By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Just two days after the Copenhagen terrorist attack that resulted in the death of a filmmaker and a Jewish synagogue guard, the narrative had begun. “Muslim communities in Denmark are bracing themselves for a backlash of discrimination and hate crime in the aftermath of last weekend’s deadly attacks on a free speech debate and a synagogue in Copenhagen.” Community leaders from Muslim areas had not skipped a beat, instead of worrying about the hatred that led the attacker to think killing Jews was normal, they claimed there was a “road into darkness” if politicians “allowed anti-Muslim rhetoric stoked by a resurgent far right to undermine fundamental values of tolerance and openness amid a scramble for votes ahead of national elections in September,” reported Al-Jazeera. Tolerance, openness? Those are good values. But they didn’t want to preach them in their community. They wanted the non-existent “backlash” to be addressed. They succeeded in shifting the narrative, after only a day, from the actual victims, Finn Nørgaard and Dan Uzan, to the Muslim community. They were the real victims of the attack.
The message of victimhood was spread even as more than 500 mostly Muslim youth joined the funeral entourage of the murderer, Omar El-Hussein, 22. His funeral seems to have been almost as heavily attended as that of the victims. The charity that arranged the funeral claimed the youth who turned up in droves were there to show support for “the family.” Oddly, it was mostly young men attending, middle-aged people and elderly people apparently found another way to support the family. Later video would show these same young men shouting “Allahu Akhbar (God is great).” International media wanted to learn about the “root causes” and how the murderer had had a hard life and been to prison and was in a “gang.” There was no discussion of hate-filled violence, racism, anti-semitism and why he targeted Jews in his murder-spree. The only major response was the claim that Jews would get more security. Even though media revealed that two men had helped the killer, no one wanted to discuss the environment that produced him, no talk about tolerance.
A similar narrative took hold immediately after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. After the attacks a delegation of imams visited the site of the mass murder. “These men are criminals, barbarians, satans. For me, they are not Muslims…Their hatred, their barbarism, has nothing to do with Islam. We are all French, we are all humans. We must live in respect, tolerance and solidarity,” one imam was quoted by the Guardian as saying. Many love TV commentaries noted that Muslims feared stigmatization, Islamophobia, discrimination, stereotyping and racism. The Guardian noted that “with the Front National’s triumph last year…these were, said Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grande Mosquée de Paris, not easy times to be a French Muslim.” Given the fact that in the last few years Jews, who make up. .2% of Europe have been 40% of the victims of terrorism, it might be odd to say that Muslims, who make up 5% of Europe are the real victims. A taxi driver told reporters “But you know, we will become victims of this atrocity.”
The neat trick whereby taxi drivers, imams and activists see the real victims of the Charlie Hebdo violence as being Muslims feeds a lack of responsibility and a feeling of victimization. There is no need to confront hateful extremism or anti-semitism in Muslim communities because Muslims are the “real victims.” The same narrative was given major coverage after the Toulouse massacre of Jewish school children. “The recent murder of seven people including three children in Toulouse by self-proclaimed jihadist Mohamed Merah outraged France and has left the country’s six million Muslims fearing a hostile reaction…After Toulouse terrorist Mohamed Merah was shot dead by a police marksman, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was quick to call on the French not to ‘give in to vengeance,'” wrote France24 in 2012.
Each time there is a massacre of Jews, it is Muslims who have “fear of a backlash” and they are encouraged to articulate that fear so that no one will ask about the actual victims. It is the main talking point: Islamophobia. The more terrorists there are, the more Muslims are the victim. The more Jews are killed, the more Muslims in Europe are the real victims of that terror. Carlos Latuff, the cartoonists, captured this perfectly after Charlie Hebdo, it was Muslims who were victims, not the people who died in the massacre; and certainly not the Jewish victims at the kosher market. The media spends time humanizing the victims of Islamophobia, and does not ask where the terrorists come from. It creates a strange irony, if only Jews in Europe would convert to Islam, then they could be victims of Islamist terrorism; because the media has trouble dealing with Jewish victims, it doesn’t want to talk about them; it wants to change the subject.
