Don’t Believe the Hype of Performative Islamophilia: The Case of Mohamed “Mo” Salah

“If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me … If he scores another goal, then I’ll be Muslim too.”  

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“If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me … If he scores another goal, then I’ll be Muslim too.”  

Football fans have a penchant for hyperbole: when in 2017 at the behest of Liverpool F.C.’s German manager Jürgen Klopp a hitherto unknown Mohamed Salah Hamed Mahrous Ghaly joined the Premier League club in England’s post-industrial North West from Italy’s A.S. Roma and immediately began displaying overt signs of world-class footballing quality to a global audience, the Egyptian striker was quickly awarded the honor of a personalized stadium anthem bellowed in unison by thousands in the stands and at local bars.  

To the tune of 90’s hit song “Good Enough” by the Britpop band Dodgy, Liverpool fans would sing:  

“If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me  

If he scores another goal, then I’ll be Muslim too  

If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me  

He’s sitting in the mosque, that’s where I wanna be.”  

I have to say, I was elated at the time when coming across YouTube videos showing drunken white male Brits declaring to convert to Islam and wishing to seek out the hallowed halls of Muslim places of worship.

In times of heightened Islamophobia in white-majority Western societies as evidenced by physical hate crimes on mosques and their patrons, racist and misogynistic hijab discourses, anti-Muslim mainstream media propaganda, unchecked hate speech on social media and racist legislations singling out Muslims, I experienced a sort of renewal of faith in white people when witnessing the “colonizer” joyously deifying through song a practicing Muslim.  

For the Arab and Muslim world, Salah’s then-novel celebrity constituted a much-needed relief from the title of perennial bogeyman: here was a Muslim who was not a negatively stereotyped member of a faith that since its inception has been mercilessly demonized by Christianity and its modern successor, the secular state, but a positive role model, and judging by all the white kids I have seen in the UK sporting Liverpool jerseys with Salah’s name and number on the back, not only for Arabs and Muslims.  

But should this collective fanboying of a Muslim by Westerners be interpreted as a genuine departure from their Islamophobic culture, or regarded with caution?  

Subtracting the ‘hamed’ from Mohamed: Endearment or bigotry?

Almost five years later, “Salahmania” in its most exaggerated form has subsided as Liverpool fans’ one-time Messiah has fulfilled the promise projected onto him and his teammates by Liverpudlians of the red persuasion, (the other Premier League club in the city being blue-clad Everton F.C., majority-owned by British Muslim businessman Farhad Moshiri) doing his part in securing a Champions League title in 2019 (the first in 14 years) and the Premiership in 2020 (the first in three decades).  

Within the denouement of these climactic successes, two things have happened: for one, Salah is currently being hailed as the best footballer in the world, a designation supported by his inclusion in this year’s 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or, international football’s most prestigious individual accolade. The other thing: his once exoticized Muslimness has been thoroughly normalized (as opposed to the merciless otherization Muslimness normally experiences in Western societies, in some countries less, in some more).  

Nay, inclusion has in my view gone even further than normalization (which is a good thing as it puts cultures on equal footing) and seems to have entered the realm of cultural erasure.  

While in the heyday of “Salahmania” media commentators were referring to the Egyptian forward by his first name Mohamed, at some point they dropped the full first name and started referring to him as “Mo” Salah.

Yes, Mo is often used as a shorthand for Mohamed, its single syllable easily rolls off the tongue and is meant as a term of endearment. Yes, I myself grew up with Mohameds in Germany who shortened their name to Mo because it sounded cooler and more urban.  

But that was only half the story: I’m pretty sure the other half had to do with them being fed up with being incessantly otherized at best and discriminated and ridiculed at worst by white teachers, fellow students, neighbors, civil servants, etc. for their “funny-sounding” name.  

In such a context, turning a Mohamed into a Mo – regardless if one is doing so of one’s own volition as a pre-emptive defense against racism or it is done by white people who have some sort of hang-up with a traditionally non-Western name which is the most common first name in the world – instantly reminds me of my childhood in the US where my father, whose name is Abdullah Al-Farooq, was called Farooq by his South Asian friends and work colleagues, but was unilaterally renamed Al by his American ones (anyone who has only a superficial knowledge of US foreign policy will know that unilateralism is the cornerstone of the country’s imperialist dealings with the rest of the world).  

