The news that three young people – Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha – were killed Tuesday near University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is finally making its way into the mainstream press following social media outcry over an initial silence on the evening news and in local newspapers.
The media’s slow response to this tragic loss – something that would otherwise be all over the 24-hour news cycle – is a painful reminder of how racism and Islamophobia distort reporting on crimes like these. This wasn’t a favored story because the victims were Muslim, and because their alleged killer is a white man.
Most sources that have reported on the Chapel Hill Shooting, as it’s come to be called, make mention of a parking dispute as a potential cause for the killings. Some highlight this more than others, a Fox Nation post going as far as to say in the headline that “Parking dispute, not bias, triggered triple murder.”
However factual the parking dispute may be, how does it come to pass that neighbors disagreeing over parking turns into an execution-style murder spree? Police have reported that all three were shot in the head, an act that undermines potential arguments of a heated fight. And according to some reports, gunshots may have numbered up to ten.
In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, the lack of immediate reporting and uproar over the Chapel Hill Shooting shows a clear inequity in the treatment of tragedies by major news outlets and public sentiment. Many feel that cultural Islamophobia is responsible for this, and it’s not hard to see why. When white people were killed by Muslim attackers, it immediately became one of the most discussed and visible stories, sparked popular social media campaigns, and inspired a march that included world leaders as its guests. As for the Chapel Hill Shooting, mostly smaller news sites are taking on the reporting and the social media campaigning began mostly within Muslim communities.
It is worthwhile to note that sisters Yusor and Razan were both wearers of hijab – meaning that they were visibly Muslim. Saadia Faruqi writes in her stirring Tikkun Daily piece “If a Muslim Dies in the Forest Does Anybody Hear?” about how she “feels scared leaving the house because my hijab may make me a target of rude behavior, profanity, and now apparently even a gun.”
The Chapel Hill shooting adds to a growing list of Islamophobic hate crimes coming “on the heels of recent anti-Muslim attacks in Europe carried out in apparent response to the January murders (committed by Muslims) of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris,” as Mohamad Elmasry noted in his op-ed on Al-Jazeera.
But why is this happening? The very language around these events may be responsible for their propensity. Elmasry, a professor at the University of North Alabama, writes, “In much of the western news discourse, the implication always seems clear; western societies should be suspicious of Muslims – all Muslims.” So rarely are these hate crimes brought to wide attention or harshly criticized. White people are not being called to apologize for their communities, as Muslims so often are.
In fact, if roles had been reversed, a Muslim killer would have been labeled a terrorist and the attack would have immediately become a high-profile news event. Any incidence of a person who happens to be Muslim committing a crime becomes terrorism, whereas when whites kill people of a different religious or ethnic group, it never gets that label. In his piece, Elmasry comments on this tendency:
When Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims are killed by Muslims, Islam is identified as playing a direct role. When Muslims are killed by Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims, however, the religious identity of the violent perpetrators is downplayed or ignored.
A Muslim blogger, Safia noted this double standard as well in her reaction to the Chapel Hill Shooting:
[I feel] anger that even if we were to scream our denouncement of terrorists and acts of terrorism at the top of our lungs, nobody wants to listen. Disappointment that our society has reached such a low point where Muslims and Islam can only be discussed in the media if it’s with a negative connotation and in light of any violence instigated by a “Muslim.”
This association of Islam with violence perpetuates even though a study has shown that Muslim Americans are the least likely to support any justification for violence. Yet this vilification of Muslims continue, as has the increase in hate crimes since 9/11 and, though a full survey has yet to be released, even since the Charlie Hebdo attack. Mariam Sleiman, another Muslim blogger, commented on this split between Muslims as a people and the religion of Islam in reaction to the killing of Barakat and the Abu-Salha sisters:
I’ve felt crazy for being aware of an anti-Muslim tension that colors not just me walking into Safeway with a hijab, but at work, this tension of “it’s not Muslims, it’s Islam we disagree with.” This smug distinction is an attack on Muslims, and it’s pervasive and it allows for things like this to happen.
Sleiman goes on to say:
If this crazy white guy had been in a parking dispute with three Muslims, two of whom are Muslim women who wear hijab, hate is them having to prove to him that they’re human, and if he had believed they’re human, he maybewouldn’t have shot each of them in the head over a parking spot. It’s a hate crime, but it won’t be labeled that way. It’s a hate crime in that [it] speaks to a structural ideology that we’ve accepted as norm, that structural ideology ishateful. The way we talk about Muslims and Islam is hateful.
Many of the pieces coming out about the Chapel Hill Shooting discuss the lives of the tragically diseased – beautiful lives filled with caring for others. But what we’re not seeing is the same rhetoric around Craig Hicks, the killer, that would fall on a Muslim attacker. All signs suggest that Hicks’s actions were fueled by his anti-religious sentiments. So by the definition used elsewhere, Hicks is a terrorist.
To honor the lives of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha, and in the spirit of #MuslimLivesMatter, we need to be talking about this, and we need to be talking about the rampant Islamophobia in Western culture. Many hope to bring #ChapelHillShooting to the same visibility as #JeSuisCharlie. Friends and family of the deceased have created a Facebook page to celebrate the lives of the three young people killed in this hateful attack. Let’s not forget these names and let’s make sure that bias doesn’t cloud the media or the justice system as this case unfolds.
Jacob Klein, a former print editorial intern at Tikkun magazine, is a freelance writer who lives in Oakland, CA, and graduated from UCLA.