Western Apologies

by Somayra Ismailjee

10381986_898414603515256_8459148506203364104_nBy now, you may have heard of the Chapel Hill shooting of newlyweds Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salhar and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salhar. Say these names aloud. I won’t detail the event which ended their lives brutally short here. Though underreported, the information is out there.

Islamophobia has many faces. We saw it when millions marched under the banner of “Je suis Charlie” proclaiming support for freedom of speech – in reality, affirming the power of a viciously Islamophobic publication. We see it again now in the three young, promising Muslim lives taken by a white supremacist, a violent anti-theist, on Tuesday.

I refer to the events surrounding Charlie Hebdo because there are more than a few parallels. For one, it is publications like Charlie Hebdo that contribute to the very rhetoric which bred the Chapel Hill shooting. “Freedom of speech” is used to disguise the ongoing structural and prevailing violence preventing Muslims from freedom of religion.

Still, the killing of staff caused a rightful outrage – but let me be clear: those who rallied after the Hebdo shooting were not rallying for the loss of human life. It was not about some common, shared humanity – however romantic an idea that may be. The unwritten rules around publicly mourning death after events like these favour the powerful. Time and time again, Muslim lives are taken by inexcusable and unrelenting violence, to a deafening silence.

Mainstream Western media have been slow to respond to the Chapel Hill tragedy, if at all. When white lives are lost, the whole world weeps – when they’re ours, however, very few even bat an eye. And yet, we do not regularly demand apologies or condemnations. We do not target non-Muslims on the streets, attack them both physically and verbally, degrade and demean them. We have not created a culture of hostility and a habitat of animosity. We have no answer to white supremacy, to a widespread orientalist attitude, to wars both of the pen and the sword. We cannot and do not trample on the rights of those who ‘aren’t like us’. To be Muslim in a Western country is to feel powerless. The West likes to paint itself as the pinnacle of liberty and morality, and to do so, the media fuel a dichotomy; Islam as ‘savage’, Muslims as ‘other’, terror as ‘religious’ and murder as ‘lone wolf’.

Where are the cross-continental candlelight vigils? The front page headlines, global hashtags, the speeches? World leaders uniting? We do not ask for these things, but we observe the ease with which they come for white victims.

Where are the Western apologies? The white, non-Muslim population feels nothing to answer for today, nor will they tomorrow, yet expect irrefutable denouncements from commoners when violence is committed in the name of Islam. But unlike the analysis of “Islamic terror attacks”, wherein Islam and terrorism are conflated in the blink of an eye, most Westerners are reluctant to find any links between ideology and action. A far cry from the Muslim ‘savage’ caricature; this kind of perpetrator is labelled a ‘lone wolf’, often white, male, non-Muslim, and pleading insanity. We are seeing it clear as day in the aftermath of Chapel Hill.

The perpetrator’s wife told reporters her husband believed “everyone is equal, it doesn’t matter what you look like, who you are or what you believe.” His lawyer stated the shooting had “nothing to do with the victims’ religious beliefs but had everything to do with a mundane parking spot dispute” and that “the lack of access to mental health care was the real issue”.

As per the case of Elliot Rodger, a white man who committed a massacre fuelled by misogyny, the actions of Craig Stephen Hicks are dismissed as no more than a facet of mental illness – both painted as violent, isolated outbursts with no link to their respective ideologies. Hicks had previously expressed sentiments against religion and went on to murder three people who were visibly religious; just as Rodgers had openly expressed misogyny, cited reasons deeply sexist for his anger, and murdered people identifiable as women.

ABC have reported “On Facebook, Hicks’ profile picture reads “Atheists for Equality” and he has frequently posted quotes critical of religion. The page showed dozens of anti-religious posts, including one calling himself an “anti-theist” saying he has a “conscientious objection to religion” and others memes denouncing Christianity, Mormonism, and Islam.”

