touch it."
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Moeen Ali is not just referring to but stroking – what else? – his glorious beard. The England cricketer grabbed the headlines over the summer, on both the front and the back pages, for his dazzling performances against India and Sri Lanka - and, also, for his striking visage.
England fans have dubbed him 'The Beard That's Feared', a slogan that has inspired both T-shirts and Twitter hashtags. Newspapers such as the Mail and the Independent have compared Ali to the bearded, Victorian-era cricket legend WG Grace.
"Let’s be honest, it’s hard to take the eyes off that long, lustrous beard," noted a recent profile of Ali in the Sunday Times. Writing in the Independent, columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown referred to the cricketer’s "Taliban beard".
Does the focus on his facial hair bother Ali? "It doesn’t bother me too much, to be honest with you," he says. "Some of the stuff is quite funny. People have their opinions about everything. I've been called worse."
Indeed he has. Some commenters on BBC Sport’s Facebook page in February, for example, responded to Ali’s England team call-up by mocking the Birmingham-born all-rounder as "Bin Laden".
Ali sees his beard, which he first grew at the age of 18, as an "identity thing". Is he then, in his own way, trying to rebrand the big Muslim beard? Perhaps, as the beard that should not be feared? "Yeah, definitely. That’s whole beauty of it. If I can play, and change the mind of one person about being a Muslim player and having a beard, then I'll feel as if I've done my job."
I meet Ali in the lobby of a plush hotel near London’s Tower Hill, a few days after England’s recent Test Series victory over India. The 27-year-old cricketer looks relaxed and rested in a maroon hoodie and grey tracksuit bottoms.
I have to lean forward in my seat to hear his answers to my questions. To call Ali soft-spoken would be an understatement. He talks quietly, slowly and deliberately; carefully thinking through each statement, each answer.
Cricket is his life. It always has been and, he suggests, always will be. Encouraged by his sport-obsessed father and uncle - Pakistani-born twin brothers who married twin sisters - the young Moeen played and practised daily in his back garden, which was soon converted into a training ground. "We had a big cabbage patch and we put a net down [over it].. and me and my brothers trained there and that’s how we learned our cricket."
Ali is the third of four children - he has two brothers, one younger and one older, and an elder sister. His brothers, Kadeer and Omar, have played for Worcestershire and Herefordshire while two of his cousins, Kabir and Aatif, have also played cricket for county teams. (Kabir, according to CricInfo's George Dobell, "had a cricket ball placed in his cot the day he was born").
Is cricket in his family's DNA? "I dunno. My dad absolutely loves cricket and [so did] his brother."
Don’t most Pakistani fathers love cricket? "My dad is very different to other Pakistani dads," he responds. "It was almost like he knew we were going to play [professionally] and he committed 100% to the cause, which I feel a lot of British Asian parents, when they see their child is a good player, they don’t push him as much as my dad did. My dad sacrificed everything he had [for us]."
A trained psychiatric nurse, Munir Ali quit his job to start coaching his kids full time. Today, he runs an academy called MA Cricket in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, where Moeen grew up.
Was there any other career path he would have considered? "No. From nine, I started playing cricket. From 11, I knew this is what I’m doing."
What about his 11-month-old son Abu Bakr (who Ali named after the first Muslim caliph)? "My wife wants him to be an ‘aalim’ [religious scholar] and so do I, to be honest. But I’m obviously going to let him play cricket and enjoy it."
Cricket, explains Ali, "means so much to me. I started as a professional at 15 and I feel I've learned a lot more through cricket than others have [learned] outside of cricket. It teaches you a lot about life and staying grounded. If you think you’re on top of the world it can bring you back down."
The all-rounder was 14 when terrorists attacked the Twin Towers on 9/11 and 18 when terrorists attacked the London Underground on 7/7. Would the Ali of 2001 or of 2005 ever have believed that a proud, practising, big-bearded Muslim such as himself would one day be playing for England and listening to the fans chant his name?
Ali reveals that he wasn't, in fact, a practising Muslim as a teenager. "I never for once thought I’d be religious sort of person at that sort of age. At the time I was very relaxed and chilling out.. I never thought I'd be playing for England with a big beard."
So what changed? As a teenager, he says, "I had a lot of questions in my head about why we're here, and I searched around, I looked into other religions." At a cricket match, aged 18, Ali bumped into a former Christian who had converted to Islam. "I asked him why he had become a Muslim.. I said to him: ‘Why would you follow a religion which has [forced] marriages and all these wrong things?' And he said, ‘That’s not your religion, that’s from your culture, your Pakistani culture’ and from there we just started talking."
