I went to the House Judiciary Committee on white nationalism as an optimistic Muslim — and was disappointed by what I saw

A Muslim father whose children were killed in a shooting was asked, 'Does Islam teach Muslims to hate Jewish people?'

Maha Hilal
Thursday 11 April 2019 20:58 BST
Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha were killed in the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting and their father Mohammed (left) testified at the hearing
Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha were killed in the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting and their father Mohammed (left) testified at the hearing

This week the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing titled “Hate Crimes and the Rise of White Nationalism”. As a Muslim and as someone whose research, organising, and advocacy focuses on the War on Terror, I attended this hearing to understand how seriously Congress was going to treat the threat of white nationalism and how Muslims would be represented throughout.

Representative Nadler, the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, commenced the hearing by framing the problem of white nationalism to “Islamist” domestic terrorism. For some, this might have seemed like an innocent attempt to contextualise the scope of white nationalist violence, but to me it revealed something deeper – the unwillingness or inability to understand the word terrorism as not inherently connected to Muslims. In fact, the more the hearing drilled down on Muslims, the more it felt like reliving Representative Peter King’s House hearing on the alleged radicalisation of Muslim Americans that was held in 2011.

Though Dr Abu-Salha, a Muslim father who tenderly recounted the killing of his daughters in the Chapel Hill shootings in 2015, was there to testify about how hate had devastated his and his family’s lives, his testimony was given alongside avid Zionist Mort Klein, someone who supports Trump’s Muslim ban, has used the racist slur “Arab filth,” and who used his time at the hearing to spew Islamophobic rhetoric accusing the entire global Muslim community of anti-Semitism. During the hearing he stated that “the major issue threatening violence against Jews and Americans… is Muslim anti-Semitism.” Perhaps he has forgotten that the shooting at the Tree of life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was conducted by a white supremacist.

Dr Abu-Salha, speaking about losing his two daughters and son-in-law, said during his testimony that, "The last time we saw them in their coffins, Yusor's forehead was bulging and her hazel eyes had turned grey and lifeless. What was once Razan's warm and smiling face filled with life was now lifeless, stone-cold and deadly pale.” It was a heartrending testimony, yet it didn’t stand in the way of Representative Jackson Lee asking the grieving father, “Did you teach your children, your daughters, hatred?” