Do real-world events prevent an Arab or Muslim wrestler from becoming a face in the WWE?
Most modern wrestling fans remember the infamous Iron Sheik from the 1980s (AKA Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri). Born in Tehran, Iran, Vaziri was a proud Arab wrestler with nothing but (kayfabe) contempt for the United States. The end of the Cold War made his character appealing as a heel against uber-Americans such as Hulk Hogan and Sergeant Slaughter in WWE. The Sheik’s over-the-top personality and genuine heritage worked to his advantage, but a wrestler’s outward appearance has more to do with the selection of a gimmick than almost anything else.
Sami Zayn, whose real name is Rami Sebei, is a Muslim of Syrian descent. His parents moved from Homs, Syria to Canada in the 1970s and he was born in Quebec in 1984. Despite being a red-headed Canadian who loves punk rock music and hockey, Zayn speaks fluent Arabic and is extremely proud of his Middle Eastern heritage. Before an 2015 NXT show in Abu Dhabi, Zayn spoke to Time Out Dubai about the lack of Arab wrestlers in WWE:
“I don’t know why there aren’t many. In NXT, the Performance Center, there are some people with some Arab roots, and also WWE is going overseas to look for this. I don’t feel pressure to represent, but I do feel a great sense of pride, because there really hasn’t been this kind of representation for the Arab people before. And, let’s be honest, Arabs aren’t always depicted in the most accurate way. If I can help contribute to a different perspective of how Arabs are viewed then that’s great.”
Despite his willingness to represent Syrian culture, Zayn’s physical appearance prevents him from being sold to the WWE Universe as Arab. In 2004, Marc Copani, a 100% American citizen of Italian heritage from Syracuse, New York was called up by WWE from Ohio Valley Wrestling to portray Arab character Muhammad Hassan because of his darker skin tone. Despite being a heel, his gimmick revolved around legitimate concerns about the prejudice and negative portrayal of Arabs in the WWE after 9/11. It was as if the company wanted to shed light on the situation without actually doing anything to improve the image.
In July 2005, it was announced that Hassan would face The Undertaker at The Great American Bash later that month as a renewal of the tried and true “Arab” vs. American trope. Before that match could take place, Hassan’s manager, Khosrow Daivari, was put into a match against the Dead Man on an episode of Smackdown. It is worth mentioning that while Daivari’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Iran in the 1970s, he himself is an American citizen born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After Daivari was defeated, Hassan began to pray on the ramp, after which five men in ski masks ran out to beat up The Undertaker. Three days later, terrorists detonated three bombs aboard trains across the city of London and a fourth on a double-decker bus. In total, 52 people were killed and over 700 were injured.
In light of these events, UPN wanted the Hassan character to stay away from Smackdown until the fervor had passed. It was later revealed that UPN had pressured WWE to keep the character off their network entirely. As public pressure on WWE increased, both Copani and Daivari were removed from the show and ordered to come up with new gimmicks. Copani was released from his WWE contract a few months later and subsequently announced his retirement from professional wrestling. Daivari went on to manage Kurt Angle and The Great Khali before being released in 2007.
In February 2016, Sean Ross Sapp of Wrestling, Inc had an opportunity to interview Copani and asked him if WWE “missed the boat” by simply removing his character from television:
“Even though Muhammad Hassan wasn’t a radicalized fundamentalist, it was a storyline that represented a group that killed innocent people. I think that if you step back and look at it about what is right to parody, and what is insensitive, it was becoming insensitive given the plight of the United States and Western Europe at this time and now. You could never do it now. It started to change in 2005 as terrorist attacks became more frequent in heavily populated areas, and hitting European countries, not just Syria and Iraq and Iran. Just like you couldn’t do it now, when they pulled it I think we were heading into the time when this character and material was too insensitive to continue.”
Unfortunately, terrorism has become part of our daily lives, so much so that we are all touched by it in different ways. Because of this, and the fact that the majority of terrorists shown on television are Arab or Muslim, it would be extremely difficult for the WWE to sell a hero who shares those characteristics. Quite frankly, the company doesn’t seem willing to improve this image but only time will tell. I applaud a man like Zayn who has a desire to do so right now, but no one else in the WWE seems to be in any rush.