Almost a decade later, Ali is a changed man. He prays fives times a day and fasts for 30 days every Ramadan. Many British Muslims found it difficult to fast for up to 19 hours a day during Ramadan, in July, so how was he able to fast while playing competitive cricket? Ali chuckles. "I think if I was in an office I would find it harder, to be honest with you. Because you’re probably used to snacking but when I'm playing cricket it keeps me busy. I’m out in the field."
How many days, total, did he end up fasting while playing? He pauses to do a mental calculation. "20 days." Another pause. "I just got used to it. It’s something that keeps me stronger."
I mention to Ali how the former USA basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon, a devout Muslim, used to often point out to reporters that he played better, and scored more points, during the month of Ramadan. The England cricket star nods vigorously. "Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel when I'm fasting. I actually score more runs and I do better.. Probably because I'm more focused."
How important, today, is his Islamic faith to him? "It’s everything to me. It means so much to me. My relationship with the creator, following the prophet.. This is where we Muslims have gone wrong. We stopped following the Quran and the 'sunnah' [the life example of the prophet] and have been deluded by the world."
So it's the spiritual side, rather than the practical or even political side, of the faith that appeals to him? "Definitely," he replies. "People get involved not just in politics but in groups and sects and.. forget the main reason why we’re here: to worship Allah."
But should Ali, perhaps, be more like former England cricket captain Nasser Hussain? An England player who just happens to be Muslim, rather than an England player who wears his Islam on his sleeve? Would it be wiser, in terms of his career progression and public profile, to downplay his faith and religious identity? He looks offended. "I just feel if I do that I won’t be true to myself. I get asked a lot of questions about my beard, about my religion, and I feel I have to answer them. Be honest with [people]."
Not everyone wants such honesty, however. "You're playing for England, Moeen Ali, not your religion," declared the headline to a Telegraph piece in June by the sports writer Michael Henderson. The all-rounder shrugs when I read out the quote to him. "At the end of the day, I'm a Muslim and it doesn’t bother me what someone like him [says]. It doesn't bother me one bit.”
Does he see himself as an ambassador for Islam? His answer is refreshingly self-aware. "I think a lot of people do see me as like a role model or as an ambassador."
But isn’t there an unbearable pressure that comes with being a role model, an ambassador? "There is," he replies, before adding that it also helps him "to be on my best behavior".
I can't help but mention the name of Monty Panesar, England's first Sikh test player, who was fined for urinating on bouncers outside a nightclub in Brighton in August 2013. From hero, as they say, to zero.
He shrugs. “Whatever is meant to be is meant to be,” says a philosophical Ali. He continues: “I feel myself [to be] quite a strong character.”
On the second day of the third Test with India in Southampton, on 28 July, Ali took to the field wearing two wristbands with the messages "Free Palestine" and "Save Gaza" on them. At the time, the Israeli air assault on the Gaza Strip was into its third week, with more than 1,100 Palestinians having been killed and hundreds of thousands left homeless.
The match referee wasn't happy with the England all-rounder and nor was the International Cricket Council (ICC), whose rules say players shouldn't wear any messages relating to "political, religious or racial activities" during matches. An ICC spokesman later told BBC Sport that Ali had been "warned not to wear the bands again".
So why did he do it? Ali is a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause and has helped raise money for the Ummah Welfare Trust, a Muslim charity with a particular focus on the crisis in Gaza. "I do feel strongly about that kind of stuff, not just for Gaza but any sort of humanitarian cause.. It does make me sad that these kinds of things happen. I always feel quite emotional about these sort of things. It’s very sad to see the [Gaza] videos and all that kind of stuff."
On the issue of the wristbands, he explains: "I didn’t realise it was going to be such a big thing, to be honest.. Maybe my ignorance."
It was a "big thing", however, with the wristbands prompting global coverage of the England cricket star and a backlash from some sections of the press - and even some of the player's peers. "No one has gained from Moeen Ali's wristbands," read a headline on the Telegraph's website. "He's been a silly boy," former England bowler Steve Harmison said. "He's a cricketer, it's a cricket field and he shouldn't be wearing that. He has been a bit silly and naive."
Sitting in the hotel lobby, a month later, Ali tells me how it wasn't planned as a premeditated or political statement on his part. "I just had it on [in the dressing room] and didn’t take it off."
Did none of his fellow players, none of the members of the England coaching staff, spot them on his left wrist and warn him to take them off beforehand? "No one."
In fact, the England Cricket Board (ECB), unlike the ICC, backed Ali's decision to wear them and subsequently issued a statement saying: "Moeen has done nothing wrong."
"I didn’t actually know [the ICC rules]," Ali reveals. "I knew there was some sort of thing but it’s not something I really was thinking about. I had them on and went out to bat and they were on... I saw other players wearing other stuff [such as] 'Help For Heroes' and the rest."
