I recently helped organize a panel discussion at Indiana University about news media coverage and framing of Islam and Muslims. Our featured speaker was my friend Arsalan Iftikhar. You may know Arsalan as the Muslim American asked, live on air, whether he supported ISIS by CNN's Don Lemon.
The question proving the need for our panel discussion.
About 142 people, a combination of students, academics, and Bloomington community members, filled the room.
It was a great conversation. I'm proud we were about to pull it off. You can read about it on The Media Schools' website.
Here's a portion of my contribution to the discussion.
Pennington said that young Muslims on Tumblr are frustrated because, despite the fact many of them were born in the country in which they reside and they speak the native language, they feel excluded.
I woke up this morning and saw a story a friend had posted on Facebook. With it was this photo and I thought, "What a beautiful family."
And then I read the headline.
A little after 5 yesterday afternoon a 46-year-old man walked into the home where these three young people -- 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha -- lived and shot and killed them.
Shooter Craig Stephens Hicks is an avowed atheist whose Facebook page is full of condemnation of all religion.
I don't think it was an accident Hicks chose a Muslim family to attack. Neither does Twitter. If you explore the hashtag #ChapelHillShooting -- the victims all lived in Chapel Hill, NC -- you'll find a community of individuals mourning the loss of bright, young lives.
They are also castigating the mainstream media for the lack of coverage of what clearly seems to be a hate crime.
On Monday I was part of a panel at Indiana University, where I am a PhD candidate, focused on media and Muslims. Our featured speaker, Arsalan Iftikhar, pointed out that there's no group Americans feel less comfortable with than Muslims. Another panelist, IU professor Nazif Shahrani, pointed out that's partly the result of the fact that academics, policymakers, lawmakers, and journalists all approach Islam and Muslims from a place of antagonism.
Before we know anything about Muslims we consider them a scary threat to everything "we" believe in.
Of course defining that "we" is becoming ever so much more problematic.
Look at that photo Deah, Yusor, and Razan. Do those three look like scary others to you? A frightening threat to all that America stands for?
Other photos showing up in new stories show Deah and Yusor (recently married) at a college football game. Razan blogged about art and photography.
They were also involved in charity, Deah reportedly volunteering with an organization that provides emergency dental care to Palestinian children.
Take a good look at that photo and any others you find. Do these three young people look scary to you?
Our society and media are complicit in their deaths. It is politically expedient for politicians, local and national, to talk about the threat of the "Islamization" of the West. There's a political industry, detailed in a book by Nathan Lean, which benefits from the manufacture and perpetuation of Islamophobia.
Piles of research have shown that news and entertainment media portrayals of Muslims are almost always negative. Those portrayals shape our understanding of what Islam is and who Muslims are. A study I co-authored showed some evidence of a linkage between media coverage of Muslims and anti-Muslim sentiment.
If you're looking for a recent example of this just look to FOX News's now infamous "Birmingham no-go zone" story as well as CNN's Anderson Cooper's repetition of this claim. That "story" is a fairy tale and yet it took far too long for FOX or Cooper to apologize.
(No one at FOX nor Cooper's program got fired over this and yet Brian Williams is out of a job because of a lie about covering the Iraq war?)
All of this, political discourse and media discourse, creates a social environment in which every Muslim is suspect because of their faith.
For the last year I've been conducting my dissertation research on the way young Muslims use Tumblr. The majority of my participants are Muslims who grew up in non-Muslim majority countries, mostly in the West.
What they all want is to be accepted for who they are. They feel the impact of negative stereotypes. They have people yell hateful things at them, they deal sometimes with anonymous Islamophobic Internet creeps, they struggle finding a space where they can be themselves.
All of themselves. German Muslim. American Muslim. British Muslim. Australian Muslim.
They understand they are seen as outsiders in the countries in which they grew up and in which they live. All they want is to be able to live full lives in which both of those aspects of their identities -- the national and the religious -- can exist together harmoniously.
To quote Martin Luther King Jr., they want to be judged for the "content of their character," which has been shaped both by religion and by where they live.
These aren't scary others.
And neither were Deah, Yusor, or Razan.
Nazif Shahrani at the panel Monday raised the point that we are going to be trapped in the current status quo when it comes to Muslim-non-Muslim understanding because "violence begets violence." And I would add that hate begets hate.
We should all be outraged about what happened yesterday in Chapel Hill. This hate crime should be a major story.
And yet I heard nothing about it yesterday. The first stories I saw about it this morning were in newspapers in the United Kingdom.
My one hope is that the attention the deaths of Deah, Yusor, and Razan is getting in social media will somehow shame the mainstream news media into covering this tragedy.
But part of me is worried what that coverage will look like given the news media's track record when it comes to covering stories about Muslims.
At some point media has to stop perpetuating stereotypes that fuel hate. I don't know if the Chapel Hill Shooting will be that point, but I certainly hope so.
(Since I finished writing this, a number of American media outlets have picked up the story. Now it remains to be seen how it's covered.)