If a Muslim commits an act of violence, the media explodes with loud cries. Journalists fire a full salvo of rhetoric pointing to terrorism. Within minutes, the public sings a chorus of disapproval, intensifying prejudice and perpetuating Islamophobia.
But the atmosphere was reconstructed when the roles reversed on Feb. 10 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Gun-toting Atheist Craig Hicks murdered three bright, full-of-potential Muslim students: Deah Barakat, 23; Yusor Mohammad, 21; and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.
The media, however, reduced the event to mere whisperings with calculated lingo set to avoid the term “terrorism” at all costs. According to the media, Hicks is a “suspect,” an “alleged killer,” even a “man” — but never a terrorist.
The media’s initial, haphazard reports told a vague story of a disturbed man that was angry about parking space disputes, yet it neglected to bring to the public’s attention the reality of hate crimes. The victim’s father even mentioned that on several occasions, his daughter felt as though Hicks hated her for who she was: A Muslim-American wearing hijab.
The lack of reporting on this aspect of the story is a clear manifestation of the culture of intolerance and discrimination that plagues our mainstream media.
Unlike coverage on most instances of terrorism, reports on Hicks’s malicious attack kept his actions separated entirely from his anti-theism beliefs. Not a single report in the initial aftermath indicated that his crime reflected broader ideologies.
But what if Hicks had a beard? What if he prayed five times a day and attended community meetings at a local mosque?
Would the media still present this as the case of an aggrieved, mentally unstable man upset over a parking situation? Or would Hicks suddenly be labeled as a fanatical, stone-hearted terrorist with religious motivations?
The answer is the latter.
If Hicks was Muslim, we wouldn’t be sitting around waiting for the media to deem this as terrorism. The media would have propagated that T-word at a lightning pace, reaching the headlines of every breaking news story on the matter.
Yet sans beard and Islamic creed, Hicks should still be considered a terrorist. He was motivated by bigotry when he partook in a violent act that was undoubtedly tinted with discrimination. But you won’t be hearing that. If past coverage is any indication, it is safe to assume that the media’s flawed rhetoric will instead hint at mental instability as the cause of Hicks’s attack.
Once again, society has been forced to believe that terrorism has one specific religion and is only to be uttered exclusively within the contexts of Islam. This belief is destructive to the potential of a tolerant society that truly acknowledges that all lives matter.
As anti-Muslim hate crimes are still five times more common today than before 2001, it is imperative that the media work without prejudice to shift the national narrative by adopting a discourse that promotes open-mindedness.
Deah, Yusor and Razan are our three winners: bright-eyed young students and munificent humanitarians. They had their whole lives ahead of them, but they were martyred by a senseless act of terrorism. To call it anything else, especially a parking dispute, is an insult to their legacy, to Muslim communities across the world and to society at large.