Three American students have been shot to death at a residential complex of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a suspect has been arrested over the incident, according to local police.
Chapel Hill police told local news outlets that Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, was arrested and charged with killing the three Muslim students.
Hicks made a brief court appearance on Wednesday morning, saying he understood the charges, according to the Associated Press. His probable cause hearing was set for March 4 and he is being held without bond.
In a statement posted online, Chapel Hill police said that “preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbour dispute over parking.”
“We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case,” the statement said quoting Police Chief Chris Blue.
Hicks turned himself in after the shooting on Tuesday in Chapel Hill, just outside the campus of the University of North Carolina, AFP news agency reported.
Police officers responded to a report of shooting at around 5:15pm on Tuesday, and found three people who were pronounced dead at the scene.
The police website released a statement confirming the three deaths and saying the department is “questioning a person of interest in the crime and has reason to believe that there is no ongoing threat to the public”.
The victims were identified as 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his 21-year-old wife, Yusor Mohammad, and her sister, 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, police said.
A local TV station in North Carolina quoted the father of the slain women, Mohammed Abu-Salha, as saying that his daughter had told him several times that they had a neighbour who was “hateful”. His daughter also reported that the man had a gun in his waistband more than once.
“They lived a clean life, never gave us a bad day,” Abu-Salha was quoted as saying. “We raised them in our faith. We raised them to love their country and their people, and everybody’s heart is broken. Everybody. All walks of life. The whole city did not sleep last night.”
“I’m kind of in shock. I’m really confused and I have been since 5:30,” said Kristen Boling, who lived in the complex where the shooting occurred.
The university said that Barakat was a second-year student at its dentistry school, his wife was planning on starting there in autumn, while her sister was a student at North Carolina State University.
Residents told local media that the complex was a peaceful place.
“It’s a very quiet community,” Bethany Boring, who lives in the complex, told television station WRAL.
“It’s a lot of graduate and professional students. You know, professionals’ families.”
Friends and family and the online community shared photos of the victims via social media after the incident.
The hashtag #ChapelHillShooting went viral after the incident was reported, many of the tweets criticising the US and other Western media for not covering the shooting.
Chapel Hill shooting and western media bigotry
The religious identity of violent perpetrators is only highlighted when they’re Muslim.
Three Muslim Americans were murdered on Tuesday in a University of North Carolina dorm room. The crime came on the heels of recent anti-Muslim attacks in Europe, carried out in apparent response to the January murders (committed by Muslims) of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris.
Western media outlets will likely frame the most recent perpetrator of what some speculate is an anti-Muslim crime in the same way they frame most anti-Muslim criminals – as crazed, misguided bigots who acted alone. If past coverage is any indication, there will likely be very little suggestion that the killer acted on the basis of an ideology or as part of any larger pattern or system.
But what if acts of anti-Muslim violence are consistent with at least some strands of current western ideology? What if Islamophobia has become so commonplace, so accepted, that it now represents a hegemonic system of thought, at least for relatively large pockets of people in some regions of the West?
Given what we know both about western media portrayals of Islam and Muslims on the one hand, and media effects and theory on the other hand, it would be foolish to dismiss western media representations as potential causal factors in anti-Muslim sentiment and crime. In fact, it is likely that anti-Muslim sentiment and crime are, at least in part, driven by one-sided, narrow, sensationalistic, and arguably bigoted western media portrayals of Islam and Muslims.
Listening Post – Is the British media Islamophobic?
Many scholars – including Edward Said, Elizabeth Poole, Kai Hafez, Milly Williamson, Karim Karim, Teun Van Dijk, Kimberly Powell, and Dina Ibrahim, among others – have carried out academic studies examining western news coverage of Islam and Muslims.
Results suggest that Muslims are often portrayed in western news media as violent, backwards, fundamentalist and as threats to western civilisation. Western news coverage rarely highlights Islam except to show its possible relation to some atrocity, and Muslims are rarely mentioned in the context of news that is positive or benign.
Several studies have found that Muslims are portrayed as a homogenised body, lacking diversity and difference, with other analyses showing that news coverage of violent conflicts in the Muslim-majority world ignores context and circumstances, implying that Muslims are inherently violent and prone to conflict.
Other studies show inconsistent coverage of violent global and regional conflicts. When Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims are killed by Muslims, Islam is identified as playing a direct role. When Muslims are killed by Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims, however, the religious identity of the violent perpetrators is downplayed or ignored.