Is there a double standard, given England players are allowed to wear the logo of the military charity, Help for Heroes, on their shirt collars? He dodges my question. "I think people just saw it as a political view but I didn't mean it as a political view. But, fair enough, if it’s [against] the rules."
I try again. Is it inconsistent, unfair even, to allow cricketers to show their support on the pitch for some causes but not others? There’s a long pause from Ali. "Um, I dunno. We’ve worn Help For Heroes, it’s a good cause… it doesn’t really affect me too much. I don’t want to say too much."
Ali restates his position: "It was humanitarian and I've thanked the ECB for backing me and letting me wear it."
Despite the ICC’s reaction, notes Ali, "I had it on and a lot people were aware it and I got the message out. So it's fine."
Ali wasn't, of course, the only public figure to take a a very visible stand on Gaza. Baroness Warsi, the senior Foreign Office minister, quit the government in protest over the UK's failure to condemn Israel's air assault on the Palestinians of Gaza. Warsi, like Ali, is a Muslim of British Pakistani descent and, like him, has been repeatedly accused of putting her faith ahead of her career. "She took a choice and it’s a brave choice, and I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision," he says, before adding: "She’s made people aware of the situation, of Gaza, and I think it’s a good thing."
Referring to the blockade of Gaza, Ali says that "to be under siege in this day and age.. I can’t believe it actually happens, to be honest". The cricketer tells me wants the "killing to stop. On both sides."
Is he worried about being smeared as a Hamas supporter or as an apologist for terrorists? "I don’t feel like that one bit.. I don’t support any group.. I see the children, the women, the people just getting murdered, it’s very sad. They’re who I support and who I back. It’s not the group fighting somebody. I’m supporting the people and trying to make people aware."
As a self-professed ambassador for Islam, living, working and playing amongst non-Muslims, how does he explain the barbaric behavior of the so-called ‘Islamic State’? How does he convince his non-Muslim friends and colleagues that the behaviour of IS (or ISIS) is un-Islamic, even anti-Islamic?
Ali paraphrases a famous verse from the Quran: "Killing one person is like killing the whole of humanity and saving one person is like saving the whole of humanity." He continues: "To be honest, throughout my cricket career, since I've had a beard, I've had to explain a lot of things to people. I try and say, ‘This is not Islam, this is just being people brainwashed or whatever’.. If you look at Islam, it condemns this sort of thing."
In recent months, around 500 British Muslims are estimated to have gone out to fight for extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, such as IS and the Al Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al Nusra. The killer of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff is believed to be a Brit. How worried is Ali about the prospects of more young Muslims from the UK travelling to the Middle East, in the coming weeks and months, to fight and kill alongside violent extremists?
“It is a little bit worrying," he says. "As Muslims we need to understand the ruling behind [whether] guys can go [to fight]. From my understanding.. we’re not allowed to go and fight.. We’ve got to be patient as Muslims.. It doesn’t mean sit back and let it happen. It’s a tough one. We've got to be stronger as Muslims; concentrate on prayer and following the ‘sunnah’." He adds: "The strongest weapon we have as Muslims to is to make ‘dua’ [prayer]. We’ve got to be stronger, better Muslims."
Does he have a piece for advice for any young British Muslims thinking of going out to fight in Iraq or Syria, on behalf of a jihadist group such as IS?
"I would strongly advise them not to go," he says, adding: "I obviously understand they’re in a situation where they’re quite hurt about seeing these sorts of things,” referring to the killings carried out by the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Nevertheless, “you could be on your way there and get caught and be in jail for so long... It’s a shame."
Is he worried, at all, about the media coverage of Islam and Muslims in the UK? Do the papers cover his faith fairly or unfairly? "Unfairly, I’d say. I think it’s changing and slightly getting better." However, he argues, "we do get given more of a bad name. If something happens with Muslims, it’s always ‘This Muslim has done this’ and never ‘This person has done this’. The word ‘Muslim’ has to be in there. If it was a non-Muslim, it wouldn’t matter what religion he was. [The media] is a little bit biased."
Has he had any rows over his religion with his fellow cricketers? "No, there’s been times where maybe the other guy has got heated.." He stops himself. "Not England players, [players on] my county side." Ali says he prefers to keep calm. "I try and control my anger. I don’t really get angry."
Cricket is a team sport. Ali, however, is the sole Muslim on his team. It must be difficult being part of a team but unable to go out pubbing or clubbing with his team mates, due to his Islamic faith. Does he feel lonely? "I don’t feel like that at all," he says, which surprises me a little. "If anything when I see the state of the [other players] the next day, I thank God I'm not into that sort of stuff."
