In the wake of Chapel Hill, forgetting the “American” in Muslim-American

February 19, 2015

Imagine if a Muslim man killed three American students: the country would be in outrage, and he would immediately be labeled a terrorist. However, when white man kills three American students, he is simply labeled a frustrated neighbor who got a little carried away after a municipal argument.

On Feb. 10, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 46 year old Craig Stephen Hicks murdered Deah Barakat, age 23, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, age 21, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, who was just 19. All three victims attended North Carolina State University in nearby Raleigh. Killed instantly with a bullet in each head, the deaths have been chalked up to a long-standing parking dispute between the victims and Hicks. The police have been exceedingly careful to avoid using the term “hate crime” when discussing the horrific deaths.

Deah, Yusor, and Razan were all born and raised in America. Deah was in his second year at the UNC School of Dentistry, and his wife, Yusor, had also been accepted into the school for the upcoming fall semester. Her little sister, Razan, was a sophomore in NC State’s undergraduate program.

The media, in addition to the police, had an undeniably muted response to the tragedy. Though mainstream outlets were quick pick on the possibility of a hate crime, there has rarely been any discussion about the anti-Muslim biases that clearly have a dominant presence in mainstream American media, and how that clearly affects the response from the American public about the event. Had the victims been of a background that embodies the stereotypical image of an American, the response from the media and the public would have likely been magnified. What the media has failed to recognize is that Americans—not Muslims in the far-off Middle East—have been killed.

The evidence is in the news headlines. The day after the shooting, Fox released an article with the headline “North Carolina man charged in the #ChapelHillShooting death of 3 Muslim students,” neglecting to mention that the students were American, born and bred. Although they were indeed Muslim, identifying them solely as Muslim makes it harder for readers who do not share the same background to sympathize with the situation. Fox also released another questionable headline the same day, stating, “Parking Dispute, Not Bias, Triggered Triple Murder, Say NC Police”. It’s impossible to rule out the possibility of the shooting being a hate crime with the first 24 hours; for Fox to claim so is downright irresponsible, and downplays the severity of the forces at play in this crime.

However, because they do not “look” American, their lives do not seem to be as important as Joe Sixpack, with his blonde hair and blue eyes. Why are other Muslim-Americans and minority populations the main individuals grieving the event? Why doesn’t America feel like it has lost three citizens?

This is an issue that resonates deeply with me. After 9/11, my family suffered from reprisal attacks carried out by ordinary American citizens. I have had family members who have been brutally bullied, threatened, and even murdered because they didn’t look quintessentially American. Directly following 9/11, my cousin, who wore a patka, a traditional head covering, was constantly bullied, beaten up, and scrutinized by his classmates. He remembers his patka being snatched off his head in anger nearly everyday.

My family, like the victims at Chapel Hill, do not fit an image that evokes sympathy in the hearts of other Americans. When I am asked what country I feel most attached to, I instantly answer “America.” I grew up watching the same television shows, going to same sporting events, and facing the same issues as any other American teenager. However, myself, along with others who look like Deah, Yusor, and Razan are not accepted as American. This, I think, could be largely due to the fact that Americans unfairly relate Muslims to the label “terrorist.”

Islamophobia is a real and relevant issue in this country. If it is not an issue, as some claim, Hicks’ actions would not need to be justified as an overreaction to something as unimportant as an argument over parking. He would be called a terrorist, because he endangered American lives. Further, if it was not a hate crime why are the victims countlessly referred to as “Muslims” in the media—why not just “Americans”? Why is their identity based solely off their religion? I just hope it doesn’t take any more American lives to change this conversation.


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