Back in the eighties, the only Muslim wrestler anyone knew about was The Iron Sheik. The outspoken Iranian was, in the simplest terms, a bad guy, feared by the WWF due to his Middle Eastern heritage and devastating Camel Clutch finishing move.
There was only one man who could defeat him: Hulk Hogan. Draped in an American flag, Hogan was the home-grown hero who said his prayers, took his vitamins and went toe-to-toe with the extremely un-American Iron Sheik. When Hogan came in the ring, the crowd chanted ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’. When he defeated the Sheik, the whole country celebrated as if they’d won a war. A classic wrestling rivalry, built on dated stereotypes.
Nowadays, the WWF is called the WWE, and it’s less inclined to deal in stereotypes. Muslim wrestlers don’t have to be bad guys, nor do they have to rock elaborate mustaches or dress like it’s summer in Tehran.
On that note, our new WWE fave is Sami Zayn, a Canadian wrestler of Syrian descent, who stars in the RAW brand. A practicing Muslim whose family hails from Homs, Zayn wants to change the attitudes that formed during the Iron Sheik era. Speaking to ESPN, he said:
“Ever since I was a kid and growing up and watching things like the ‘Naked Gun’ movies, there was always this stereotype about how Arabs were perceived and portrayed. I’ve never watched those Arab villains in the movie and felt like that was me. They were nothing like me, and now I get to just be me – and hopefully being me strikes a chord with a lot of young Arabs and non-Arabs, honestly. We’re really not all that different.“
Zayn’s journey to the WWE is extensive, to say the least. He’s wrestled in Japan, Poland, and Peru; he spent much of his early career as a Luchador in a Canadian set-up, where he was billed as a Mexican hailing from Tijuana. When he joined WWE, it was the first time he wrestled as himself (full disclosure, his real name is Rami Sebei, but what’s a stage name between wrestling fans?), complete with Arabic text on his trunks.
Now that he no longer has to hide behind a persona, he’s hoping his performance in the ring – and out of it – will go some way to changing perceptions of Islam. Zayn may just be one man, but as WWE airs live in 180 countries, in 25 languages, who’s to say he won’t make some difference? As he says: “I think it’s important for youngsters from all walks of life to have some sort of representative that they can look up to and aspire to be and let them know there’s a chance for anybody from any background.”