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Chapel Hill and the Siren Song of Victimhood

February 19, 2015

Chapel Hill

The murder of three young people in Chapel Hill, North Carolina was tragic and disturbing. Equally disturbing was that the killer has, by the act of which he is accused, fed a narrative that is all too popular among Muslims across the world.

Let’s assume that Craig Hicks was the killer. We know that he was a militant atheist, and that he had posted a number of provocative statements to that effect on the internet. We will not know until his trial whether his motive for the killings was a hatred of Muslims. Perhaps we will never know for sure.

As soon as the shootings took place, there was an instant reaction in the social media. This apparently WAS a hate killing. If a Muslim had killed three non-Muslims in Chapel Hill, the reaction in the mainstream media and on the part of politicians would have been very different. Ergo there is a deep seated hatred of Muslims in the West, the result of which is that Muslims have been victimised consistently over the past seventy years.

Hamid Dabashi goes further. He is an Iranian/American professor at Colombia University in New York City. He’s clearly much smarter than me, as evidenced by the erudite prose in an article he has written for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed entitled “We won the narrative battle”.

The piece begins with what appears to be a summary:

“The narrative of the Chapel Hill murders became a battle between us Internet plebians and the patricians of the ‘Western media’. The plebs won.”

As I said, he’s smarter than me, so it took a couple of readings of his piece to catch his drift. I stumbled over sentences like:

“There is timing to the urgency of a narrative, or as French philosopher Paul Ricoeur would say the narrative emplotment brining (sic) the diverse forces of a condition into an imaginative order.”

By which I think he means that the stronger the evidence from diverse sources, the stronger the narrative. Or maybe not. But let’s assume so.

So what’s the narrative to which he subscribes?

It seems to be that the established media is run by and written for an oligarchy of powerful white and Jewish interests. They are those he describes as patricians. The denizens of the social media, who protested in their hundreds of thousands about the patricians’ coverage of the Chapel Hill killings and whose protests apparently led to qualifications by the New York Times and Obama’s denunciation of the killings, are in Professor Dabashi’s terms “the plebs”. He clearly includes himself in that number.

Another voice of the so-called plebs that the Professor called on in evidence is Philip Gourevitch, whom he quoted from a piece in the New Yorker:

“Far more Americans are killed each year by the shooters in our midst like Craig Stephen Hicks than have ever been killed by all the jihadist terrorist outfits that have ever stalked this earth.”

With respect to a well-known journalist, that statement is unprovable, because he doesn’t define “shooters in our midst” or “jihadist terrorist outfits”. Is he saying that bigoted militant atheists or Muslim-haters kill more people every year than Al-Qaeda killed on 9/11? More than 2,977 people every year?

Enough of this nit-picking. At least we understand what he’s saying, which is that Americans have a far greater chance of dying at the hands of a shooter – regardless of motivation – than they have of succumbing to religiously-motivated terrorists.

But to return to Professor Dabashi, it’s not clear to me what he means by Jews and whites. Everybody knows who Jews are. The next step beyond his narrative  – though he doesn’t explicitly say this – is that they are tacit or explicit supporters of the State of Israel by virtue of their religion and ethnic origin. But whites? What are we talking about here? White Anglo-Saxon protestants? Lithuanian immigrants? Ninth-generation descendants of British colonialists in North Carolina? Irish Catholics in Boston and New York? Amish and Mennonites in Pennsylvania?

To lump America’s hugely diverse white population into one category and characterise them as oppressors of Muslims, blacks and Latinos/Latinas is simplistic and verging on manipulative. Just as to take every Jew outside Israel and put their fingers on the triggers that fired bombs and missiles into Gaza is equally questionable.

So let’s cut to the chase. Here’s my perspective on the killings.

Any shooting of innocent people is an abomination, whether they are Muslims or otherwise, whether they are the victims in Chapel Hill or the 26 children and teachers in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

Hicks’s motivation has yet to be proven. I know that’s not what many Muslims want to hear. Nonetheless  a look at his Facebook page does at least suggest that the target of his rantings is not Muslims per se. He has far more to say about evangelical Christians, of which there are many in North Carolina. If his posts are anything to go by, Hicks is an angry man. But Facebook is not a mirror into a person’s soul. That he killed because he hated Muslims is no more proven than that the Sandy Hook killer hated children.

Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and other “militant atheists” are no more to blame for Hicks’s alleged act than the Prophet Mohammed for the decapitation by ISIS of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya. To act through a perverted interpretation of a belief system is not the same as being directly encouraged to commit the act.

And yes, there is undoubtedly a concerted anti-Muslim lobby in the US, as this article in Middle East Eye suggests. America is full of lobbies – the gun lobby, creationists, political lobbyists, arms industry advocates and climate change deniers to name but a few. So those who fuel Islamophobia are not the only ones in the business of shaping opinion that many would find ludicrous and abhorrent. But that’s a long way from saying that the influencers of anti-Muslim sentiment would approve of the shooting of three innocents. However, they surely know their country well enough to guess that some of their words might lead to hate crimes. Which is why the author of the piece is quite right in saying that bigotry and unproven assertions should be confronted and rebutted.

But we should also understand that there are reasons why these pressure groups can sow their seed on fertile ground. There undoubtedly is an undercurrent of fear or dislike of Muslims in America. It would be surprising that it should be otherwise in a nation that saw attacks on its citizens at home and abroad over the past 20 years (Lebanon, Al-Khobar, Nairobi, Yemen, New York and latterly Boston), and hundreds of thousands of whose soldiers have been engaged, and many traumatised, in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is not to debate the rights and wrongs of those conflicts. It would be easy to trace a sequence of reactive wrongs committed by Christians and Muslims going back to the birth of Islam. But I do believe that much of the fear stems from ignorance rather than malevolence. I felt a similar undercurrent when I married in Ireland thirty years ago. Nothing overtly stated, but there was an underlying resentment of the British in the Republic at the time. Scratch the surface of most societies and you will find undercurrents of racism, xenophobia and old grudges.