Ali tells me a story about how he was standing on the pitch being racially abused by drunk fans "a long time ago" and he turned to his fellow players and said: "This is exactly why we don’t drink. These guys are out of control."
How much did that racist and Islamophobic abuse bother him? "When I first started, I was green and I took it more personally. Over time, I got used to it."
Now, Ali tells me, he experiences very little abuse or hate. The world of cricket is much more open and tolerant than a decade or two ago. "I'm very, very fortunate.. [Worcestershire] have given me a prayer room, time to pray, they understand fasting, they always seem to help me and, if anything, they encourage me [to practice Islam]."
Ali is frustrated that his fellow British Asians, especially members of the older generation, don’t seem to realize how racism in cricket is, largely, a thing of the past. "If you work hard and you perform, then no one can stop you." (A fortnight after our interview, however, Ali was booed by India supporters at a Twenty20 international in Birmingham; his father described the booing as "disgraceful" while Ali himself said it may have been because "my background is from Pakistan" but hoped that "over time we can change” fans' attitudes.)
What would he say to members of the British National Party or the English Defence League who claim there is an inevitable and irreconcilable clash between British or English values, on the one hand, and Islamic values, on the other? "I would totally disagree. I am a Muslim, yes, but I am also very English. People don’t realise how proud I am to be representing my country or being from Birmingham." His home city, where he was born and brought up, is an essential part of his identity, he says. “I don’t feel at home until I’ve come off the motorway at Birmingham. Then I know I'm at home."
Was he ever tempted to play for Pakistan? "It never once crossed my mind. I’m very proud of playing for England and representing my country."
What about his friends and family? Do they - as Tory politician Norman Tebbit (in)famously demanded - support England, rather than their countries (or their parents' countries) of origin, and thereby 'prove' that they're integrated and patriotic? "My granddad supported Pakistan and always wanted Pakistan to win or do well," says Ali. "My grandmother is English, is white, so my dad is mixed race. My dad has always wanted England to do well, in football and cricket, but when Pakistan is playing anyone else, then we all want Pakistan to do well."
Ali admits, however, that a number of young British Pakistanis have told him in recent months that they have only started supporting England since he started playing – and winning - for England. Smiling, the all-rounder tells me how he bumped into a British Pakistani who went on pilgrimage to Mecca and, standing in front of the sacred, cube-shaped Kaaba building, says he "prayed for England to do well".
To those British Pakistanis who don’t pass the so-called Tebbit test, Ali’s message is direct and uncompromising: "Being English, being born in England, this is our home and we should be supporting our home country."
What if Scotland votes for independence on 18 September? Would that bother an England player of Pakistani descent such as himself? Ali reveals himself to be a proud unionist. "I think it’d be a shame. Only because.. in my lifetime we’ve always been one. It’s always been the UK – Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland. It’d be a shame if it happens."
So what’s his message to pro-independence Scots? He grins. "Stay with us. Definitely. It’d be nice."
Being British, says Ali, "means a lot to me. I feel very proud when people ask me where I’m from. I can raise my head and say I'm very happy I was brought up in a country where I was very fortunate, where we have limited problems."
Growing up in the UK, he tells me, "has given me a lot of opportunities. I probably wouldn’t be in this situation if I hadn’t been born here or raised here."
Ali says he’s both "very happy" and "very proud" to call himself English and British. Does he call himself mixed race, too? "My grandmother was white, so that makes me a quarter white," he replies, before explaining: "I don’t see colour as an issue. I see everybody as being the creation of God. We’re all brothers and sisters in humanity."
How odd does it feel to suddenly be described as a "cult figure"? "It’s crazy," he says, with a laugh. "I don’t like to see myself as a big person or let people treat me differently." Nevertheless, he tells me, "my younger cousins come over to visit now and before I was ‘brother’ or ‘uncle’. Now it’s like: ‘Is Moeen Ali here?’ They call me by my full name for some reason." He laughs again.
Across the course of my interview with him, whether we're discussing IS or Hamas, sport or Scotland, Ali seems to exude calm; he is much more mature than most sports stars in their twenties. As David Leatherdale, chief executive of Worcestershire, where Ali plays country cricket, has aptly put it: "He is a very down to earth guy. Cricket is very much his focus. As an individual he’s quite laid back."
Does the "laid back" England star have a plan, I wonder? Where does he see himself 10 or 20 years from now? He looks pleased that I’ve asked this question of him before we finish the interview.
"My biggest goal was to play for England. Done that. Now it’s to play for England as long as I can. One of the biggest things I’d like to achieve is to encourage other people of faith, any sort of faith, to play cricket, or professional sport, and follow your faith."