Like with Mohamed “Mo” Salah, there was a racial dynamic at play here behind the seemingly harmless Americanization of my father’s Arabic name at the hands of settler-colonial white people in a country where the legal name for foreigners to this day continues to be “aliens” (an otherizing term for an immigrant if there ever was one: no matter if your Somali or Spanish, Bangladeshi or Brazilian, for settler colonial white Americans they are all equally from another galaxy).  

Even my dad’s African-American work buddies, who themselves were the best example of cultural erasure at its most heinous as their forebears were stolen from the African continent as commodities for the transatlantic slave trade, stripped of their African names by white slaveholders and given “white” ones) participated in this liberal white supremacist exercise in forced assimilation and de-Arabization by calling him Al, however endearing the motivation.  

The same goes for Salah’s renaming, as I don’t believe that it is general laziness why predominantly white sports pundits and fans shorten Mohamed to Mo: you don’t see commentators calling Sadio Mané “Sa” or Roberto Firmino “Ro”, both of them also sporting a three-syllable first name.

Yes, Mo might be a more normalized nickname than the two aforementioned ones, but when it becomes shorthand for Mohamed/Mohammed/Muhammad, the prophet of Islam and historically Christianity’s (and post-9/11 atheism’s) sworn enemy No. 1, one can’t help but wonder whether the renaming has ideological implications and if the Islamophobia of the “colonizer” – however subliminal –  is the main driver behind it.  

So yes, there is a racist double standard at play – however subconscious – when white majority society takes an ideologically inedible name and makes it palatable to them, thereby engaging in an act of cultural erasure.  

Agent of social change or neoliberal commodity?

“Mo Salah is gonna stop Islamophobia” somebody tweeted on social media during the glory days of the Salah craze. A tall order, which begs the question: did he?  

In June 2019, British broadcaster Sky Sports in an online article titled “Salah has helped reduce Islamophobia”, a quote by Mumin Khan, a prominent member of Liverpool’s Muslim community, mentioned a study produced by Stanford University in the US which lent scientific credence to Mr Khan’s statement.  

“Can Exposure to Celebrities Reduce Prejudice? The Effect of Mohamed Salah on Islamophobic Behaviors and Attitudes” was the name of the study which found that Merseyside county (where Liverpool F.C. has its home) “experienced an 18.9 percent drop in hate crimes” and that the club’s fans “halved their rates of posting anti-Muslim tweets (a drop from 7.2 percent to 3.4 percent of tweets about Muslims) relative to fans of other top-flight English soccer clubs.”  

So far so good. As for the reasons behind the drop in Islamophobic attacks in word and deed, the study suggested that the positive results in the wake of Salah’s arrival at Liverpool F.C. “may be driven by increased familiarity with Islam. Our findings indicate that positive exposure to outgroup  role models can reveal new information that humanizes the outgroup writ large.”  

While I don’t argue against the study’s core findings, I think it is naive to believe that in a multicultural country like England with its historical ties to the Muslim world through its colonial empire, high levels of post-WW2 Muslim immigration to Britain and British Muslims having successfully entered the once whites-only spaces and highest echelons of politics and society, the ingroup can gain “new information” on the perceived outgroup, of which many are not even much of an outgroup as they are born and raised Brits.  

Furthermore, establishing causality between a drop in racist hate crimes and increased familiarity with the target of said hate crimes, namely Islam, would imply that just because you are unfamiliar with something, you are automatically hostile to it, which simply isn’t true.  