The ongoing conflict in Burma represents a good case-in-point. There has been little western news coverage on the recent persecution faced by Rohingya Muslims, who Human Rights Watch says have been subjected to mass killings; “crimes against humanity” and “ethnic cleansing”.
Most recently, American television news networks have underlined a possible association between groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL, on the one hand, and Islamic religious doctrine on the other. Analysts claiming that “Islam is the problem” are given prominent platforms on news talk shows, while expert Muslim voices are systematically ignored.
Notably – and in spite of the fact that each act of Muslim-perpetrated terrorism is condemned strongly by all notable Islamic universities, Islamic scholarly councils, Islamic organisations, Muslim governments, and prominent Muslim jurists – regular cries are heard from media personalities complaining that Muslims do not condemn terrorism.
Prominent media personalities
Remarkably, some prominent media personalities systematically ignore Muslim condemnations of terrorism and then scream loudly that Muslims aren’t condemning terror. Recently, both Rupert Murdoch and Piers Morgan claimed that it is primarily the responsibility of Muslims to root out and defeat the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIL.
In much of the western news discourse, the implication always seems clear; western societies should be suspicious of Muslims – all Muslims.
Ignored in these analyses, of course, are the facts that Muslims in many Muslim-majority countries are often preoccupied, battling brutal dictatorships (which are often propped up by western nations, including the US), acute poverty, and regular bombing campaigns, all of which have helped create the conditions under which groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL – both of whom kill many more Muslims than non-Muslims – thrive.
In much of the western news discourse, the implication always seems clear; western societies should be suspicious of Muslims – all Muslims. Various pundits have taken to prominent media to offer up inflated estimates of the number of Muslim terrorists, with some suggesting that “peaceful” Muslims are, in the first place, a minority, and, more importantly, only peaceful because they have misunderstood the teachings of their inherently violent religion.
The discussions carried out on television news programmes are not surprising given the structural problems associated with western news, and, importantly, the basic imbalance in sourcing. Why, for example, is Hamza Hansen, a top Muslim American public intellectual, not given a regular platform on news networks alongside anti-Islam bigots who have made careers out of dissecting Islamic textual sources they do not appear to be qualified to interpret?
Importantly, western entertainment media portrayals also receive unfavourable scholarly evaluations. In the most comprehensive and systematic study of Hollywood movies done to-date, media scholar Jack Shaheen examined 100 years of Hollywood film representations of Arabs and Muslims.
He found that the majority of the 900 films he examined portrayed Arabs and Muslims as “brutal, heartless, uncivilised religious fanatics and money-mad cultural ‘others’ bent on terrorising civilised westerners, especially Christians and Jews”.
No one could reasonably suggest that western news and entertainment media organisations should ignore negative portrayals of Muslims altogether. This would be unreasonable, especially given the importance of global terrorism and the involvement of Muslims in their fair share of negative events.
It is not unreasonable, however, to ask for contextualised accounts, fairer portrayals, critical examinations of the root causes of terrorism, an increase in Muslim voices, and news coverage that does more to separate ordinary Muslims from groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL.
According to the scholarly literature, the patterns of representation are fairly clear. Some fair, balanced news coverage and sympathetic entertainment media portrayals of Muslims notwithstanding, Islam and Muslims are generally portrayed negatively and stereotypically, including in some of the most powerful western media.
At what point do we begin to hold media organisations at least partly accountable for the anti-Muslim sentiment that is gripping many western nations?
Or, more importantly, when will western media organisations hold themselves to account?
Dr Mohamad Elmasry is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
What’s in a headline? Critics claim bias in #ChapelHillShooting coverage
Some U.S. news outlets take the heat online for handling of story involving Muslim victims.
One day and two trending global hashtags later, the execution-style murder of three Muslim UNC-Chapel Hill students has attracted criticism online evolving from frustration over lack of coverage, to questions around theframing of the story.
Why Muslim lives don’t matter
In Chapel Hill shootings, Muslim identity eclipsed the three victims’ American-ness.
Muslims identity trumped, and very likely for Hicks, eclipsed the three victims’ American-ness.
Irrespective of what rallying cries, signs or adapted hashtags proclaim, Muslim lives in America don’t matter. The aftermath of the murder of the three American students in Chapel Hill, and the broader context that spurred it, reconfirms this brutal truth.
The three victims – Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were killed at approximately 5:11pm on Tuesday. The identity of the killer, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, was revealed roughly seven hours later.
Despite the release of these facts, and probative evidence that the executions were likely a hate crime, national media outlets remained silent. History affirms that a reversal of racial and religious identities – an Arab and Muslim culprit and white victims – would have spurred immediate media attention, on a national and global scale. However, given that Barakat and the Abu-Salha sisters were Arab and Muslim, the media lagged to cover the story.
