On Feb 10th, three Muslims were gunned down by Craig Stephen Hicks near the famous University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill campus. Hicks shot them point blank in the head. Based on his Facebook profile, Hicks was an atheist, who had denounced all religions and was apparently fascinated with the works of notable New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Nonetheless, the mainstream media has refused to call the brutal murders a hate crime, suggesting that the incident was no more than a long standing ‘parking dispute.’
Had this been a killing of three white Christian Americans by a Muslim, the reaction would surely have been vastly different. In treating this tragedy as a mere parking dispute, the mainstream media sadly frames Muslims as being uniquely violent.
This double standard should, however, come as no surprise considering the wars currently raging in the Muslim world. In order to sustain the ‘radical Islam’ narrative, it becomes necessary to present the so-called Muslim enemy as an outlier to the Western norm. It also requires his or her faith to be disproportionately trivialized.
Media portrayal of Muslims: a skewed narrative
During the course of the Australian hostage crisis last year carried out by Muslims, a CNN ticker read, ‘Should Muslims Always Denounce Terror?’ An opinion piece in Fox News titled ‘Sydney Hostage Crisis: Australia has lost its innocence’ argued that, ‘Islamist views are incompatible with the liberty enjoyed by Australians and Americans.’
In 2010, right wing leaders—and notably Sarah Palin—expressed outrage at the news that a mosque was to open on the site of the 9/11 attack. The story turned out to be false as the ‘mosque’ in question was to be a Muslim community centre a few blocks away from the place where the heinous twin tower attacks took place.
While a quick fact-check should have cleared the nonsensical claims of Palin and others, the story was a top feature across the mainstream media. From talk about the arrival of Sharia law to rumours of Iranian funding, the 24/7 news cycle—fuelled especially by the right wing outlets like Fox—seemingly convinced a sizable number of Americans that this center was an insult to the victims of 9/11.
The coverage of the more centre leaning channel CNN did Muslims no favors either. In a conversation between leading CNN anchor Don Lemon and interfaith activist Eboo Patel at the height of the controversy, Lemon suggested the protests against the mosque needed to be understood in a specific context:
‘Don’t you think it’s a bit different considering what happened on 9/11? And the people have said there’s a need for it in Lower Manhattan, so that’s why it’s being built there. What about 10, 20 blocks . . . Midtown Manhattan, considering the circumstances behind this? That’s not understandable?’
Patel replied that, ‘In America, we don’t tell people based on their race or religion or ethnicity that they are free in this place, but not in that place...’ Lemon only reasserted that, ‘I understand that, but there’s always context… You understand that this is very heated. Many people lost their loved ones on 9/11.’
In trying to provide ‘context,’ Lemon seems to be giving the impression that the Muslim community, abroad and in the US, was somehow linked to Al-Qaeda terrorists.
Chapel Hill murders: The media distortion continues
As the mainstream media continues to marginalize Muslim voices, American Muslims are finding it extremely difficult to be heard.
In the immediate aftermath of the Chapel Hill killings, the western media’s disregard was on full display. The story only gained traction after prolonged coverage on Twitter. Before inviting a member of the victim’s family, CNN decided to give the Hick’s wife the chance to speak on the issue and shape the immediate narrative. President Obama took two whole days before he spoke on the issue, and then only after numerous protests and vigils across the country and after a condemnation by the Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of Turkey.
The media’s insistence on ‘neutrality’ in the Chapel Hill tragedy is a notion that is less than pronounced when the perpetrators are Muslim. As mentioned earlier, the likes of CNN, FOX and ABC have avoided calling the incident a hate crime, instead running headlines calling the execution-style murders a ‘parking dispute.’ In a show of blatant insensitivity, CBS ran a segment on how to avoid parking conflicts, showing a CBS employee giving a tutorial on how to find a parking spot in a mall without causing a raucous.
The never ending cycle of double standards, humiliation and outright Islamophobia should not, however, be mistaken for a grudge over scripture; rather, it must be understood as a deliberate attempt to demonize Muslims in the context of the ongoing wars in the Muslim world since 2001.
While anti-Muslim sentiment existed prior to 9/11, there has since been an upsurge in the amount of anti-Islam literature and in the number of hate crimes, a phenomenon seemingly encouraged by the ongoing War on Terror.
In the lead up to the Afghanistan war, George W. Bush compared the fight against Al-Qaeda a ‘crusade.’ His decision to invoke the millennial old conflict left a strong impression that this was primarily a religious struggle between the forces of Christ and the followers of Islam.
A noteworthy term popularized over the course of the War on Terror is ‘radical Islam,’ which is used to characterise the likes of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The expression is highly problematic as it implies Islam or some section of Islam allows for extreme violence, which an overwhelming number of Muslim scholars and theologians of all sects outright refute and condemne. Nevertheless, the burden is on Muslims who are somehow held collective responsibility for purging the manufactured extremist ideologies from their ilk.
In using such terms, the media as well as the political establishment continues to parade a narrative focused on religion rather than politics, explaining the emergence of the likes o f ISIS and Al-Qaeda due to Islam rather than the imperialist wars from which they emerged.
A former ISIS hostage Didier Francois released earlier this year said religion was of little to no concern for the group. ‘There was never really discussion about texts or -- it was not a religious discussion. It was a political discussion.’ he said.
‘It was more hammering what they were believing than teaching us about the Quran. Because it has nothing to do with the Quran...We didn't even have the Quran; they didn't want even to give us a Quran.’ Francois added.
Hollywood blockbusters such as ‘American Sniper’ only present more evidence as to how Muslim suffering is often cast aside to legitimize these illegal wars. Chris Kyle, the soldier celebrated in the Clint Eastwood film, had openly written his disdain for Muslims, calling them ‘savages’ and indicated that, if given the chance, he would kill them all. The movie received high praise amongst many, including Michelle Obama.
With the mainstream media feeding off the government’s overtures and disastrous military campaigns, the rhetoric and demonization has left Muslims constantly on the defensive every time a terror attack occurs perpetrated by a Muslim. Unsurprisingly however, the demise of fellow Muslims is not a hot topic of discussion amongst politicians or media figures. This hypocritical exercise is tiresome and alienates American Muslims who only ask that, in sickness or in health, the same standards apply to them as to their fellow citizens.
Usaid Muneeb Siddiqui is a freelance journalist with an interest in South Asian and Middle East politics. He is currently a contributing writer to Muftah and has written for publications including Mondowiess, Religion Dispatches, and Al Jazeera America. He can be reached on twitter @UsaidMuneeb16.