Sometimes you wish that you could spend one day, just one day, not hearing about a world full of hate and violence. But alas this was not to be. I was working quite late on Wednesday evening on some research I had been doing in the archive–in fact it would be accurate to call it early Thursday morning. I took a break to head over to twitter which is when I saw #ChapelHillShooting trending. I quickly clicked and with growing horror followed the story.
3 young Muslim-Americans had been shot by their neighbor execution-style in their own home in North Carolina. Deah Shaddy Barakat was a 23 year old dental student who is remembered for his dedication in feeding the poor and providing free dental care for them. His wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha was 21 and planning on joining her husband at school. Like him she was dedicated to helping out the community. The couple had just married a month earlier. Her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, was only 19 years old. The shooter, Craig Hicks, a dedicated atheist and libertarian gun-nut, turned himself into the authorities.
While, twitter was quick to pick up the story, there was silence from the traditional media outlets like CNN and Fox News. It took them hours and serious pressure from the mounting voices of twitter and social media before finally they got their stuff together. Not only was the delay frustrating, for it was as if the media outlets were saying that the lives of 3 young American Muslims were not newsworthy, but the content of the coverage itself was infuriating.
Quoting local authorities, they dismissed the dispute as being over a parking lot. While others were quick to call it a hate crime, or an act of terror, media coverage focused on the preliminary results of the ongoing investigation to call it a dispute among neighbors. And that is what privilege gets you.
You see, it doesn’t matter if it was a hate crime–I have no clue into the motives of Craig Hicks. It could very well have been over anything, but you see, if the shooter was Muslim we would be hearing a different story. When Muslims commit violence they are immediately accused of terrorism. The media is quick to identify them as “Islamic terrorists” and part of a global conspiracy of violence. Muslims who commit terror are never alone, they become a stand-in for the whole of the Muslim population world-wide.
But when Craig Hicks, a White American, decides to walk into his neighbor’s home and put a bullet into each of their heads in an execution even ISIS would be envious of, it’s a neighborly dispute, or he is a lone-wolf, or he is mentally unstable, or any other excuse that immediately dismisses his actions. He certainly isn’t representative of all of White America or atheists in general and there certainly isn’t a wider societal problem contributing to the violence. Violence from a White person is an aberration, violence from a brown person is typical. When white people commit violence it’s just one crazy. What makes white crazies different from brown crazies?
It doesn’t require much of a stretch of memory to remember the Charlie Hebdo case. It was blasting over the TV world-wide within moments and its live coverage was riddled with experts who immediately labeled it as terrorism. With a prescience rivaling that of the best charlatan psychic, media outlets were speaking to the motives and intentions of the Muslim assailants before the dust had even settled. There wasn’t a need for a thorough investigation, they were guilty immediately because the people holding the guns were Muslim.
But contrast that with the case of Craig Hicks. Again, I don’t know if it was a hate crime, but the handling of the case is quite telling. Take a quick look at CNN’s early report:
“Did their faith play a role in the killing?” Not the ideology of the shooter, but the beliefs of the victims themselves. In other words, when Muslims kill people it is the fault of their religion and when they are the victims it’s still the fault of their religion. To a historian like myself, this is a stark reminder of the ways in which our colonial and imperial past continues to haunt us today. I am often struck by how the very same language used centuries ago still remains part of our script today. In the 19th Century the famed Orientalist Ernest Renan, a man whose ideas and work were eventually used as the intellectual motivation for European colonialism in the Middle East said,”The Muslims are themselves the first victims of Islam.” He argued to save Muslims from the yoke of Islam proudly during his lecture “Islam and Science” at Académie française.
Here’s leading atheist Sam Harris and hero of Craig Hicks talking about people who fail to take a stand against Islam, “As I have pointed out many times before, they fail to empathize with the primary victims of Islam–Muslim women…” Sound familiar?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that Craig Hicks was inspired by Sam Harris–I am not the ignorant sort who blames the actions of an individual or small percentage on a whole group of people. I do not blame Craig Hicks on Sam Harris or America as a whole. I don’t know the true motivations of Craig Hicks. What I do know though, is that in this country our legacy of racism and colonialism continues to echo in the way we talk about Islam.
If the perpetrator is Muslim they are representative of the odd, backwards religion from the orient full of dour bearded-men and oppressed women. When THOSE people commit violence it is because of a wider global threat; because of radical Islam. They are NEVER lone gunmen. But what happens when things don’t fit the script? The three victims who died were observant Muslims who gave back to their communities, who strove to be peaceful and loving, and who were American citizens. Then the narrative quickly finds a way to minimize the assault, to deploy the privilege of White Americans, and to find an excuse for the attack. It never is a wider societal problem; it is never Islamophobia or our comfort with violence towards people of color. And it is ALWAYS a lone gunmen or mental instability. But in the end, whether victim or villain, it is always the Muslim that is the great Other.
This is my greatest frustration with what has happened and the media coverage that has followed. All I want is for once, to toss aside the prejudicial script we’ve been using for over 100 years that devalues the lives of brown people, black people, and anyone who doesn’t fit our little model and instead try something different. Today we are talking about Deah, Yusor and Razan. But how quickly we forgot Alia Ansari who was shot point-blank in front of her child because she was wearing a headscarf, or Seham Jaber who was attacked in her home by a man who also tore up her citizenship papers, or the countless others. If we don’t change the way we look at violence committed by white men against people of color and if we don’t change the way we talk and depict Muslims then we continue to devalue people like Deah, Yusor, and Razan.
But I am not overly optimistic. After all our silver screens and small screens are littered with images of villainous brown people. What do we think happens when we are inundated with the same narrative over and over again? People die.
When brown people are the villains When brown people are the victims