What happened on Tuesday in Chapel Hill was, by any reasonable person’s estimation, a tragedy. Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were brutally shot and killed in their own home. Three innocent, ambitious, bright, caring and well loved lives taken. Their loss is to be mourned because the ending of any human life – in particular the death of innocents with so much to look forward to, in particular when death comes at the hand of another – is to be mourned.
But, because we live in an age of the outrage Olympiad, it is not enough to mark and mourn their deaths. Instead, it is demanded of us that we not restrict our anger and sadness to the loss of life but also agree to the notion that this poor family represent in their martyrdom some deep darkness in the soul of our society.
As news leaked onto the internet that three Muslims had been murdered in their home, all manner of hell broke loose. Narratives rushed to be constructed. This exercise in story-telling is perhaps best summed up by a cartoon by Brazilian artist Carlos Latuf, that began doing the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. In it, three bloodied corpses lie on the ground. Next to them is a cameraman wearing a t-short that bears the legend ‘Mainstream Media’. “3 Young Muslims killed by a loan gunner. Nothing to see here!” He calls out to his colleagues in the world’s press.
And right there, in that cartoon, is the myth that was busy being made even as the victims themselves were barely cold. The racist, western press had chosen to ignore this vile crime. And they had done so because it was Muslim lives lost and a white man who had stolen them. BBC journalist Noreen Khan eloquently summed-up the complaint. “No media outcry? No angry protests? No demands for apologies? No major coverage?” She asked, before adding “If a Muslim had shot down 3 people it would be everywhere.” We have turned our faces away and we have done so – the accusation runs – because we are racists. It is a compelling and serious two-part accusation against our society and our media. But it is also a dangerous and sinister lie.
The Chapel Hill shootings have not been ignored by the Western media. The story ran for much of yesterday on the websites of (among others) CNN, The Times, The New York Times and the BBC. The Independent gave it prominent coverage and was amongst the first to pick up the story. There are approximately 41 murders a day in the US. They do not all receive such attention.
Frenzied speculation about the motives of the monster who is accused of committing this crime – a radical atheist by the name of Craig Stephen Hicks – has run wild on newspaper blogs and twenty four hour news stations. Was it an act of specific anti-Muslim terrorism? Or anti-theist violence? Or was it, as some have speculated, connected to an ongoing dispute between culprit and victims about a parking space? We don’t know. And that is the point.
Because even some who acknowledge that this awful crime has not – in fact – been ‘ignored’ still claim loudly that the press is racist (or, at least, Islamophobic) for not immediately describing Hicks as a terrorist. When attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices and on Jewish families took place in Paris, so this argument goes, the press were quick to use the term ‘terrorist’ to describe the perpetrators. They have been slower to do so in this case, say these critics, and they have been so because they cannot conceive of a white terrorist and brown victims.
This too is nonsense. No-one can have seriously watched the unfolding carnage at Charlie Hebdo’s offices – and later the real time horror at a Jewish deli – and thought there was any doubt that these were crimes motivated by more political differences than anger over a neighborhood parking dispute. Whereas in this case there seems to be real confusion about what has prompted this outrage and it is therefore both reasonable and responsible for the media to exercise some caution over how they describe it.
What’s more, even if it is the case that Barakat and his family were murdered for political reasons; that doesn’t mean that his victims were selected for their Islamic faith, as opposed to simply being targeted for having any faith. When US Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head (not fatally, thank God) by militant anti-theist Jared Lee Loughner his motives were a mix of deranged libertarianism, personal obsession and mental ill health; all knotted together in a ideologically bankrupt philosophy of extreme ‘rationalism’ and a loathing of religion. Who knows what toxic mix churned in Barakat’s killer’s head? But we cannot know yet for sure that his targets were selected for their faith in Allah – and to pretend that we do know is to a disservice to both truth and to the victims themselves.
Shortly before his death, Barakat tweeted ‘It’s so freaking sad to hear people saying we should “kill Jews” or “kill Palestinians”. As if that’s going to solve anything.’ A simple, essential and true sentiment behind which we surely all can rally. But in whipping his death into a chance for grievance mongering and conspiracy theorising – by demanding, even before we know whether it to be even related, that we all see his murder through the prism of ‘Islamophobia’ – the Twitterati are stripping this kind man of his own identity. They are insisting that he, his wife and his sister-in-law be defined their faith alone and are demanding that their victimhood be immediately nationalised – shared by a wider community. In short, they are making this about identity rather than about people and that is a shame.
It strikes me that this family deserve better than to be made martyrs to the campaign to sensationalise the grievances of western Muslims. What’s more, what on earth would be the purpose – other than to further stoke an atmosphere of mutual fear – of the media pretending we know that this family died for another’s anti-Muslim prejudice when, in fact, we have every reason to believe it is more complicated than that? The Chapel Hill murders weren’t ignored and they have not been downplayed due to racism. They have been covered responsibly and sensitively. Picking over the bodies the dead, in service of the politics, is sick. Stirring suspicion and resentment on the basis of supposition is dangerous. So stop doing it.