My Mixed Feelings about Chapel Hill Shooting Vigils

Craig Stephen Hicks (46 years old) killed Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23 years old, his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21, and Yusor’s sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA, Tuesday, February 10, 2015 by shooting them in the head execution style in Deah’s and Yusor’s condominium. Hicks was their closest neighbor. You can follow updates on Twitter using the #ChapelHillShooting hashtag.

Tonight, if circumstances permit, I’m planning to attend a vigil in a suburb of Augusta, Georgia. I have mixed feelings about the purpose of the vigil.

The vigil in Chapel Hill was entirely appropriate as a grieving exercise for those who knew the victims and their families and as an opportunity for the wider community to console them. What is the purpose of vigils elsewhere?

This is the list of possible reasons I’ve come up with:

1. A repudiation of violence as a means of solving disputes.
2. A show of support to the victims’ families, delivered virtually through e-mails and social media.
3. Support for young Muslims who see themselves in the victims and are thus disturbed.
4. A communal repudiation of hate crime.
5. A demand for a more thorough investigation by local, state and/or federal authorities.
6. A demand for corporate media to close the gap between its portrayal of Muslims and Muslims’ perceptions of themselves.
7. A demand for a change in the counter-terrorism policies and narrative of the Department of Homeland Security.
8. A demand to end gun violence.

I am now going to list each of these reasons and discuss why it is either not a good reason or a vigil is not the most appropriate means to achieve the goal.

1. A repudiation of violence as a means of solving disputes.

If the vigil is the first time the group has done something, what has it been doing about the United States’s wars of the last 14 years? What has it been doing around the extrajudicial killings of blacks in the United States? So if this is the purpose of the vigil, its participants should be ready to participate in a great many more such actions.

2. A show of support to the victims’ families, delivered virtually through e-mails and social media.

This is noble. However, there was a terrible multiple homicide in Douglasville, Georgia earlier this week. Nobody has invited me to a vigil for that.

3. Support for young Muslims who see themselves in the victims and are thus disturbed.

This, to me, is closest to our actual motivation. And it is important. But there are two important pitfalls that can occur. The first is the natural tendency to place the victims on a pedestal. We do this because we love melodrama, we think it makes the outreach more effective and we think it consoles the survivors to praise the deceased. The danger is that we then subconsciously accept the concept of “worthy victims” and “unworthy victims.” For example, we did not do anything about the murder of Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein in Kansas City, Missouri in December of 2014.

The second problem is that many Muslim organizations in the United States aren’t ready to address youth issues seriously, and a vigil will be an ineffective balm for this wound if it is not accompanied by serious structural reform in our institutions. For example, I received an e-mail inviting me to a “Candlelight Vigilance.” Now I know the person who sent the e-mail. The person is a good, sincere, intelligent, hard- working volunteer in our masjid. But, if I was a youth, how could I believe an organization is ready to take on the wider hostile society to carve out a place for me when it butchers the English language in an announcement like this and is not willing to spend money for a professional executive director for the masjid? If I was a youth, I’d wonder why the percentage of resources devoted to youth development is so low. If I was a youth, I’d wonder why the masjid boards are disproportionately Arab and Desi by ethnicity, male and elderly. (If public schools taught Marx, I’d also wonder about class.) I’d wonder why so much energy is spent on doctrinal issues, rituals and personal conflicts.

4. A communal repudiation of hate crime.

I agree this is a good goal, but I don’t believe this crime will ever be proven to be a hate crime, unless Hicks confesses. He was not a member of an organized hate group like the killers in the attacks on the gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and on the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas. And the attacks occurred at a residence, not a house of worship or location associated with a religious group, such as the two aforementioned attacks and the attack at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. There is a strong argument that Hicks acted on assumptions of white supremacy, but, if you want to emphasize that angle, where have you been during the #BlackLivesMatter movement?

One other thing: are we going to include LGBT people as a category deserving protection and condemn incitement against them?

5. A demand for a more thorough investigation by local, state and/or federal authorities.

This may be reasonable, especially if Hicks chooses to advance an affirmative defense. It also may be reasonable if the judge’s sentence is light, assuming he is found guilty. But so far, he is denied bond and faces three first degree murder charges. Compare this with Travon Martin, whose corpse the Sanford police did not bother to identify and who did not treat his killer George Zimmerman as a suspect. Only sustained, nationwide demonstrations compelled Florida to charge him with murder. So, again, if you are vigiling to bring Hicks to justice, I hope you were out there to bring Zimmerman to trial.