Two of Hicks’ victims were women who wore hijabs. There is no more obvious a target for the aggressive anti-theist in today’s world than a Muslim woman in a headscarf. Muslimah are disproportionately targeted by Islamophobia; symbols of their faith have become a perceived provocation for men like Hicks. Their father, Mohammad Abu-Salha, a psychiatrist, publicly stated that his daughters wore headscarves and that the killings had signs of a hate crime; additionally, that Hicks had ‘picked on’ his daughter and her husband before, with a gun in his belt.

But the term ‘terrorist’ it seems is reserved, almost exclusively, for Muslims. Had this been a Muslim man killing fatally and mercilessly shooting three unarmed young students, the world would be relentless in its coverage.

It seems truly unbelievable, then, that Chapel Hill Police have stated a preliminary investigation suggests the crime was “motivated by an ongoing neighbour dispute over parking”. Eager to preserve the poisonous ‘lone wolf’ excuse, it does not seem likely that major media outlets will paint this event as what it truly was any time soon – a vile and Islamophobic hate crime. After all, it is mainstream Western media largely responsible for the causation.

Attributing hate crimes to mental illness is harmful also to those who are truly affected by it. Portraying men like Hicks and Rodgers as people who have lost touch with the world (when, in actuality, they are epitomising the very views predominant in it), conflates mental illness and violence in the minds of many. Rodgers’ diagnosis of Asperger’s was incorrectly cited as the cause of his actions, bringing unimaginable stigma around the condition. It is time to abolish the ‘lone wolf’ trope and hold white, cisgender, non-Muslim men accountable. In doing so, we must also acknowledge where their ideals have come from – a pervasive, historic and unrelenting culture of oppression, be it Islamophobia or violent misogyny, across multiple aspects of identity.

No amount of articles or protests will bring back Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salhar and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salhar, three beautiful human beings robbed from their friends, families and communities; but the least the West can do now is awaken. Sweeping Islamophobia as the true cause of this crime under the rug is more than disrespectful – it is another act of violence, a denial of dignity, and consent to its continuation.

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Somayra Ismailjee is an Australian-born, South Asian Muslim writer living in Perth. She hopes to pursue an intersection of creative and academic work with an interest in issues of racism, misogyny, classism, queerphobia, Islamophobia and the arts. Her work has appeared in independent left-wing news site New Matilda, Australian human rights blog Right Now, arts and culture magazine Pilerats, among others. Find her on twitter @somayra_

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13 replies

  1. Unfortunately, some people are so much self-centered and are blinded with the reason that “some other from their community did wrong, lets us hold armors and kill innocents of that community”, this is what exactly some people believe, to bring their violence out, that had been hidden from ages, they hold excuse as their support.

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  2. Let me first clarify that I am a Muslim so everyone knows where my bias is. Having said that I think this is going too far: 1- I don’t see a compelling evidence that the killing had anything to do with the victims religion 2- I think the media coverage has been exceptionally well (one reason that I am reading this blog right now) considering that hundreds of homicides happen on a daily basis in the US and none of them gets covered by the media. 3- I agree that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were offensive and distasteful but implying that they had anything to do with this incident or in any way were inciting any kind of violence is preposterous. 4- Terrorism has a definition: it is targeting civilians violently to achieve political goals. I don’t see this definition matches this incident in any way at least based on the information that has been release. If the author has some additional knowledge of the case she should share it with us. 5- The perpetrator has also advocated for the rights of Muslims on his Facebook page on the subject of NYC mosque. It would make the article more honest if the author would also point out to this.

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    • I really feel for the author, and certainly agree the West should be compensating the many war torn countries and peoples pillaged, slaughtered and raped for centuries, and if Charlie Hebdo is to exist, Muslims deserve equal access to publish, debate and deflect the issues raised (that is how free speech is supposed to work.) But there is a dangerous worry of fighting ignorance with ignorance here. Just because some god-awful stupid Western media’s idiotic enough to conflate someone’s religion with completely unrelated actions, doesn’t mean we can just start doing that with everything: i.e, painting all atheist white males as violent Islamaphobes. That is no better than thinking all Muslims are terrorists. People are complex, the narratives and possibilities of this being a hate crime should be explored, but to paint people without evidence makes you no better than the awful right wing Western media – and I think this writer is far better than that!