The mainstream US media are highly inward-looking. Foreign news in all but a handful of media usually appears way past the front pages. Yes, as Professor Dabashi points out, if the killers in Chapel Hill had been Muslim and the victims not, it would have instantly slotted into the “War on Terror” narrative. But you could argue that the story was covered initially as just another shooting, not a possible hate crime against Muslims.

Yes, the media in many Western countries are controlled predominantly by wealthy, ethnically white interests. And yes, Jewish interests exert an influence on public opinion in some of those countries out of proportion to their numbers in the population. The reason for this is that typically the control of the media vests in those who control the economy.

Does this mean that every Jewish press or online media owner is a slavish supporter of Binyamin Netanyahu, or that every Jewish citizen feels greater allegiance to the State of Israel than to America, France or Britain? Peruse New York’s Jewish Daily Forward, and you might be convinced otherwise, at least as far as American Jews are concerned. Certainly this is not the case in Britain, my country. Consider also the negative reaction of leading Danish Jews to Netanyahu’s call for European Jews to settle in Israel. For very good reasons, most Jews, wherever they are, have a horror of mass political movements. And you could argue that their success in many fields is down to the independence of thought and intellectual rigour that their religion has never inhibited.

And finally to the narrative of victimhood that so many Muslims shelter under to explain the suffering of so many who share their faith. Yes, millions have suffered grievously through the intervention of Western powers in their social and political affairs over the past century and a half. And yes, much of that suffering has been as the result of the West’s determination to secure uninterrupted sources of energy for itself and to establish spheres of interest that shore up their interests against the encroachments of rival powers.

Yet that’s not the whole story. The West was not responsible for the sectarian schisms that have caused such animosity and bloodshed over the centuries. It was not responsible, or at least even by the most virulently anti-Western narrative only partly responsible, for the tyranny and corruption of so many leaders of Muslim countries. Likewise for the endemic and overt racism to be found in many of the wealthy Muslim countries towards Muslims from poorer countries. And it was not responsible for the dominance of scholarly Islamic traditions that have discouraged independence of thought, intellectual curiosity and creativity over the past two hundred years.

The notion that all the troubles in the Muslim world are the creation of non-Muslims is simple, convenient and comforting, but unfortunately false. The picture is far more complex.

And the plebs, as Professor Dabashi describes them – the millions of voices on the social media that find common cause in an instant and then vanish again like the Higgs Boson? I’m afraid they are a long way from the original plebs – the turbulent, physically threatening mob that exercised so much power in the late Roman Republic. The modern day plebs did not prevail in the green protests in Iran, the country of his birth. They did not ultimately prevail in the Arab Spring.

Those in power remain in power or have regained it. The dominant economic and political forces in the West remain in power. You can’t throw stones and erect barricades through the social media, even if you can reach gullible and easily manipulated hearts and minds. It takes more than a million tweets to generate real change, because tweets are simple and life is complicated. Talk is cheap. Doing is hard.

I come from a generation that said “give peace a chance”. Since then we’ve been rewarded for our dreamy good wishes with a succession of wars on almost every continent. We shouldn’t have been so naïve. It will take a long time to unpick the wrongs of centuries, and no amount of online rhetoric will change that.

We are in a bind, and the sooner we start thinking of ourselves as humans, not Muslims, atheists, Christians, Jews, Americans, Syrians and Russians, the sooner we can mitigate the suffering of the oppressed, the diseased, the mentally scarred, the dispossessed and those who have never possessed.

That’s the challenge, and firestorm of angry words and a million online voices are but leaves in the wind compared with the mountainous forces that stand in the way of the kind of progress that benefits the many rather than the few.

I’m not as clever as Professor Dabashi, but I do know enough to remind him that the battle between the original patricians and plebs, with whom he compares the victims and the oppressors of today, neither won.

The Roman Republic, after decades of vicious civil war, was replaced by an absolute monarchy that persisted in one form or another for 1,500 years. It took an Islamic empire to finally snuff it out after centuries of conflict on its slowly receding borders. If we are to avoid a millennium of conflict between the West, where many see our values and institutions as the philosophical New Rome, and those who resent what they see as its power, unequal control of global resources and its cultural dominance – or worse still, a swift and devastating conflagration that renders many of the battlegrounds uninhabitable for centuries to come – then we need to start creating some new narratives that include rather than exclude.

The old stories, no matter how comforting and familiar, won’t help us cope with the new.

I for one grieve for the three smiling youngsters in Chapel Hill. Just as I grieve for the kids in Sandy Hook who will never grow up to live their dreams, for the thousands of innocents who have met their deaths in conflicts in the Middle East, in Africa, in Europe and in Asia. But I refuse to bundle their deaths into a set of overriding narratives like the one being put forward by commentators such as Professor Dabashi. I don’t want to stop people from believing what they choose to believe or not to believe. I only want them to behave as humans can – with compassion, respect for others and a sense of common responsibility that transcends religion, nationality and ethnicity.

Unachievable and unrealistic perhaps, but surely something worth aiming for in this world rather than the next.

Thus speaks a Western “liberal”. Perhaps I would feel differently if the Chapel Hill shooter had taken my daughter.

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