Article written by Joe Bloggs from the Celtic Wiki site.
Note the following article and any parallel articles is apolitical on issues over Israel and the Middle East, and any discussions on relevant topics are best left for a more appropriate forum.
The First Muslim player at Celtic
Former Celtic manager Willie Maley set the underlying moral ethos for the club which was best captured in his memorable and oft-quoted line:
“It’s not the creed nor his nationality that counts. It’s the man himself.”
Celtic began within Catholic circles, but soon in its early years it reached out to the broader communities within Scotland, setting an ethos that has laid solid foundations for the club. Willie Maley defined it with the above quote, and one of the earliest and greatest examples in practise was the signing of Celtic player Mohammed Salim in 1936.
He was to be the first Indian player in any of the major established leagues, and one of the first Muslim professional players in Europe. His stay may have been brief but it made a mark in football history which is still celebrated to this day. It also predated the growth in the Muslim community in Scotland.
As a measure of the importance of the signing, Boria Majumdar, deputy editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport wrote:
“It shows how in the days of the Empire, Celtic broke barriers, living up to the ideal of the civilising mission and how this Indian in bare feet enchanted one half of Glasgow.”
In his retrospectives, Willie Maley took pride in it all, stating:
“We have always been a cosmopolitan club since our second year, and we have included in our list of players a Swede, a Jew and a Mohammedan.”
Two Muslim Egyptian players played in Scotland at around same time as at Salim’s arrival. One played once for Rangers v Hibs, the other was to become a long-term the successor in goals at Queen’s Park to future Celtic Chairman Desmond White.
Brief outlook on the Muslim community and Celtic
Times have moved on, and the Muslim population has fast grown in the UK, with the Scottish Pakistani community (starting in the 1970s) being the first large scale community of Muslims in Scotland to be followed by various others from the Muslim diaspora.
Similar to the Irish, the majority of the Muslim immigrants came impoverished and often were discriminated against in jobs, but have worked hard to create roots and integrate into the local communities.
The first regularly attending Celtic supporters from the Muslim communities came around the 1980s, often just the odd one, but over generations their numbers in the stands have increased. You’ll actually find supporters of both Sevco and Celtic in the Muslim communities, mostly it was down to what local schools they went to that determined what team they started supporting when young. The nuances between Catholicism and Protestantism were rarely if ever a factor. However the immigrant story and non-racist attitude of the Celtic support is something that made the new fans welcome, and the most active football supporters from the community are usually Celtic fans.
Back in the old days it could be said that football helped play a disproportionate part in helping the integration of immigrants into Scottish society. Get any blokes together from any corner of the earth and sooner or later they’ll start talking about sport. As the younger ones picked up football from school and TV (as against cricket from their fathers), it created a bridge between people.
In time the new immigrant communities were as involved emotionally with their chosen sides as everyone else. It’s not necessarily a new story at Celtic. A similar story is mirrored by the Lithuanian community who settled in Lanarkshire much earlier, and in time they gave Celtic great players like Billy McNeill.
One interesting story wrt the development of the Muslim community in Scotland occurred one day when Celtic player Olivier Ntcham went for prayers at the large central mosque in Lanarkshire/Mossend (Bellshill). One of the senior elders in the mosque (Ghulam Siddiquie, the founder/general secretary of the mosque), unaware of who Ntcham was, decided to approach Ntcham to make him welcome by inviting him to join the others for food & chat, only to be pleasantly surprised to find Ntcham was a Celtic player rather than a local labourer as he first thought.
A fine moment to have a Celtic player at that mosque, and it truly meant a lot to everyone there. Rather than being some celebrity visitor, he was humbly there to pray alongside his fellow man. Changed days since the humble beginnings of that mosque from a room above a corner shop & electric repairs shop in Holytown (Lanarkshire), and a sign of the development of the cross-section of attendees at the mosque, for many years practically all immigrant blue-collar shopkeepers or take-away owners/workers with their children. It is difficult to explain in words alone what it meant to the attendees at such an out of city community mosque.
One of the more humorous publicised moments came in the fans’ Square during the Uefa Cup final of 2003. One of the documentaries interviewed a young Scottish Pakistani Celtic fan who had bunked off and postponed his wedding to see Celtic in Seville! We all laughed and hopefully his fiancé was to be understanding, we doubt his family were though.
There are plenty of more stories that could be further told.
Antagonism towards Muslims from society
However, due to political events, the Muslim Communities have sadly become the target for the mindless in society and those with a twisted agenda (e.g. Far right groups and extremists etc). Ironically the most publicised Islamophobic group in the UK has been led by a Englishman descended from Irish immigrants, and who has decided to support Sevco due to their more right wing establishment identity. He is best laughed at or ignored to avoid his self-publicity, but sadly his actions have led to a lot of aggression towards the Muslim communities.
As an example of the lengths some bigots go to, back in 2013 at the Scottish Cup final celebrations for Celtic over Hibs, a banner that said ‘Achill Island CSC‘, was said to say ‘Islam’ by some rabid online Sevco fans who went into a rage. The bigots tried to claim it was taunting the British people and abusing the memory following certain recent tragic events surrounding the death of a young British soldier (RIP). The supposed mere ‘sight’ of the word ‘Islam‘ put them into mock outrage and revealed a burgeoning bigotry. It was all garbage as the banner actually said ‘Achill Island CSC‘! Underlying all this was something sinister from the bigots but Celtic fans were in solidarity after laughing at the Islamophobes.
That hasn’t stopped Celtic supporters from going against the increasing jingoistic populist grain, with a left leaning support willing to welcome, work with and support people from all faiths. The Green Brigade are an ideal example of this.
