Chapel Hill Victims and the ‘good’ Muslim subtext

Much of my ‘twittersphere’ was full of comment today regarding the lack of coverage in US/Western media of the murder of three young people in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The general gist of these arguments was that if this crime had been committed by a Muslim and had the victims been non-Muslim then this would be all over the media and would be described as an act of ‘terrorism’. Anticipating this to be pretty much accurate I started going through online news to see what (if anything) was being reported on this crime. Sure enough there wasn’t much, and certainly nothing compared to what there would have been had it been the aforementioned hypothetical ‘reverse’ scenario that had occurred.

When, however, I did find this story in a prominent position in a major news site the article left me almost even more depressed. The Independent (UK) online write-up that was a headline story seemed so much at pains to emphasise just how ‘integrated’ and ‘normal’ these young Muslims were in US society. Sure, these adjectives weren’t explicitly used but the subtext to most of the piece was that these were liberal or ‘moderate’ Muslims who were fans of American Football, said sensible things in social media about Israel/Palestine, and blogged about photography and art. Ok, you ask, why would I take issue with this attempt to humanize the victims of this brutal crime? To answer that let’s go back to our ‘reverse’ hypothetical scenario where the victims are non-Muslims. In that write up I think that it is much less likely that you would hear about the victims’ favourite sports, views on Middle Eastern politics, or blogging preferences (at least not in the breaking of the story). Why not? Because in that story the victims are already ‘normal’ or understandable and relatable to the intended audience – no effort of humanization is required to make those victims objects of empathy. In this Chapel Hill reality, however, that empathy from an audience is not taken for granted and must be constructed by statements to the effect that these victims were not ‘extremists’ and were ‘normal’ young people. To a degree I can understand the logic behind this framing of the story by this ‘liberal’ newspaper: given the amount of Islamaphobia inherent in so much mainstream media coverage of religious violence or issues of multiculturalism etc. it is therefore important to produce alternative narratives which portray Muslims as they are in reality, i.e. simply as ‘normal’ people, living ‘normal’ lives. The problem, however, comes when you question the subtext to this emphasis on ‘normality’ and its implications: if, for example, the victims of this crime were bearded Salafis who condemned Zionism in social media, if the women, for example, wore the full Niqab and did not blog about art and photography, then would this crime be any less heinous? I doubt anyone at the Independent would argue or even believe that, but the entire presentation of the victims in this piece smacks of what Mahmood Mamdani critiques in his notion of ‘Good Muslim’/’bad Muslim’ in portrayals of Islam. Mamdani’s argument – forgive my paraphrasing – is that Muslim identity (‘Good’/’Bad’) becomes characterised in relation not to religious adherence but rather in how compatible it can be with euro-centric points of reference of political culture or, by extension, foreign policy and imperialism. If an audience needs to be reminded (with such little subtlety) that empathy is required in this case for Muslim victims (who are presented as ‘Good’ in their level of cultural integration, education and – apparent or implied – social liberalism) then what hope is there for empathy or understanding of victims of political violence (whether by US drone-strike, or IS crucifixion) in the rest of the Muslim world?

On a final note, these young people were victims of a brutal crime, a crime that many people are keen to label now as ‘terrorism’, out of a similar urge to subvert widespread Islamophobic narratives which hold Muslims to be only the perpetrators and never the victims of terrorist acts. Again, I sympathise with that intent: of course such narratives are prevalent (and pernicious) and the very term ‘terrorism’ is now so laden with pejoratives and biases to have lost all meaning for anyone who aspires to a serious understanding of political violence around the world. But in the same way that one would be wrong to immediately label any act of violence committed by an adherent to the Islamic faith an ‘act of terrorism’, lets also not jump the gun on this case before understanding the nature, organisation and motivation behind this use of violence. If it turns out that this crime was an act of violence orchestrated to promote fear towards some specific political agenda then it is an act of ‘terrorism’. If not then it isn’t. Let’s not automatically counter the misuse of vocabularies of violence with more misuse because that doesn’t exactly help make our understanding of the polarisations and brutalities of the world any clearer.

Image: Tehran 2007, @petechonka


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