Sami Zayn is clearly one of the fastest-rising stars in the WWE. He may be far away from the Universal Championship picture at this point, but his strong performance at this year’s Royal Rumble is just one of the signs WWE may have big plans for him this year. Zayn also happens to be a well-spoken individual who, in a recent interview with ESPN, expressed his desire to change how WWE and media in general portrays his fellow Muslims.
Typically, Muslim or Arab characters have been portrayed in WWE as villainous, often anti-American characters. This was especially true in the “old-school” era of pro wrestling, when characters such as the Iron Sheik feuded with the All-American likes of Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan. Muhammad Hassan was a more recent example, and wasn’t even played by an actual Arab — Italian-American Marc Copani had played the character from 2004 to 2005, which was that of an Arab-American railing against the prejudice he had been receiving in the aftermath of 9/11. This was a character who openly praised Allah in his promos, and got a good share of boos and “USA!” chants from audiences due to his heel alignment.
Although WWE had originally planned to make Hassan, then only 23-years-old, the youngest WWE Champion in history, those plans went to naught after a poorly-timed “terrorism” storyline was taped just days before the London bombings of 2005, and aired on television hours after the attack. As Bleacher Report recalled, this led to Hassan losing his push, getting written off TV, and ultimately getting released by WWE in 2005 through no fault of his own.
In terms of ethnicity, Sami Zayn, a.k.a. Rami Sebei in real life, is unlike the aforementioned Marc Copani/Muhammad Hassan, as he is the son of Syrian immigrants to Canada. As ESPN put it, Zayn would have been booked as a heel had he competed in earlier WWE eras, with fans likely to boo him and chant “USA!” like they often did to anti-American, foreign villains. Instead, he’s performing as a “caricature version of himself,” as opposed to being defined by his ethnicity or religion and portraying Arab/Muslim stereotypes on TV.
— CTV Montreal (@CTVMontreal) December 21, 2016
Speaking to ESPN, Sami Zayn admitted that such topics have been sensitive ones to talk about, but since signing with WWE, he’s felt a duty to redefine how WWE and other western media outlets portray Muslims and people of Arabic descent in general.
“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.”
I can't articulate how truly disgusted I am right now. #MuslimBan
— Sami Zayn (@iLikeSamiZayn) January 28, 2017
I applaud @JustinTrudeau for his efforts in cultivating a harmonious culture & celebrating diversity in our country. Proud to be Canadian.
— Sami Zayn (@iLikeSamiZayn) February 2, 2017
With the expression “with great power comes great responsibility” serving as a motto, Sami Zayn has been active on social media, speaking out about issues that affect the Arab community. When U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning refugees and immigrants from seven mostly Muslim countries, Zayn took to Twitter to register his disgust. He also praised Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his statement welcoming refugees affected by Trump’s travel moratorium, and expressed his solidarity with Quebec-area Muslims after a Quebec City mosque bombing killed six people in late-January.
Talking about whether he plans to become a U.S. citizen, Zayn said that the current political climate is making him take a wait-and-see attitude to things.
“I’m a Canadian citizen but I do have a green card. I would consider U.S. citizenship down the road, but we’ll have to see how the political sphere unravels in the next few weeks, and few years.”
All in all, Sami Zayn believes he can rise above the usual Arab stereotypes and contribute to their eradication, simply by wrestling as the same amped-up version of himself he’s played in WWE, NXT, and in the independent scene, and being successful without incorporating the above stereotypes into his character.
“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. That’s the spirit of America, right? Anybody from any background can make it anywhere with enough hard work.”
[Featured Image by WWE]