Why is this motif so popular? Even as the Sydney, Australia siege was ongoing in late 2014 media were already discussing how Muslims will be stigmatized by it. The major Twitter trend became a tweet about #Illridewithyou. “Muslim Australians have reported an increase in discrimination and abuse in the wake of” the attacks, wrote one media outlet. Like the humanizing discussed above, numerous Muslims were interviewed who now all feared a backlash. In the UK, after the Drummer Lee Rigby murder, the media also highlighted the “backlash.” A woman claimed to have been spat on. “Young Muslims in Wales say they fear a backlash after the barbaric killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in London.” Newspapers in the Muslim wold emphasized that there was a massive rise in Islamophobia.
The same narrative has gripped reporting on Kenya. After a series of massacres by Al-Shabab and the mass murder of Christians on a bus in Kenya, every report was not about the actual victims, but about the “fear” of a backlash. Reuters called it a “raid” on Westgate mall where 59 were killed by “militants.” And now, “In the shabby ‘Little Mogadishu’ quarter of Kenya’s capital, Somalis feared the militant attack on a Nairobi shopping mall could trigger a violent backlash against them,” they noted in 2013. The article didn’t bother to note that the victims were slaughtered after being separated as Christians from Muslim passengers. Who, really, were the victims, those “fearing” the backlash, or those butchered for being Christian? The obsession with “fear of a backlash” had spread all the way to Minnesota, where Somalis were said to be the real victims of the attack and fearing a backlash. “Members of the largest ethnic Somali community in the United States expressed frustration on Tuesday, fearing a backlash after the attack on a Kenya shopping mall by a Somalia-based Islamic group that has recruited fighters in Minnesota.”
We wouldn’t have even heard of an attack that killed 80 in India in 2008, except for an article noting that Muslims “feared a backlash” over it. It turns out a “militant” group called Harkut ul-Jihad al-Islami was behind the mass murder. But no more information about them. Instead a whole article about Bangladeshi migrants “fearing a backlash.” How about the actual backlash that killed 80 people?
The media motif of “backlash” is necessary to distract the public and also to ease the media away from asking tough questions. It also feeds a circular conclusion among many Muslims that “these terror attacks are not the acts of real Muslims” and “Muslims are the victims.” It is a convenient way to escape the reality.
If the same logic were applied to other situations one can imagine the results. What if the real victims of the KKK were not the dead black girls in a bombed church, but “southern whites who will be stereotypes and fear a black backlash”? What if after each KKK attack we had to hear from all the southern whites that “feared stereotyping.” Perhaps many southern whites were indeed stereotyped as backward racist bigots during the Civil Rights struggle. And even today many people think of American southerners as ignorant and label parts of the South “KKK country.” But the fact is that southern whites were not the “real” victims of the KKK, black people were. Only by rooting out the KKK, racism and extremism, was it defeated. But if the media had never focused on the problem of racism, but rather how white people were stereotyped as “extremists” by the actions of a few people it would never have been defeated.
In the aftermath of the Chapel Hill murders by Craig Hicks, numerous people on social media attacked “white people” as being responsible. Michelle Goldberg at The Nation claimed “the most common type of American terrorist is a white man with a weapon and a grudge,” on February 11, the day the killings became known. Steve Rosenfeld at Alternet noted “angry, armed and white, the profile of America’s most violent extremists: white men, usually right-wingers, are the dominant threat.”
So the Chapel Hill murders produced the opposite affect of the Copenhagen killings. White people were blamed and accused of being terrorists. In Copenhagen Muslims were considered the victims; even as hundreds of youth celebrated the actions of the killer. In Chapel Hill, no white people celebrated the murders, and the motives of the murderer remain unclear. One thing is for certain, no media turned “white” people into the “real” victims of Chapel Hill. Muslims were the victims and are the victims. Thats what the media should do; focus on the victims. And communities from where racist hate-filled criminals come from should be asked what is causing the hate to be so widespread.
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