Inside Story Americas – Is the radical right on the rise in the US?
In addition to media devaluation of Muslim lives, state-sponsored government policies targeting Muslim Americans affirm the conflation of Muslim identity with a terrorist threat. Institutional policy, in the form of state surveillance, profiling and counter-radicalisations programming, tie Muslim identity to suspicion and subversion, which emboldens the hate-fuelled violence inflicted by private citizens, like Hicks.
Between media misrepresentation and neglect, and systematic state surveillance and suppression of Muslims, the facts in the US lead to the undeniable conclusion that Muslim lives don’t matter.
It is perhaps fantasy to expect the same outlets that repeatedly misrepresent Muslims to pivot swiftly and rush to cover their victimhood. The Charlie Hebdo attack in early January, and the string of crises involving Muslim culprits before it, affirms the assessment that “Muslim lives are only newsworthy when they are behind a gun. Not in front of it”.
However, the “three victims were American citizens” sympathisers cried. Or, “upward-bound students with bright futures, and pristine records”. Two of them, Deah and Yusor, were newlyweds, only four weeks separated from their wedding. A life together, with kids and a white picket fence, was in their horizon.
Neither citizenship nor conventional measures of American achievements insulated the victims from hate. They were Muslims. That marker mattered most. Muslim identity trumped, and very likely for Hicks, eclipsed the three victims’ American-ness.
Their religion mattered most for US media outlets as well, who lagged to cover the story … leaving Muslims to wonder: if the victims were white and non-Muslims, and the culprit Muslim, would mainstream media outlets be so slow to respond and report?
CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC finally released stories of the murders Wednesday morning: More than 12 hours after the three young adults’ lives were taken leaving Muslims to wonder: If the victims were white and non-Muslims, and the culprit Muslim, would mainstream media outlets be so slow to respond and report?
No. Muslims lives only matter when they’re villains. Not victims. This is reaffirmed by news story after news story, and distorted accounts that tab “parking disputes” instead of hate as the primary motives of murder.
When state policy drives micro-violence
State-run programming targeting Muslims marks members of that demographic as presumptively suspicious. NSA surveillance and counter-extremism programming, PATRIOT and Suspicious Activity Reporting strategies, are shaped within government walls. But these policies also shape stereotypes and spur violence far beyond them.
This comprehensive programming, which is both synchronised and expanding, is built upon age-old perceptions of Muslims as “enemy combatants”, “national security risks”, and “unassimilable”.
Past laws that restricted the naturalisation of Muslims were built upon racist and Orientalist tropes. However, state policies that profile and persecute today are still based on these very baselines.
In addition to enabling discriminatory state tactics, anti-Muslim laws and programming sanction widely held stereotypes of Muslims as violent and unruly, threatening and anti-American. By endorsing these stereotypes, this network of anti-Muslim laws and programming embolden private citizens, like Hicks, to take justice into their own hands.
It would be a misnomer to single out anti-Muslim laws and policies as spurring Islamophobic and anti-Arab culture. Rather, it pronounces this already existing psychosis, which is magnified by slanted news coverage and cinematic misrepresentations, illustrated vividly in films such as American Sniper.
However, these laws and programmes are not the products of a Hollywood studio. Nor are they delivered by a CNN or Fox News anchor. They are shaped and enacted by statesman within the hollowed halls of government. Affixing per se vilification of “Muslim Americans” with the state seal of approval that stirs Islamophobia on the ground, and spurs unspeakable violence atop it.
From the vantage point of the state, Muslims lives matter when they are subjects of surveillance, or targets of counter-extremism; not direct, or indirect, victims of these policies.
Taking on hate
Media lags and state laws vividly reveal that Muslims lives don’t matter. However, Muslim Americans cannot afford to stand idly by.
From California to New York, Michigan to Florida, citizens are coming together with their local communities to not only mourn the lives tragically loston Tuesday, but to coordinate plans to counter government profiling, private discrimination and violence, and their nefarious intersection.
If halls of American power echo, time and again, that Muslim lives don’t matter, the strongest rebuttal must come from Muslim Americans themselves. A rebuttal that goes beyond rallying cries, signs and hashtags. And proclaimed through sustained action, and en mass mobilisation against halls of power that systematically strip Muslims lives of value.
Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law.
Nadia El-Zein Tonova is director of the National Network of Arab American Communities, and the Take On Hate Initiative.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.