Another brief thought on identity shifts

Mohamed Salim is a number of things. He’s a man, he’s an American, he’s a war veteran, he’s a cab driver, he’s a son, possibly a brother or a father or a husband. Presumably he has other identities that are grounded in his personal interests: maybe gamer or Trekkie or brony or lacrosse team captain or whatever.

As you might well conclude from his name, Mohamed Salim is also a Muslim. And though it would not be so in a sane world, Mohamed Salim is also therefore a victim of violent assault:

An Army reservist and Iraq veteran who works as a cabdriver says a passenger he picked up early Friday at a Northern Virginia country club accused him of being a terrorist because he is Muslim, then fractured his jaw in an attack being described by Islamic activists as a hate crime.

Mohamed A. Salim says the passenger compared him to the men accused of carrying out the Boston Marathon bombing 11 days earlier and threatened to kill him.


On the video, a middle-aged businessman can be heard asking Salim if he is Islamic and then asserting that most Muslims are terrorists. He says the Koran directs Muslims to kill nonbelievers and then repeatedly and loudly demands that Salim denounce the Sept. 11, 2001, attackers. When Salim asks if the passenger is threatening him, the passenger uses an obscene phrase to respond in the affirmative.

“If you’re a Muslim, you’re a [expletive] jihadist,” the passenger says. “You are just as bad as the rest of them.”

The video ends with a blur of motion and audio of Salim asking, “Why are you punching me? Sir, why are you punching me?”

The passenger replies: “You’re a [expletive] Muslim.”

I don’t think there’s really a lot that needs to be said about this story – I doubt anyone thinks that the alleged perpetrator of the assault was justified in his actions. Regardless of your feelings on Islam, there are very few who think that randomly assaulting Muslims is a reasonable thing to do, and we don’t have to work too hard to decide who is at fault here.

What I find particularly interesting and illustrative about this case, and those like it, is how quickly someone’s identity can be reduced to stereotype in the face of bigotry. Indeed, going way back to the beginning of this discussion, the process of removing all possible salient identities from Mr. Salim and judging him by the standard of a largely-fictional group identity carries all the hallmarks of racism as we defined it early on. As I suggested before, Islamophobia and racism are not synonymous, but they share many characteristics, and this story is no exception.

It’s also worth comparing Mr. Salim’s treatment at the hands of his alleged assailant to the treatment of Tremaine McMilian by Miami-Dade police. Dahlberg, the alleged assailant, upon learning that Mr. Salim is Muslim, demands that he justify his existence by denouncing a terrorist attack that he (of course) had absolutely nothing to do with. What gave Mr. Dahlberg the right to make such a demand of a random stranger? The same thing that gave Miami-Dade police the right to physically restrain and then assault a child who apparently threatened them with a puppy: a belief that perceived authority, whether accompanied by a badge or just by majority membership*, imbues you with the actual authority to make unreasonable demands of those who are ‘subservient’.

And that’s what happened. Dahlberg decided that if you’re a Muslim, that’s all that matters – your very existence is suspect and you must utter whatever Shibboleths anyone who isn’t Muslim decides are requisite to justify your not being assaulted. Your right to a safe work environment, your right to be treated as equal, your right to not have your face bashed in are all contingent upon whether or not you can satisfy the interrogations of whatever jumped-up cowboy happens to swagger past.

To be sure, this case is extreme. Most Islamophobia is not worn so nakedly, and is couched in a labyrinthine lexicon of innuendo, as is the case for most forms of bigotry. Most Muslims are not punched in the face by random drunk assholes. Nobody on Earth would claim, for example, that Mr. Dahlberg was “just criticising Islam”. But if we can put the obviously-wrong physical aspect aside long enough to understand how this clearly-egregious example is symptomatic of an underlying phenomenon (that should be very familiar by now), we can learn to examine the more subtle ways in which our opposition to Islam crosses the line from reasonable to irrational.

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*If we’re going to play the ‘name by ethnicity’ game, one wonders if Mr. Dahlberg is Jewish, and whether he understands how tenuous his own claim to membership in the majority really is.


  1. great1american1satan says

    The demand to denounce the terrorists! It always seemed like an armchair racist’s demand, but here it is, coming from someone about to commit assault. The next time I feel compelled to ask a moslem to denounce terrorism, this asshole will pop up in my memory to remind me that I’m being racist.

  2. mythbri says

    This is bigotry. Being reduced to an attribute, or a perceived attribute, and not being allowed to make people engage you as a person, instead of part of some fantastical-collective. It’s seeing someone as their perceived gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. – and framing all of your interaction with them through that narrow lens.

  3. david says

    “Dahlberg” isn’t particularly a jewish name – none of my lantzmen are named that. Ancestry-dot-com gives it as Norwegian or Swedish in origin.

  4. says

    Terrible bigotry, reminds me of a friend of mine whose family are obviously Sikh. He is lapsed so no turban for him, but whenever there are terrorist attacks his family come under attack. Some assholes threatened to beat his 70yr old dad up after the 7/7 attacks in London because he looked “Muslim” …

  5. smrnda says

    I like the way you pointed out that Mr Salim is not just a Muslim – a lot of factors go into anyone’s identity, yet it’s unlikely that he’d be expected to bear collective responsibility for any of the other things that make up who he is.

    There also seems to be a mental disconnect on the part of his attacker. He’s demanding that Salim denounce terrorism, but even if he does so, it’s not going to satisfy him since *all true Muslims* support terrorism.

    As a US citizen, I’d hate to be expected to take responsibility for everything the US does, and I’ve had the good fortune that either here or abroad, people from other countries have never demanded that I denounce any US military action, cultural institution, or public policy. I’m guessing part of privilege is that people treat you with good faith.

    A friend of mine who studies social psychology told me that one cognitive bias is outgroup homogeneity bias – the idea that “we” (whoever we are) are all diverse individuals, while “they” (whoever they are) are all the same. This is definitely at work right now with Muslims.

    I recall this not being the case back when I was a kid in school. When we studied Islam in our history/geography class, several Muslim students talked a bit about each of their types of Islam, and this included Black Muslims from the Nation of Islam, some Balkan Muslims and a Turkish student.

  6. CaitieCat says

    one cognitive bias is outgroup homogeneity bias

    Three things (two for smrnda, one for Crommunist): one, this is really useful, thank you.

    Two, I am driven to remember The Life of Brian, and the crowd of worshipper-wannabes outside the window of poor Brian, shouting in unison, “Yes, we are all different!”

    And last, great post on this, Crom, thank you too.

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