Muslims are human and, honestly, it’s heartbreaking that I have to write this sentence. But I have to, because inconsistencies in media coverage beg me to ask the question, is my identity only important when it fulfills a preconceived biased narrative? Apparently so, as a recent academic study revealed that “terror attacks receive five times more media coverage” in cases where the perpetrator is Muslim. In these instances, media provides round the clock presentation of attacks but when Muslims are the victims, there’s a deafening silence. This was glaringly obvious when I scoured for news regarding the tragic death of 17 year old Nabra Hassanen, whose parents believe she was murdered because she was Muslim.
But Nabra wasn’t worthy of coverage, apparently. Her death exemplified the reality Muslims face today living in a climate of increasing anti-Muslim sentiment resulting in harassment, bullying, and death. Yet, the media wants to minimize this danger and hostility. They do so by packaging us as a single homogenous, threatening entity, despite overwhelming data and facts to show that Muslims are the overwhelming victims of terror at the hands of state and non-state actors. But you wouldn’t know that.
How many know of Nabra? How many know the names and the stories of Muslim victims of senseless killing? Do we only grieve for those that look like “us?” It seems selective mourning is the norm these days but I cannot accept such conditions; my faith teaches me the importance of all life, to recognize our individuality, our stories, and our experiences.
Mourning only those who look like “us” largely means those who are Euro-American and Christian. The 2016 presidential election emboldened an “us vs. them” mentality, playing up Samuel Huntington’s long debunked racist “clash of civilizations” argument. Despite it being completely misleading, the general public has internalized this “clash”; studies revealed that people voted for the current leader due to racial resentment as a result of changing demographics. The 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump has given way to an age of acceptable xenophobia and Islamophobia in the name of “political correctness.”
However, it is crucial that we not forget the role of mainstream media in supporting and promoting these prejudicial attitudes. I think of such media coverage when I see hateful comments online such as the standard, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim.” Currently, Muslims remain the least liked religious group in the country. Given such data, the media’s role in promoting false and dangerous stereotypes about Muslims must not be overlooked or excused.
The study regarding Muslims and the media was released just a few weeks after the tragic death of high schooler, Nabra Hassanen. In mid-June, Nabra was assaulted and brutally murdered as she returned to the mosque with a group of friends after grabbing some food before the day’s fast began. It was during the last week of Ramadan that Nabra, a black Muslim young girl, was murdered in Northern Virginia (NoVA). NoVA is where I was raised and reside. The All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center is the mosque Nabra was walking back to that morning. My family and I attend a local ADAMS chapter. This incident hit close to home. As a researcher of Islamophobia at The Bridge Initiative, incidences like these are common. I’ve read numerous stories of harassment and assaults directed towards Muslims, but Nabra’s death shook me.
I learned of Nabra’s death not from my local news station or newspaper, but from a friend on Facebook who too attended ADAMS. I had no idea the South Lakes High School student had been missing since 3am that Sunday. There were no breaking news alerts. By 4pm that afternoon, I heard they had found Nabra’s body. Still details remained sparse, there were again no breaking news alerts, nothing on the local news stations apart from the discovery of a body.
The silence from the media spoke volumes. When Muslims are the perpetrators of crimes, the media goes into 24/7 coverage; we learn the names of the attackers, where they’re from, names of their parents, etc. We also simultaneously learn about the victims (if they are non-Muslim), their names, what they loved, the heartbreak their family were having to endure, and so on. But Muslim victims are never afforded this privilege. Muslim victims remain nameless and almost unheard of, despite glaring data verifying what Muslims have known all along, that we are the number one victims of terrorism. I’m not here to compare tragedies but I am here to acknowledge the discrepancies in responses. Nabra’s disappearance and death was minimized by the very media that gives disproportionate airtime to Muslims who carry out violent attacks.
Less than 24 hours after Nabra’s death, another event left me rattled. A white man had rammed his van into a group of Muslims, killing one, who had just left evening prayers in Finsbury Park, London. London too is my home; I completed my masters, fell in love, and have family in this city. I watched coverage of the attack on social media, getting updates on twitter, watching videos from the attack shortly after it had occurred. It was a weekend in which anti-Muslim hatred had really hit home.
Media coverage in the U.S. was sparse following the attack in Finsbury Park. There was a glaring difference in the coverage in comparison to the previous two deadly attacks in the U.K. The difference was that in those previous attacks the perpetrators were Muslim, in the Finsbury Park attack they were victims.
The U.K. has experienced a wave of anti-Muslim attacks. Following the deadly terrorist attack in Manchester, a study found that anti-Muslim attacks increased by 500 percent. A few days after the Finsbury Park attack, John Tomlin, a white man threw acid on Jameel Mukhtar and his cousin Resham Khan as they sat in their car. Media attention was minimal and Mukhtar pointed out that had the victims been white and the perpetrators brown, there would have been 24/7 news coverage and a nationwide manhunt. In response to the attack, I only saw comments and news stories from select individuals and outlets. After weeks the attacker had not been caught and finally on July 10, Tomlin turned himself in. Police are finally treating it as a hate crime. Acid attacks are quickly becoming all too common in the city and it truly terrifies me but most people in the United States probably have no clue. Are acid attacks only given attention when they fit neatly into centuries old orientalist stereotypes?
Having to deal with such traumatic events is hard enough, but having to then deal with the erasure of your pain, loss, and grief is quite unbearable. The media plays a massive role in shaping public opinion and with this great power comes great responsibility: it’s vital that journalists, reporters, and commentators recognize this. The media may not pull the trigger but it sure does provide the ammunition by promoting negative stereotypes which lead to the dehumanization of billions.
A couple of weeks ago, I drove by the very spot Nabra was murdered. A small vigil remains with flowers and balloons. It was eerie driving past the shopping center where she and her friends had eaten that Sunday morning. Although Nabra may no longer be on this earth along with the other countless victims of gruesome violence and hatred, their names, stories, and memories live on. We can honor their lives by never forgetting them.
The views and opinions contained in this are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.