How the ‘Muslim Menace’ Steals Muslim Lives
On February 11, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha, three Muslim students living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, were summarily executed by 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks, who reportedly “turned himself in to the Chatham County Sheriff's Office in Pittsboro following the shooting.” All three victims were shot in the head. After searching through public records and Hicks’ facebook page, it was quickly recognizable that he is feverishly anti-religious, racist, as well as militantly nationalistic.
On January 20, a photograph was posted on Craig Hicks’ timeline of a gun, a .38 revolver, and based on his own adamant love of firearms it may not be the only weapon in his possession. Hicks was also an admirer of Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and Richard Dawkins — the Islamophobic trifecta. Dawkins, who had been sharing anti-Muslim content on his Twitter page not long after the shooting took place, gave a meek condemnation of the attack. Unsurprisingly, there are no parallels — nor should there be — to the assumed collective guilt of Muslim communities in the aftermath of similar violence. As such, the shooter was portrayed as an irrational, lone killer who does not represent atheists. However, the shooter — who was transparent in his contempt for religion and religious people — was undoubtedly inspired by the Islamophobic rhetoric espoused by radical anti-theists communities represented by Dawkins, among others.
“I give your religion as much respect as your religion gives me. There’s nothing complicated about it, and I have every right to insult a religion that goes out of its way to insult, to judge, and to condemn me as an inadequate human being - which your religion does with self-righteous gusto. When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I. But given that it doesn’t, and given the enormous harm that your religion has done in this world, I’d say that I have not only a right, but a duty, to insult it, as does every rational, thinking person on this planet. Because the moment that your religion claims any kind of jurisdiction over my experience, you insult me on a level that you can’t even begin to comprehend. Even if your beliefs had substance, the arrogance of that would be insult enough. But the fact that they have no substance, and are merely a transparent raft of delusions and lies, magnifies the insult enormously.”
“Some call me a gun toting Liberal, others call me an open-minded Conservative. I don't fall into any category, as I do not follow any decision blindly for a group,” reads his political affiliation. For hours nothing was mentioned in national headlines regarding Hicks or the shooting and many were left culling information from Twitter, where friends were sharing stories and asking for prayers on behalf of the devastated family under the hashtag #ChapelHillShootings. The first thread of mainstream coverage was from The Independent, a British news outlet, and the outrage online at the lack of media attention was palpable. At the time of publication, only a few US media outlets had begun to vaguely discuss the killings, and when we compare this to how other crimes are broadcasted, especially those involving American students, one cannot help but notice the blatant disregard for Muslim life, and be reminded of the racialization of Islam and the intellectualization of anti-Muslim animus.
South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a nonprofit organization which is “the only national, staffed South Asian organization that advocates around issues affecting South Asian communities through a social justice framework,” released “Under Suspicion, Under Attack,” a 2014 report on “an increasingly hostile climate in the United States, characterized by frequent hate violence and rising xenophobic political rhetoric in the national political debate… targeting South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities.” The report’s key findings reflect a well-established, burgeoning climate of hostility aimed directly towards marginalized communities, revealing that over 80 percent of the instances of hate violence documented were directly motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.
Hawkish Islamophobic policies and depictions of Muslims steeped in iconographic bigotry reinforce each other, and train Western viewers to focus on the allegorical Muslim menace among them. Islamophobia rebuffs the very existence of Muslim victimhood. In order for Islamophobia to flourish, it must deny victims their long-abhorred identities in order to preserve the dominant ideological campaign against Muslims. The nefarious Muslim archetype is a well-habituated remnant in film, television and political spaces. The Muslim is inept, blood-thirsty and unscrupulous in an overwhelming number of films; an abusive and murderous infiltrator that should be spied upon, and a one-dimensional cartoon villain that must be wiped out by way of drone and military occupation. These orientalist portrayals work to justify the day-to-day xenophobia and violence many continue to face; Muslims remain sword-dancing peddlers in Agrabah, not only to those in Hollywood but to politicians who shape much of the world’s foreign policy.
In “Racialization of Minoritized Religious Identity,” Jaideep Singh, cofounder of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), writes that "Muslims have become among the most demonized members of American polity":
"The notion of the “Muslim terrorist” is one powerfully etched on the minds of most Americans. The blatant racism behind this characterization, which goes unquestioned even by the intelligentsia in American society, can be gleaned from the complete dearth of depictions of the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing, abortion clinic bombers, and various white militia groups, as “Christian terrorists.” When such acts are perpetrated by white Americans, the specificity of their religious affiliation is neither a matter of newsworthiness nor comment. The utilization of the term “terrorist” enables the facile dehumanization of the targets of that pejorative by the press and the public."
Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha were students who lived much of their days working selflessly to provide for others. Barakat, 23, was one of the organizers behind Syrian Dental Relief, a fundraiser which aimed to provide Syrian refugees in Turkey with dental care; his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, had been dancing with her father at her wedding nearly two months ago and would have been attending North Carolina’s school of dentistry in the fall; and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19, was a student at North Carolina State University. The family has created a page in their memory called Our Three Winners where they are calling on people to “fill [the] page with the beautiful ways these three people have touched your lives.” Over 25,000 have already liked the page and words of support continue to pour in for the family. Deah’s fundraiser, which had not met its monetary objective at the time of his death, has not only reached its goal but donations have now doubled, with many supporters wanting to see his project fulfilled.
As the current US administration continues and expands its strategies to counter "violent extremism," which include spying on, targeting and harassing Muslim-American and Arab-American communities across the United States, the execution of these three young students raises, once again, the essential question of when extremists such as Craig Stephen Hicks will start getting viewed as such by the media, the state and society at large. And if the radicalization of anti-theists, Islamophobes and xenophobes will ever start getting recognized as a security threat that requires programs and policies to prevent the deadly violence it produces.
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