OPINION: Why Muslim Lives Don’t Matter: Before, and Beyond, the Chapel Hill Shooting

By Khaled A. Beydoun
Assistant Professor of Law, Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law

Irrespective of what rallying cries, signs, or adapted hashtags proclaim – Muslim lives in America don’t matter. The aftermath of the murder of the three Muslim American students in Chapel Hill, and the broader context that spurred it, reconfirms this brutal truth.

The three victims – Deah Barakah (23), his wife Yusor Abu-Salha (21), and her sister Razan Abu-Salha (19), were killed at approximately 5:11pm on Tuesday. The identity of the killer, Craig Stephen Hicks (46), was revealed roughly seven hours later.

Despite the release of these facts, and probative evidence that the executions were likely a hate crime, national media outlets remained silent. History affirms that a reversal of racial and religious identities – an Arab and Muslim culprit and White victims – would have spurred immediate media attention, on a national and global scale. However, given that Barakah and the Abu-Salha sisters were Arab and Muslim, the media lagged to cover the story.

In addition to media devaluation of Muslim lives, state-sponsored government policies targeting Muslim-Americans affirm the conflation of Muslim identity with terrorist threat. Institutional policy, in the form of state surveillance, profiling and counter-radicalizations programming, tie Muslim identity to suspicion and subversion, which emboldens the hate-fueled violence inflicted by private citizens, like Hicks.

Between media misrepresentation and neglect, and systematic state surveillance and suppression of Muslims, the facts in America lead to the undeniable conclusion that Muslim lives don’t matter.

Media Rushes to Cover Muslim Villains – Not Victims

It is perhaps fantasy to expect the same outlets that repeatedly misrepresent Muslims to pivot swiftly and rush to cover their victimhood. The Charlie Hebdo attack in early January, and the string of crises involving Muslim culprits before it, affirms the assessment that “Muslim lives are only newsworthy when they are behind a gun. Not in front of it.”

However, the “three victims were American citizens” sympathizers cried. Or, “Upward-bound students with bright futures, and pristine records.” Two of them, Deah and Yusor, were newlyweds, only four weeks separated from their wedding. A life together, with kids and a white picket fence, was in their horizon.

Neither citizenship nor conventional measures of American achievements insulated the victims from hate. They were Muslims. That marker mattered most. Muslim identity trumped, and very likely for Hicks, eclipsed the three victim’s American-ness. Embedded tropes of Muslims as violent and unruly, inassimilable and subversive, informed how Hicks – and much of America – interprets Muslim bodies.

Their religion mattered most for American media outlets as well, who lagged to cover the story. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC finally released stories of the murders Wednesday morning. More than twelve hours after the three young adults’ lives were taken.

Leaving Muslims to wonder: if the victims were White and non-Muslims, and the culprit Muslim, would mainstream media outlets be so slow to respond and report?

No. Muslim lives only matter when they’re villains. Not victims. This is reaffirmed by news story after news story, and distorted accounts that tab “parking disputes” instead of hate as the primary motives of murder.

When State Policy Drives Micro-Violence

State-run programming targeting Muslims marks members of that demographic as presumptively suspicious. NSA surveillance and counter-extremism programming, PATRIOT and Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) strategies, are shaped within government walls. But these policies also shape stereotypes and spur violence far beyond them.

This comprehensive programming, which is both synchronized and expanding, is built upon age-old perceptions of Muslims as “enemy combatants,” “national security risks,” and “inassimilable.

Past laws that restricted the naturalization of Muslims were built upon facially racist and Orientalist tropes. However, state policies that profile and persecute today are still based on these very baselines.

In addition to enabling discriminatory state tactics, anti-Muslim laws and programming sanction widely-held stereotypes of Muslims as violent and unruly, threatening and anti-American. By endorsing these stereotypes, this network of anti-Muslim laws and programming embolden private citizens, like Hicks, to take justice into their own hands.

It would be a misnomer to single out anti-Muslim laws and policies as spurring Islamophobic and anti-Arab culture. Rather, it pronounces this already existing psychosis, which is magnified by slanted news coverage and cinematic misrepresentations, illustrated vividly in films such as American Sniper.

However, these laws and programs are not the products of a Hollywood studio. Nor are they delivered by a CNN or Fox News anchor. They are shaped and enacted by statesman within the hollowed halls of government. Affixing per se vilification of Muslim Americans with the state seal of approval that stirs Islamophobia on the ground, and spurs unspeakable violence atop it.

From the vantage point of the state, Muslim lives matter when they are subjects of surveillance, or targets of counter-extremism. Not direct, or indirect, victims of these policies.

Taking On Hate

Media lags and state laws vividly reveal that Muslim lives don’t matter. In addition, claims that anti-Muslim bigotry in America is relatively minor, are emerging. However, the “Islamophobia is overstated” chorus is eerily similar to the “racism is exaggerated” argument.

Both positions focus almost exclusively on blatant hate, instead of (equally nefarious) latent discrimination carried forth by law, policy, and civil society actors. However, if racism, Orientalism, and Islamophobia are anything – they are resilient. Fluidly mutating and molding in line with prevailing norms and law, sensibilities and speak.

Realities on the ground, and claims minimizing the ferocity of Islamophobia, compel Muslim-Americans to take action.

The Campaign to TAKE ON HATE, led by the National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC), a project of ACCESS, has been working with communities across the country to organize prayer vigils, lead educational workshops, and organize within the very communities where Arab and Muslim-Americans are at greatest risk. From California to New York, Michigan to Florida, citizens are coming together with their local communities to not only mourn the lives tragically lost yesterday, but to coordinate plans to counter government profiling, private discrimination and violence, and their nefarious intersection.

If halls of American power echo, time and again, that Muslim lives don’t matter, the strongest rebuttal must come from Muslim-Americans themselves. A rebuttal that goes beyond rallying cries, signs and hashtags. And proclaimed through sustained action, and en masse mobilization against halls of power that systematically strip Muslim lives of value.

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