You have to take in also that the Muslim Community in general are teetotal and don’t participate in sports gambling, but football culture in Scotland especially in the old days was heavily pub & drink orientated. That hasn’t changed wholly but there are ways to help integrate supporters from varying cultures. You’ll now find Muslims involved as much as anyone else with the club deep in their hearts.
Admittedly, not all Muslims are religiously observant (there are many who do drink or gamble, or are wholly lapsed in their faith). Each to their own, every community has a cross-section of people. No compulsion or business of others how others practise their faith (or not). However to those who are observant, respect and mutual accommodation both ways is important.
There have even now been some successful efforts in assisting Celtic linked sides for development in this South Asian sub-continent. Led by Scottish Asians it has helped create bridges across communities, not just within the Muslim communities. Something to take pride in.
A key part of this has been Celtic’s central role in the UK Asian Football Championships, with Celtic having held the finals on various occasions including the first on 26 September 1999. The competition has aimed to raise the profile of South Asians in general in football, and has slowly made some headway.
Players at Celtic
Despite the early signing of Mohammed Salim in 1937, it was a long time before Muslims became a common sight on-field, and now Muslims across the football world have become a key part of the fabric of the sport, not just at Celtic.
It should be remembered that for many of the first Muslim Celtic fans there were no Muslim figure heads to identify with at Celtic (or much elsewhere) for a generation or two growing up. There were no Muslims (or most often non-whites) on the field until the arrival of Momo Sylla (2001) and then afterwards others followed. Their arrival for Muslims was something to help increase their identification with the club. Always welcome. Since then it has been a common sight to have at least one person from the Muslim Community on-field, Moussa Dembele being the highest profile Celtic have likely had.
You’ll find some of the players also saying prayers with fellow Muslims on-field prior to the start of the match, and bowing in thanks to God after a goal. It’s a humbling site. Faith is very important to observant Muslims, and some have had it difficult integrating into various clubs where there is a laddish culture, but at Celtic we’d like to hope a more cosmopolitan outlook has helped everyone settle in.
Below is a selection of Muslims who have played for Celtic’s first team, and some have become cult favourites.
· Mohammed Salim
· Mo Bangura
· Momo Sylla
· Mohammed Elyanoussi
· Joe Kamara
· Moussa Dembele
· Karamoko Dembele (Wee Dembele)
· Kolo Toure
· Olivier Ntcham http://www.thecelticwiki.com/page/Ntcham%2C+Olivier
· Beram Kayal
· Abd Elhamed
Next we hope Wee Dembele can be the first Celtic youth player to come through the ranks to become a regular first team Celt. It was hoped that Islam Feruz could be first in that line but he opted to move prematurely to Chelsea and it failed badly. We hope in time to see young Celtic fans from the South Asian community make it through to the First Team.
Beating the Fascists Down
If we have to pinpoint one particular highlight (and the most iconic moment), then there is little better than in the away Europa League match v Lazio in December 2020.
Celtic were in the Europa League group stages and were facing Lazio, a club whose support has a disturbingly large far-right Fascist sympathising support historically, unafraid of doing one armed salutes and racist chanting. When in Glasgow, a cortège of their support walked through Glasgow’s city centre doing one handed fascist salutes and abusing passers-by. Celtic won the home game, but the return match was always going to be tougher. No Scottish club side had won away in Italy in competition matches, but Celtic were on course for qualification through to the knock-out stages.
After a fraught start, Celtic battled to level at 1-1, and then Ntcham was subbed on late. A bad pass by a Lazio player gave the ball to Edouard who slipped the ball through to Ntcham who in an impossible angle, perfectly chipped the ball above the approaching goalkeeper, to score a last minute goal. It sent the Celtic support into raptures, and the joy on Ntcham’s face said it all. Ex-footballer & now analyst Stan Collymore commented:
“A black Muslim scored the winner for Celtic, witnessed by the Fascist Ultras of Lazio. Sometimes, God really does shine his light in some fantastic ways. ‘Un buon fascista è un fascista morto'”.
Palestine & Israel
Discussions on issues with respect to Israel & Palestine are for outwith this article.
At Celtic, there has been a certain bonhomie between Israeli Arabs and Jews at Celtic. Eyal Berkovic (Jewish) recommended Beram Kayal (Muslim) to join Celtic, whilst Nir Bitton (Jewish) played alongside countryman El Hamed (Muslim) at Celtic. That is something to admire.
One notable event came for when help & support to the Palestinians from the Green Brigade which went viral on social media in 2016, but these efforts were purely humanitarian and not religious based. The response from the Palestinians was truly humbling. The Economist magazine was so impressed they wrote an article to articulate the charitable effort by the Green Brigade, and ended the article wonderfully:
“A club like no other, quite….”
Importantly, the same support would be given to those of other faiths (Jewish, Christian or others) if the circumstances were reversed. Bigoted groups from any line are not welcome at Celtic (that includes fringe extreme Islamic, Christian or political groups) as respect and fraternity is a must. Fans of all faiths support Celtic beside each other in the stands.
A curious side note is that in Apr 2021, Belfast journalist Jamie Doran was in Afghanistan interviewing some Taliban figures in a village only to be surprised to find that some of them were sympathetic to Celtic. Apparently stemmed from the good press from the campaigns for Palestinians. Hard to know how to take this, as admirable to see the spread of the good work of the Celtic support but our ideals don’t overlap with that of the Taliban.
The future will write itself. There will be players who come and go, and that will mean players of various faiths. Muslims have fought to become accepted in the game, and will continue to play a role at Celtic and beyond. Long may the relationship continue.