When I first read about the shooting of three students at UNC-Chapel Hill this past Wednesday, the first thought that came to my mind was how my best friend, a Muslim woman, and her Egyptian-American family felt upon learning of the tragedy. While I was fully aware of the unchecked Islamaphobia that constantly pervaded their lives, this event truly made me feel afraid. While I have known these friends of mine to always shake off the remarks in the 11 years they have lived in America, this incident was something completely unshakable—this time, I was not just afraid for my friends’ feelings, but also for their lives.
Scouring news sites for more information, the site I found with the most information about the incident was Al-Jazeera. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, they also featured pieces regarding the media’s portrayal of Muslims, which I found disturbing but at the same time necessary to be documented. The Feb. 11 piece, “Chapel Hill shooting and western media bigotry,” by Mohamad Elmasry was particularly enlightening as it extensively outlined the media’s role in this and other crimes, as well as microaggressions toward Muslim people that are so often overlooked and even justified in our Western society’s media and culture.
This article most appealed to me, I believe, because it gave me something to consider in a time where I felt deeply concerned but equally unsure of what to do about it as a person outside of the community it directly affects. I am especially grateful for this article because it allowed me to view the following events with a critical yet still emotionally conscious outlook.
To me, the most glaring offense in the coverage of this event has been the content of the headlines, which insist on mentioning the victims’ religion as if they were unlike the rest of the students. It is almost certain that if students of any other religion were murdered, the headlines would not read “Christian Students Slain” or “Buddhist-Americans Murdered.” Why is it that these sound ridiculous, yet “Obama denounces ‘outrageous murders’ of three US Muslims,” written by Reuters, sounds just fine? Is It perhaps because our society is still unsure of how to appropriately “categorize” and assimilate this religious group in the post-Sept. 11 era? Are they to be grouped with Christianity and Judaism, or with the other “non-Western” religions?
Because the U.S. is still so pervasively Christian, no matter what liberals or conservatives have to say, it has to constantly reconcile its religious identity because of the fact that 83 percent of the population in America adheres to this belief system. It took the atrocities of the Holocaust for this country to finally begin to accept people of Jewish faith into what it considers “normal,” frighteningly enough.
Because the rise of Muslim immigrantion to America has unfortunately coincided with the rise of Islamaphobic thoughts following the events of Sept. 11 and our countless engagements in the Middle East, it seems as though America and its many media organizations are hesitant to consider Muslims and even non-Muslim Middle Easterners as equal people, at least compared to the rest of “The People of the Book.” that live across these 50 states.
It is as if Americans do not want to accept the fact that all three of these religions share so many elements, and that Islam, the youngest of the three, encompasses the teachings of both the Bible and the Torah. It seems as though they wish to group Islam as some “other” faith without any similarity and disregard the fact that if an open dialogue could even occur in this country, it would be apparent that this belief system is really not so “strange” after all.
But, of course, it should not be that Americans must realize that Islam is not so different from what they consider to be the norm in spirituality. Islam should be able to exist in America without needing to be compared to other faiths to quell the fears of such closed-minded individuals.
Thinking on this topic has made a particular experience in my own life stand out in my mind: One day at my predominantly Catholic workplace last year, I was telling the women I worked with about my weekend and how I got to join my friend and her family at an event at their mosque. As soon as I said the word “mosque” though, I could feel the conversation shifting from just being about our weekends to, “what goes on in those mosques?” because that was exactly what followed.
Feeling uneasy as an outsider unfit to speak for a group I am not a part of, but also obligated to defend the beliefs of people who virtually made me a part of their family in the past five years, I found myself describing the bit that I knew of their teachings. My co-workers’ reactions, to summarize, were along the lines of “That doesn’t sound so different from church!” and, “That reminds me of the Bible.”
Part of me was relieved by their harmless reactions, while another part reminded me that had it not been for my personal friends and this experience, I would have probably reacted in the same way as my coworkers even though I am not even a Christian. The atheist in me wishes, in a way, for a more secular society, while the rest of me just wants a better understanding between those in the world who are actively religious and those who are not.
While it is known that in race relations, minorities should not have to explain racism to white people, does this apply when ideology and belief systems, rather than racial identities, are the issue? Because religious and spiritual beliefs sometimes bring specific feelings toward those who believe differently, it may be time for this country to stop ignoring these realities and instead to start addressing them.
While there is no surefire formula for tolerance, this recent ideological hate crime should alert us all to the ignorance that plagues this country, not just toward Muslim Americans but toward all people with differing beliefs. Perhaps it is time that public schools begin to teach about religion—not in a way that preaches or attempts to promote any one viewpoint, but in a way that informs children in the way that history classes are meant to help us understand the world, although in the current state of affairs this could easily go awry.
Nonetheless, this issue brings about feelings and ideas that our nation has long failed to recognize, and this ignorance has bred nothing but baseless hatred, seen in the murderer’s militant atheist ideals. In the coming months, this event should not be lost in the sea of pseudo-activist hashtags, but taken into consideration by those in leadership positions to solve the extreme lack in what our country considers an informed perspective.
—Sophia Burns ’18 is a student at Vassar College.