Chapel Hill shooting: Would the media have covered the tragedy if Twitter didn't exist, and what would have happened if the murderer was Muslim?

They might have caught up eventually, but there are still two big 'what ifs' that shame the western media's response

Mashaal Mir
Friday 13 February 2015 17:01
Deah Barakat was a dental student at UNC who worked for a charity giving dental care to Palestinian children and refugees
Deah Barakat was a dental student at UNC who worked for a charity giving dental care to Palestinian children and refugees

The murder of three young American Muslims in Chapel Hill has spent shockwaves throughout the world, especially among its Muslim community.

The murder of Deah Barakat, Yusor and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha by Craig Hicks has reopened many wounds for American Muslims who already feel targeted. They’re upset because nobody really cared about this story until it trended on Twitter, and because of the slow response by the western media and the silence from politicians. But most of all, they’re upset because they feel Muslim lives do not matter in the West.

If you're unsure about this, and think that the media's response to the shooting was completely legitimate, then let me run through a couple of hypothetical scenarios.

1. What if Twitter didn’t exist?

The question is not “if” the mainstream media was covering the story, as they did eventually. The question is: would they have cared to cover it had Twitter not publicly shamed them for their silence?

I work in the media, yet didn’t even hear of the story until I logged on to Twitter to see #ChapelHillShooting trending worldwide. There was tweet after tweet bashing media outlets for ignoring the possibility that it could have been a hate crime.

Three Muslims shot in the head by man who, alongside posts attacking various other religions, had written anti-Muslim and anti-Islam sentiments on social media. Yet for hours there were only two or three news outlets giving the tragedy any attention.

So what if Twitter didn’t exist? What would have happened?

Not much.

Local media would have reported it, as they did. The story would have perhaps, and that’s a strong perhaps, made it on to a national news bulletin.

But it would have died down quickly and the names of the victims may never have echoed beyond Chapel Hill. And the widely held narrative that “only Muslims kill innocent people over religion” would have continued to march on, completely uncontested by the truth.

2. What if the murderer was a Muslim?

Would the initial response by the western media and politicians been the same if it was a middle-aged Muslim man who fatally shot three non-Muslims execution-style in their own home? A Muslim man who had posted extreme views about atheists and other faiths on his social media, as well as photos of loaded guns?

Absolutely not.

You know it and I know it. Everyone knows it. We'd have CNN and a whole panel of middle-aged men analysing every single aspect of the story with Wolf Blitzer faster than you can say 'ratings'.

A Muslim shooter would mean a demand for condemnation, a demand for discussions on Islam, a demand for Muslims to reform, to assimilate, to take collective responsibility. We may even be graced with a little gathering of politicians.

We would see, as we did following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, a spike in attacks on mosques and Muslims. Polls would show a higher percentage of the population suspicious, distrusting and with more negative views towards Muslims.

A non-Muslim shooter? Different story.

And this is exactly why we need to have a conversation on the Chapel Hill murders. Muslims are seemingly only worthy of anyone’s attention when they are the perpetrators of heinous crimes, not victims of it.

There are 1.5bn Muslims in the world, and just like white atheists shouldn’t be forced to apologise now for one maniac, neither should we. But recognising this isn't enough on its own. We also need to change the way we talk about Muslims, because their lives matter just as much as anyone else's, and we must never forget that.

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