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  3. Very good article! I agree with most of all you said, how the media ignore these awful killings is very revealing of how little muslim lives matter to them and to the public opinion. What a shitty world.

    Although I have to admit that I disagree with what you said about “Je suis charlie” being an islamophobic statement. First of all, I want to say that I happen to be a french and muslim young man. (hence the many mistakes)

    Let’s put all this in the context which I think is very important.

    On january 5th, 12 human beings were killed at Charlie Hebdo in the worst manner and no one can deny this. Then it continued with more killings as we all know. This is after all this that French people decided to gather as a sign of solidarity to all the people dead during the attacks, included one muslim and a black girl both police officers.

    “Je suis charlie” means I’m against this unspeakable act. As a muslim even more. Every life matters. Whatever what they thought they drew, whatever they did, no one ever said that people doing blasphem deserved death, even less Islam, a religion of love, mercy and peace.

    Moreover, the “Je suis charlie” slogan didn’t appeared after the drawing. If it was, then yes, it would have been clear that people saying this express support for this caricatures. But it is all the opposite that happened. When the first drawings offending muslim people were launched, no one standed with Charlie Hebdo, even french media marginalised the newspaper! French people in general didn’t supported the journal at all !

    “Je suis charlie” isn’t about supporting offense to muslims, it was about saying, “when you killed innocent human beings, you kill me too.”
    which is how I feel also for the Chapel Hill Innocent people who died horribly but didn’t get 0,0000000000000000000000001% of all the coverage they did which is extremely unfair.

    Of course, I can’t denied that they were many people that used it to express all their islamophobia and hatered, I won’t deny either that islamophobic attacks raised crazily since then.

    But saying that this huge crowd gathered in France was islamophobic is crazily simplistic, and as nothing is simple, it’s crazily wrong.

    Thank you for reading,

    All the best !

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  4. Yes the media have ignored this generally and I agree with much of what you say. But I am very anti theist and don’t see why those with faith are supposed to get more respect. I would never kill anyone. However, mental illness does exist in all cultures and is sometimes the cause of these terrible events. What we have seen of this event, shows someone who has apparently picked on the nearest people with whom he had a grievance. Surely that is different from those who pronounce they are on a jihad and aiming to kill those of a different culture in the name of their religion. Both are abhorrent. I know someone who when they are ill, make all sorts of threats under a paranoid delusion, which they would never do normally.
    With the devastation and destruction going on in the world that to be honest is fuelled by religious extremism on the whole, it is enough to make us all mad. And it is time that men stopped abusing and killing women. Ok not all men , but enough to make it statistically significant.

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  5. “We do not target non-Muslims on the streets, attack them both physically and verbally, degrade and demean them. We have not created a culture of hostility and a habitat of animosity. We have no answer to white supremacy, to a widespread orientalist attitude, to wars both of the pen and the sword. We cannot and do not trample on the rights of those who ‘aren’t like us’. To be Muslim in a Western country is to feel powerless.”

    Sorry, but this goes both ways. Ask your average non-Muslim in Pakistan or Afghanistan how powerless they feel. Or your non-Muslim expat living in a country like Saudi Arabia. Yes, Muslims are treated badly in the West, but let’s not pretend it doesn’t happen in the Muslim world as well. What happened in North Carolina is just as disgusting as Christians in Pakistan being killed for violating “Blasphemy Laws”.

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  6. being in the line of journalism, its very disgraceful in terms of not covering these innocents and Chapel Hill shooting, because they were Muslims?. The media will never change till the back-hands of media won’t change( people who direct media for their own interests)

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  7. Excellent! From where I look America has always festered on fear of enimies real or imagined; The Native Americans, the colonial English, the slaves – and therefore Blacks, the Communists, the Russians, Ebola and the Muslims. When one of their own acts in a manner that fits the profile of the “enemy” denial is the first resort & last resort.

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