The Muslim Council of Britain criticized the Gunners for distancing themselves from Mesut Ozil’s comments amid fears over the impact their lack of support would have on other Muslim Premier League stars, including Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez and Ozil’s team-mate, Granit Xhaka.
Harun Khan, secretary general of the MCB, said: “Many prominent Muslims feel it is their duty to use their high profile to call out oppression, and football clubs must respect the moral values of their players and stand with them against human rights abuses.”
Ozil’s use of his Instagram account to protest against mass detentions and the closure of mosques provoked a furious reaction in Beijing.
As well as Sunday’s Arsenal match being pulled, Ozil’s social media accounts were blocked, his China-based “M10” fan club – with around 30,000 members – was shut down and Chinese search engines were ordered to delete his name, with the government accusing him of being “deceived by fake news”.
Arsenal have been warned China could maintain its state-sponsored media blackout of the club unless executives apologise, with officials having distanced themselves from Ozil’s comments while neither condemning them nor endorsing his right to free speech.
Khan added: “There is no doubt that the Uighur people are facing ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Chinese government, purely because of their Muslim faith. Subject to horrific conditions in concentration camps, the Uighurs are left voiceless and unable to highlight their suffering to the world. Ozil’s use of his profile to raise their plight is hugely commendable, but the decision by Arsenal to distance themselves from standing up for human rights is regrettable.”
Nicholas Bequelin, regional director at Amnesty International, added: “With their player being quite heavily criticized by some in China, it’s important that Arsenal doesn’t buckle under pressure and attempt to stifle Ozil’s right to freely express his opinions.”
Other Premier League clubs with high-profile Muslim players or links to China declined to comment yesterday on where they stood on the row.
A source at one Chinese-owned team told the Daily Telegraph they planned to brief their Muslim players about it but would not stop them following Ozil’s lead.
Those at other clubs said their players were warned of the consequences of social media posts but would never be denied the right to free speech over human rights abuses.
That is despite China’s increasing links with Premier League teams – and those in the Championship – which has brought in more than a £1 billion to the English game in terms of television rights fees, ownership and sponsorship and transfer fees.
That includes a £535 million broadcast deal that began this season – the Premier League’s biggest overseas contract – £265m, £210m and £45m investments in City, Southampton, and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively.
Crystal Palace and Bournemouth have Chinese sponsors, many clubs go on pre-season tours there – this summer’s Premier League Asia Trophy was held in Nanjing and Shanghai – while Manchester United are building club entertainment centres there.
But Professor Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at the University of Salford, told the Telegraph clubs were not so reliant on China financially that they could not afford to take a moral stand.
“It’s a little bit like the Klondike in that people can sense that there’s money there,” he said in a reference to the 1890s Canadian Gold Rush. “This is not an instant cash hit in the way that many seem to think it is.”