Chapel Hill Shooting: A Tale of Double-Standards?

Published: 17 February 2015

Country: USA

By Giulia Dessi

North_Carolina_ShootingOn the evening of the 10th of February, three Muslim students were murdered by a neighbour in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The way we came across this story was, ironically, by reading comments and articles denouncing that it was not in the news.

The lack of the mainstream media coverage, combined with a dismissal of the hate crime, sparked an outrage on social media and among those who gathered in front of the BBC headquarters in London protesting against double-standards in the media today and asking why ‘Muslims are being pictured always as assailants and not as the victims of terror.’

Yusor Mohammad, her husband Deah Barakat, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were shot in an execution-style killing. The suspected gunman Craig Stephen Hicks, who turned himself to the police, describes himself as an anti-theist and used his Facebook page to express his adversity towards all religions. One of his posts reads: “When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I.”

The local U.S. attorney Ripley Rand said it was an “isolated incident” and that the killing of the three young students could not be seen as a “part of a targeted campaign against Muslims.” Hicks’s wife sturdily asserted that the reason that pushed Hicks to kill was a parking dispute. Police, too, said they believed the crime “was motivated by an ongoing neighbour dispute over parking” while keeping investigating any possible reasons.

“As if disputing over parking is something we would entertain to take someone’s life. Execution style.  In the head.  From the back. Please. Save us the insult and dehumanisation,” Sameer Abdel-Khalek, a family friend of Deah’s, told the Guardian. Yusor and Razan’s father is one of the many people who considered it as an islamophobia-motivated murder. His daughter Yusor had mentioned multiple visits by his neighbour with a gun on his belt.

It was a student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, one of the first media outlets to report the story. Some mainstream media started to report it after 12 good hours from the killing, but not much coverage was given to it on an early stage. This little attention, together with the rejection of the hate crime, prompted uproar on Twitter. People blamed the media of using two sets of rules when reporting crimes, depending on the religion and ethnicity of the murderer. Images saying “Muslim shooter = 1.3 billion Muslims held responsible; White shooter = Lone wolf” soon trended on Twitter. The hashtag #Muslimlivesmatter – overgrown from the #Blacklivesmatter in solidarity with the Ferguson community – went viral.

Last Thursday, the BBC news website wondered “Was it right to label Chapel Hill shootings a ‘hate crime’ so quickly?” suggesting that people on social media wrongly assumed it was a hate-fuelled crime despite not having any evidence. On the same evening, a group of demonstrators marched in front of the central London BBC headquarters to express their discontent over the poor coverage of the triple murder. They asked the public broadcaster to recognise the racist nature of the attack as well as to expand their coverage of it. “We support their calls [families and friends of the three students] for this to be considered a hate crime. Any loss of life should be treated equally. Muslim people are consistently portrayed as the perpetrators but not the victims of terrorism and hatred,” said Sabby Dhalu, an organizer for Stand Up To Racism.

Many social media users went as far as to draw a parallel with the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January.

Comparing the Chapel Hill shooting with a meticulously-calculated massacre, aiming at polarising extremism and carried out by attackers with a record of terrorism activities, seems to be stretching the point, but some observations on the double-standard used by the media are necessary.

We do not know what drove Hicks to gun down the three students, but let’s assume that the motive was really his resentments over a parking spot dispute, and no anti-religion feelings were involved. As such the murder should be treated by police and the media, being also careful not to accept the normalising, and almost reassuring, narrative of the parking dispute.  As if it was normal to be assassinated because of this!

But the point is: how would the media have reacted if Hicks was an observant Muslim, regularly expressing his disdain for anyone not sharing his religious beliefs, who killed in execution style the atheist family next door?

“The media waited for the exact nature of the crime [to emerge] before they called it a ‘hate crime’. But in other contexts, they would have rushed into labelling it,” told Dr Zahera Harb, a senior lecturer in International Journalism at City University London, to Al Arabiya. Would have journalist abstained from portraying his act as driven by his Islamist ideology?

When Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, a Somali teenager was ran over a SUV driven by a man outside a mosque in Kansas, only a few US mainstream media outlets considered this story newsworthy. The New York Times reported it as a hate crime, underlining that the car displayed the painted message “Islam is worse than Ebola”, but  The Washington Post dismissed it in a few lines, tepidly mentioning the investigation, and CNN completely ignored it.

The coverage was quite different when, last December, a Muslim man in Dijon, France, mowed down 13 pedestrians with his car invoking Allah. First, the press reported it as a terrorist attack, and then retracted when the French prosecutor ruled out the terror link. Yet, the accident is still classified as terror attack in a number of media outlets.

Why didn’t it happen the same for the Chapel Hill shooting? And if it is really a hate crime – which the FBI defines as “a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias” – would anyone dare asking atheists to dissociate from the murder?