By 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_
- Hate (mediadiversified.org)
- “Hatred breeds hatred”: Charlie Hebdo, marginalisation and terrorism (mediadiversified.org)
- The Symbolic Use of Women (mediadiversified.org)
- Why I won’t be wearing the ‘Poppy Hijab’ (mediadiversified.org)