An example from Germany that counters that claim: while it is a commonly held belief in the country of my birth and partial upbringing that its Eastern, ex-Communist wing (where there are next to no long-term immigrants) is much more racist and Islamophobic than the multicultural Western half with its post-WW2 history of legal mass immigration from Muslim-majority Turkey (a belief that is supported by the electoral successes of the right-wing AfD party in the Eastern states), studies have shown that the highest concentration of Neo-Nazis per capita are not to be found in the depopulated, brain-drained East with its minuscule immigrant populations, but in the former industrial heartland of the country, the densely populated West German Ruhr area, where white Germans and non-European immigrant Germans have been sharing societal spaces in close proximity to each other for decades.  

Familiarity, therefore, does not necessarily engender sympathy.  

Salah’s passive role in combating quantifiable Islamophobia (passive because he is doing so not through activism, but simply by being who he is, a football player and practicing Muslim) should not belie the fact that the Muslim Council of Britain counted 110 attacks on Islamic institutions in 2017, the year of Salah’s arrival at Liverpool.  

And in the traditionally left-leaning city itself which as of May of this year boasts the first black female Mayor of a UK city, there was a harrowing Islamophobic incident a year after Salah’s arrival involving a Muslim woman named Hamman Hamood being racially abused in front of her children at a local McDonald’s by one Kellie Cooke who then went on to beat the mother of four unconscious.  

Add to this the continued Islamophobic rhetoric against Salah himself by so-called fans of other clubs and the racist online and offline verbal attacks against Black British players such as Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, one should not forget that the scourge of racism in any form is systemic, thus limiting the influence of even the most privileged of sports celebrities to counter it.  

Performative Islamophilia is conditional

A more likely and simpler explanation for the alleged Islamophilia of Liverpool F.C. fans is that Mohamed Salah scores goals and his Muslimness provides an exoticized, folkloristic touch to what in essence is not more than performative displays of pro-Muslim allyship solely predicated on the principle of meritocratic achievement: Salah’s ability to deliver as a footballer, as opposed to earning third party sympathy by default of his personality.  

In the neoliberal marketplace that is professional football, Salah – despite being an amiable and modest “homo sympathicus” – is therefore reduced to nothing more than a commodity with economic value for the club and emotional value for its supporters. Salah’s worth might still be kept at a high level via his qualitative footballing prowess, quantitive goal scoring, and general likability, but nonetheless, his value for club and supporters is subject to volatility.  

This begs the question: Once that value is compromised, will Liverpool fans still view him and his Muslim faith as a positive “outgroup” role model?  

If the experiences of players with hybrid, ethnicized identities like Turkish-German Mesut Özil and  Arab-French Karim Benzema are any indication (who have both at one point in their career said the same thing independently of each other, that they are unquestionably German or French as long as they score goals, but when they stop doing that, they are suddenly foreigners e.g. the outgroup, and thus fair game for racial abuse), Mohamed Salah’s influence on Western perceptions of Islam is entirely subject to the capricious whims of the white (all too often drunken) football fan, not exactly the kind of person one would want to tie one’s fortunes to or be at the mercy of (a reason more to emancipate oneself from external loci of identity). 

At least the Salah song was honest about the conditionality of its Islamophilia, just take a look at the lyrics again:  

“If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me  

If he scores another goal, then I’ll be Muslim too.”  

Not when he scores a goal, if he scores a goal. Meaning: the Western Islamophile who wishes to convert to Islam will only do so as long as Salah keeps scoring, thus illustrating a fundamental lack of altruism behind his professed motivations and debunking the conditional and purely symbolic Islamophilia of the humorous Salah song as pure hokum, from which one should not derive societal trends.  

Nonetheless, representation and self-love matter, and to see the Liverpudlian Mohamed Salah in his fifth season at Merseyside be among only four Muslim footballers nominated for the 2021 Men’s Ballon d’Or (alongside Benzema, fellow French international N’Golo Kanté and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez) and continue to nonchalantly wear his Muslimness like a badge of honor when celebrating goals by performing sujud, without taking into consideration whether white British stadium-goers – who have no qualms in engaging in racist abuse as too many of them have time and again displayed – like it or not, is something Muslims in the West, who are still conditioned to feel inferior by the powers that be (not seldom to the point of self-hate) and are often forced by societal pressure to hide their religious affiliation from plain view, should always remember and emulate.