6. A demand for corporate media to close the gap between its portrayal of Muslims and Muslims’ perceptions of themselves.

This is a legitimate demand, and it fits with the praise of the victims I described earlier. So if the vigil succeeds in increasing media’s portrayal of Muslims as multi-dimensional humans, that is a good thing. Please sustain the efforts by supporting independent media like Free Speech TV and Muslim-produced media like Unity Productions Foundation. Also, think about corporate media’s portrayal of other ethnic and religious minorities in the United States.

7. A demand for a change in the counter-terrorism policies and narrative of the Department of Homeland Security.

I blog about this ad nauseam, so just check these out. Just like the appropriate response to Hicks is not sending confidential informants to recruit unstable, armed white guys into terrorist conspiracies, it is likewise not appropriate to do the same for Muslims. Just like Hicks should not be placed in a Communications Management Unit, Muslims convicted of terrorism should not be punished this way.

Oh, and can we send the Gitmo detainees cleared for release back home?

8. A demand to end gun violence. (February 14, 2015 updated: Hicks had a lot of guns.)

Maybe, if the policy advocated makes sense. But again, why this killing and not the one that happened the day before or the one that will happen tomorrow?

Despite these reservations, I should support these vigils as an encouragement to those who organized them, many of whom may be the youth I discussed in this blog entry. Most of us “elders” are doing little to nothing, so I should at least be supportive. Also, I do participate in advocacy groups, and there are indeed flaws in the actions I have planned.

I hope good emerges from the vigils. And consider donating to the Syrian American Medical Society, an organization Deah and Yusor were supporting.

رحم الله القتلى وأدخلهم جنات النعيم و أفرغ على أهاليهم الصبر

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “My Mixed Feelings about Chapel Hill Shooting Vigils

  1. Thank you for writing this and for drawing attention to this terrible tragedy (does ‘tragedy’ whitewash the murder aspect? Maybe) and to the rationale of public and community action. I do agree with you, Ayman, in that there is an inconsistency vis-a-vis Muslim participation in vigils like this as compared to #BlackLivesMatter. And this is a huge problem. I do see an improvement in far, far closer Muslim engagement in the struggles of POC in the US, but we have a LONG way to go. The fact of the matter is, though, that such gestures and events as vigils ride a wave of the moment. They are a product of emotion more than of rational planning. So while we do need to keep asking the difficult qs, there is a space for these vigils and there is a role they can play. What I worry about sometimes, is that these vigils will have a cathartic effect and a neutralizing effect – “great, I’ve done my part, I’ve tweeted and lit a candle, and now I’m tired and all done.”

  2. I agree on a number of points. The American Muslim community, almost as a whole, has failed to mobilize and organize in solidarity with the Black struggle in the United States against extrajudicial police murder and mass incarceration. While more American Muslims are trying to change this, and more are taking to the streets, there’s a lot more work in this field that needs to be done. We can see this evidently in the fact that hash-tags like #MuslimLivesMatter have been circulated with endorsement uncritically, as Muslims (and others) fail to see how this is ultimately disrespectful and diminishing to the Black rights movement who claimed the original #BlackLivesMatter hash-tag.

    I see time and time again the inconsistency exhibited by American Muslim activists, who protest against, say, American imperialism overseas and mass surveillance targeted specifically against Muslims, but not the prison industrial complex, which literally profits from the mass incarceration of Black people. They will be there for Palestine, for Iraq, but never for the injustice and oppression that is local.

    While it may be that Deah, Yosra, and Razan were more widely known for their achievements and connections, it is repulsive that we would ignore the murder of Abdisamad.

    Although, I see that vigils are necessary and hold benefit. Western media elites, journalists, personalities and pundits that form the Islamophobia industry are what incited an abominable white atheist to assassinate three young Muslims. These vigils have lead to protests (UGA’s MSA will hold one this Sunday) against the dehumanization of Muslims by this industry, and its support for war in Muslim-majority countries abroad. While those who organize vigils are likely hypocritical and inconsistent for what they recognize as worth organizing for, vigils ultimately raise awareness about the slow transition from mere Islamophobic dialogues to violence against Muslims.

    Also, when one thinks for instance, about the fortification of solidarity between Black Americans and Palestinians in the past year, one can imagine how many more Black Americans attended/are going to attend these vigils (they’d be invited by Palestinian activists). I’d have to say that this will likely raise awareness among Muslims of the need to recognize the black struggle and the vital role they need to play as allies.

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