By: Ismael Catovic
Last Wednesday, I awoke to the tragic news of the murder of three college-age Muslim Americans in Chapel Hill, N.C.. Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, were murdered execution-style in their condominium two miles from the UNC campus. One week later, I’m finding it difficult to convince myself that the reason for the brutal murders was — as reported by several news outlets — a dispute about parking spaces with their neighbor and killer, 46-year-old Craig Hicks. Currently, a federal investigation is underway, along with an ongoing investigation by the Chapel Hill Police Department, to determine the true motive of the killings many believe was a hate crime.
I saw the news on Al Jazeera on Wednesday morning, but it was only when I attended a vigil that afternoon honoring the victims did I realize that so many students on campus had not heard about the case. Most students who did know had learned about the shootings through social media. Specifically, the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter was trending on twitter with over 100,000 tweets on Wednesday, a reference to the perceived lack of coverage in the mainstream media. In the late afternoon and evening, mainstream news stations began to air the story more regularly.
In the past week, Deah Barakat’s older sister Suzanne Barakat has appeared in many interviews advocating for her family and community and honoring the legacy of her loved ones by reminding us all about the dangers of bigotry and hatred. She referenced a tweet made last Tuesday by California assemblywoman Melissa Melendez that used the hashtag #standupagainstIslam. While councilwoman Melendez later explained that the tweet was not directed at “peaceful Muslims”, the message conveyed by the tweet was clear and disturbing. The equating of Islam and its followers, Muslims, with ISIS or other extremist groups is troubling and needs to end. Muslims across the world have condemned all manifestations of extremism and explained that these radical displays are entirely un-Islamic, yet many still see Islam, rather than extremism, as the enemy that needs to be stopped. This type of hateful rhetoric is frightening because it creates a hostile environment which can lead to alienation, fear, distrust, discrimination, and even death.
Part of the feeling of distrust comes from a perceived double standard — which columnist for The Daily Princetonian Zeena Mubarak mentioned in her column — in the rhetoric used by the mainstream media when referring to Muslims. In one interview with CNN, Suzanne says to this effect, “Had roles been reversed and the man was Muslim, was of Arab descent, was of South-Asian descent, this would have immediately been labeled an act of terror. I haven’t heard anyone use the term terrorist here … why the double standard?” She goes on to describe how her family, their lives, and their local, national and international community were terrorized by Hicks’s actions. Her statements reflect what I believe to be the sentiments of a significant segment of the Muslim American population. Are her claims justified? Is there a double standard when it comes to Muslims being portrayed in the media, and if so, what is its purpose?
I do not believe that the answers to these questions will be completely definitive, generally applicable, or all-encompassing. Although I do not have detailed quantitative information cataloging the media coverage of events concerning Muslims, I do believe that there is a consistent inflation of violent acts of Muslims and a downplaying of similar actions by those of different or of no faith in the media. This can be seen by the way the term terrorist/terrorism is used when referencing certain events. Take the foiled Valentine’s Day attack in Canada last week. To start, how often did you hear of it or see it in the news? Beyond the frequency and placement of the story in the media, the way that it was described is also noteworthy. The Canadian Justice Minister said, “The attack does not appear to have been culturally motivated, therefore not linked to terrorism.” Although Lindsay Kantha Souvannarath and Randall Steven Shepherd plotted to kill massive amounts of people at the Halifax shopping center, their actions were not considered acts of terror because there was no alleged cultural motivation. The writing on the wall is clear: although Lindsay and Randall plotted to kill many random innocent people, they were not Muslim, so this was not an act of terror.
It is because of stories like this one that many Muslim Americans feel that a double standard and subpar recognition by the mainstream media is too common regarding news stories that involve Muslims. One of the more disturbing news segments I witnessed about the shootings aired on CBS’s “Inside Edition” which used the murder of the three innocent Americans to segue into a segment called “Breaking the Code” about tips to ease the “frustrating” process of finding a parking spot, a reference to the alleged motive of the murderer. The insensitivity displayed by the segment was truly disheartening — it was as though CBS was making light of the murders of three young Americans and validating the actions of the murderer.
Despite the media coverage, outpouring support from tens of thousands of Americans gives hope that unity, trust, and community in spite of diversity are achievable. In fact, this reality exhibited by millions of Americans daily is exactly what Yusor cherished about her home country. “Growing up in America has been such a blessing … It doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions — but here, we’re all one.” Rest in Peace Deah, Yusor, and Razan. You will be missed.
Ismael Catovic is a chemical and biological engineering major from Belle Mead, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.