This is what an American Muslim looks like, says the man on CNN. The man is talking about his friend Deah Shaddy Barakat, who was gunned down along with his wife of one month, Yusor, and her sister Razan on Tuesday. The friend is holding up a photograph of Barakat imitating the basketball pose of his favourite athlete. I guess the message he is trying to transmit is that Barakat, despite his odd-sounding name, despite his headscarf-wearing wife, was as American as the next sport-loving, polo-t-shirt wearing all American guy.
“Couldn’t be more American” is a phrase I will hear very often as coverage of the apparent hate crime unfolds. As if being a devout Muslim and a believing American is such an incongruous pairing that it somehow needs to be explained.
At a prayer vigil for the three slain Muslims amidst the recitation of Quranic verses, I watch the father of the slain daughters bend over in grief. It is too much to know that your daughters and son-in-law, public-spirited high achievers who regularly volunteered in their area of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, have been shot simply, you believe, for the way they looked.
The wife of the accused, Craig Stephen Hicks, says it was not a hate crime. The United States attorney for the region describes the killing as an ‘isolated incident’ over a parking dispute. But the family of the slain is not convinced. The accused had, gun visible on his belt, twice previously confronted the couple over their appearance, says the father. If this was just a parking dispute, how does the police explain why the three were shot in the head, inside their apartment?
Muslims in America, even those who love basketball, even those who volunteer, even those who are ace students, are under siege. Last month, Duke University cancelled plans to broadcast Friday’s call to prayer, citing security concerns. News outlets scrambled to cover the tragedy, amidst the emergence of the hashtag #muslimlivesmatter and allegations that the crime was not being given the prominence it deserved because the victims were Muslim. “This would have been covered differently if the roles were reversed,” said Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The killings also come at a time when the US government has just confirmed the death of aid worker Kayla Mueller, who had been held hostage by ISIS since 2013.
There is no connection between the two slayings, but the killing of American hostages by ISIS feeds into the increasingly narrow and homogenised narrative of an estimated 2.75 million American Muslims.
In fact, American Muslims are a remarkably diverse group, as a 2011 Pew Research report finds: 30% are white, 23% black and 21% Asians. Some 63% are first-generation immigrants, the rest are born in America. Sixty-nine per cent said religion was very important to them (70% American Christians say the same).
For most American Muslims, discrimination is a reality of their lives with 43% reporting discrimination in the last one year alone. The discrimination comes not just from ignorant red-necks but from those in positions of influence and leadership. Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, recently spoke on radio about his fears of sharia ‘colonisation’ and the ‘invasion’ of America by Muslims. In Wisconsin last year, Huffington Post reports, a city alderman responded to a Muslim citizen’s query about public transport by asking her to first condemn radical Islam, the sharia and Hamas.
“There is no way to consider this case without considering Islamophobia as a factor,” says Lara Deeb, an anthropology professor with a specialisation in middle-eastern studies at Scripps College. “The whole idea that being American and being Muslim somehow can’t be reconciled is part of that narrative.”
In a television studio, the camera zooms into the photograph of Barakat striking a basketball pose. This is what an American Muslim looks like, repeats his friend. The fact that audiences need to be told is perhaps as tragic as his death itself.
(The views expressed by the author are personal.)