Earlier this month, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were gunned down in their home by their neighbour. Ostensibly, Craig Hicks stormed his neighbours’ home at the Chapel Hill condominium and executed its residents because of a past dispute over parking spaces. This has been, so far resolutely, the main line of reasoning employed by the police investigation and major news outlets, leaving one to wonder why the gun-toting, self-confessed anti-theist aimed his rage and gun at the three young, Arab, Muslims specifically.
Indeed, if Hicks needed nothing more profound than a slight disagreement to send him on a killing spree, why was it Yusor, Deah, and Razan who met such a grisly end? After all, it appears that the killer had by the time of the shooting developed notoriety amongst the other occupants of the condominium, a number of whom had previously reported his bullying and threatening behaviour to the police. Apparently, Hicks was irked as much by loud music and card games as he was by car parking, yet it was the latter, we are led to believe, that sent him over the edge.
The interesting thing about living in an ideologically ‘post-racial’ society – which is nevertheless dependent to the extreme on structures and practices of racism and racial violence – is that talking about racism is equivalent to perpetuating it. This was aptly conveyed by the enraged news presenter who, in the context of Ferguson, hysterically shouted: ‘You know who talks about race? Racists!’ In order to deny the traumatising truth that undergirds the post-racial fantasy, not only does the racist go to any length to deprecate those who demonstrate this truth, but they also turn to excessive fact-checking in the attempt to attribute the violence to the most miniscule and inconsequential piece of ‘evidence’: parking disputes, mental illness etc. Much like the excessive legalism, which attributes murder to ‘stand your ground’ laws and the caging of asylum seekers to inadequate documentation and visa requisites, even the investigation of a potential ‘hate-crime’ occludes the possibility of discussing race.
To talk of racism would open up the field of inquiry to a ‘subjective’ interrogation of social conditions unfathomable to the purveyors of ‘objective’ common sense. It would necessarily raise questions like: what is the relation between the escalation of attacks against brown and black bodies, and the unyielding practices of ‘othering’ directed at Muslims? Does the acquittal of the white murderers of black men encourage other white men to engage in violence? What role do products of the culture industry (e.g. American Sniper) play in vilifying and demonising Arabs and Muslims? As they bear the brunt of the economic and social degradation which their masters have orchestrated, are certain parts of the American public making up for a lost sense of power and security through acts of vindictive violence and cruelty towards expendable others?
A discussion of this sort might also risk challenging our assumptions about race and racial violence. Can it only be identified by the assailant’s disposition and past attitude, or by a stated subscription to a racist ideology or the dogmatic strains of militant atheism? Is it not, in fact, the case that Hicks’ was an act that speaks for itself, and the practice of every racist in general: a narcissistic bully living out white fantasies of control over a territory by ejecting or exterminating abjected others. In this sense, Hicks bears a striking resemblance to the police force that apprehended him; to the reporters who shunned him and consoled his victims; and to the president who raced to preach tolerance and compassion yet whose record boasts tightened border controls, hellish prison camps, and endless drone strikes.
All the same, we shouldn’t conflate distinct forms of racism and racial violence. While in solidarity with the #MuslimLivesMatter crowd, I remain uncomfortable about some of their positions. This includes its often hasty deployment of comparison in a context that can hardly find equivalence between the relatively recent and quite sporadic bouts of specifically anti-Muslim othering and the much longer history of systematic and racial violence against people of colour in the US. One way to clarify this distinction is that in the context of the former, we increasingly see its debates and politics being waged under the heading of ‘terrorism’.
I was mulling all of this during a break from study, when the waiter came around to take my order. Scrutinising the opened document on my laptop, he inquired as to what it was I studied. Barely hiding my excitement at the rare opportunity to share my ideas with someone other than my thesis supervisor, I blurted out a jumble of words faster than I could string them into a coherent sentence. It soon became clear that the only bit he picked up was ‘Middle East’, because he promptly returned to the table to inform me, lo and behold, that he’d arrived at a conclusion for my thesis and, in fact, a solution for all our problems: ‘If people stopped believing in fairy tales, they’d stop killing each other.’
My first reaction was a to offer a tentative smile, inviting him to say what I half-expected him to say next: ‘Just kidding! Damn Western imperialism!’ or something along those lines. Needless to say I received no such concession, and was left feeling both incensed and foolish as he strutted away with a discernible spring in his step.
I should’ve known better than to expect a considered response. All the same, it got me thinking about this ‘fairy-tale’ mind-set supposedly typical of us Middle-Easterners. No doubt it is one of the many Orientalist tropes about the simple-minded, backward, and irrational Arab/Muslim other. It also positions us as so seriously religious and stuck in our primitive belief systems that we are rendered incapable of behaving in certain ways. Rational is one of those ways, but also: responsible, compassionate, and of course, democratic, hence the inability to curb the impulse to kill one another.
Terror is another one of those things we have no access to. Believing so fiercely and uncritically in our ‘fairy-tales’, it is not in our nature to feel weak, vulnerable, or fearful, and even when we do, it is just a cunning and well-deployed ruse intended to facilitate our takeover of Fortress Europe and the West. Thus, when refugees and asylum seekers go on a hunger strike to protest the abject conditions of a detention centre, the only way to deal with them is to call their bluff and double their pain. On the other extreme is the terrorist, who is uniquely equipped to spread panic and fear precisely because he does not feel it, which is also why he can be retaliated against in the most severe manner, and with utter impunity. Not just him, but his entire family, his village, the country he comes from.
Here lies the crux of anti-Muslim othering: an exercise in group psychological diagnosis that deprives us of the capacity to feel and show vulnerability. The war on terror is both efficient and endless because it monopolises ‘terror’ not just to designate social organisations, but also in its basic form as an affect. Those who terrorise the West are seen as somehow immune to terror, which is also what makes them so capable of deploying it. But every time they do, they create the conditions for further securitisation, spying, military expenditure, overseas missions, border security etc., giving the sense that ‘they tried to terrorise us, but we have come out stronger than ever, and we must be if we are to face those who seem to be invulnerable and unrelenting.’ Like the democracy it is ostensibly opposed to, terror has become a phallic thing, empty of experiential or political content; you either have it or you don’t.
The less democratic that life becomes in Western colonial-settler states, the more it is claimed that they have democracy as a possession. Conversely, the more that Muslims are seen as terrorists in possession of terror, the less they are seen as capable of experiencing it as an affect. It is no wonder then that the execution of three young Muslims could elicit so much ire and condemnation and still not be recognised as anything approximating ‘terrorism’ or racism. We see something similar in the discourse around the vandalising of mosques and the repeated attacks on Muslims in Europe and the West; the regular Israeli massacres in Gaza and the colonisation of the West Bank; and the drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan; and so on ad infinitum. The horror and outrage expressed by Muslim communities is as likely to be registered as Muslim leaders’ almost daily condemnation of terrorism, and the Muslim Lives Matter campaigns, with their implicit claim that ‘we also feel terror’, are bound to fall on deaf ears. In the end, terror is not Muslims to feel or experience, it is only for them to have, wield, and perish by.