There’s something to be said about giving a person the benefit of the doubt, particularly in serious matters and especially when it comes to the accusation of committing a hate crime. Even so, what we’ve seen thus far in the coverage surrounding Craig Hicks, who shot and killed three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, speaks volumes as to the kind of person given the benefit of the doubt – White, straight men – and who does not: everyone else. While it’s unclear if Hicks’ act was rooted in a noted disdain for Muslims, it is very much apparent that many in the media are invested in making sure the public does not lend credence to such a suggestion.
The optics are not kind to Hicks. Based on his Facebook posts, one can surmise Hicks aggressively loathed all religion. Though that might not speak to a specific anti-Islam bias, why was such a theory so quickly dismissed in favor of the belief that Hicks’ horrific act was more so about a parking spot? Local authorities have argued the latter, though the Justice Department continues to investigate otherwise.
Many of asked if the distinction matters. In the face of this fact, no: Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Deah Shaddy Barakat, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha did not deserve to share their last breaths with a vile, angry, violent man who had far-too-easy access to guns.
Yet, in terms of fair and thorough media coverage, the distinction matters. If a Middle Eastern man with public expressions of disdain for Western-based faiths had committed the very same crime against three Christian students, would we be reading AP reports about that person’s life with statements such as “If his Facebook page is any indication, Craig Hicks doesn’t hate Muslims” and “If he has a creed, it’s the Second Amendment?” I highly doubt it.
In “The Unbearable Invisibility of White Masculinity: Innocence In the Age of White Male Mass Shootings,” David J. Leonard writes at Gawker:
The most recent shooting in Newtown highlights whiteness and the ways it has been rendered invisible after every mass shooting. Described as a “nerd,” who “still wears a pocket protector,” Adam Lanza has been reimagined as a character straight out of The Revenge of the Nerds series and not a cold-blood killer. He carried a brief case, not a gun; he read The Catcher in the Ryeand Of Mice and Men, not Guns and Ammo; he wore button down polos, not fatigues. His life was not extraordinary but was that of an average kid. From the reading list to the sartorial choices we have been sold a Normal Rockwell painting. The Associated Press painted a picture of Adam that imaged him as a character ripped out of a Brady Bunch script: ” He was an honors student who lived in a prosperous neighborhood with his mother, a well-liked woman who enjoyed hosting dice games and decorating the house for the holidays.”
By comparison, look at accused Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is Muslim and a U.S. citizen. When he was profiled by Rolling Stone, the publication was compelled to defend its decision, which included this on the cover: “How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.” Hicks and Lanza can be humanized; mass killers who happen to also be Muslim are not afforded such luxury in America.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia has condemned the Chapel Hill slayings as “terrorist” killings, though not many stateside will take such accusations seriously (in some respects, understandably so).
Perhaps Hicks deserves the tag “monster” as described by his own estranged daughter versus “bigoted monster,” but it’s not lost on many how there have been attempts humanize this murderer that are unlikely to be done for a non-White or Muslim murderer.
One trend this disparity illustrates is anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. Even if Hicks’ crime wasn’t a direct result of Islamophobia, the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s largest bloc of Muslim countries, is right in their assertion that the murders highlight international concerns about “rising anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobic acts” in the United States.
Just this week, Bill O’Reilly asked for American clerics to join his Holy War against ISIL. Not to be outdone, there is Rush Limbaugh, who claims President Obama flashed a “Muslim gang sign” at an event last year. Limbaugh was quoting a blog post from F.W. Burleigh, author of It’s All About Muhammad, a Biography of the World’s Most Notorious Prophet. Then there’s Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and his spreading of the long debunked Muslim “no go zones” in Europe. Even CNN has been accused of inaccurate portrayals of Islam and Muslims thanks to its treatment of guests like religious scholar Reza Aslan.
Much like Craig Hicks, the man who set fire to Quba Islamic Institute in Houston claims it was an “accident” as opposed to a hate crime. Most – including those who work at the Institute – would like to believe that. Still, there has been a rising anti-Muslim sentiment in media and it’s increasingly manifesting in streets across the country.
Some in media avoid the hate crime tag and all it entails, but for how much longer can they get away with it?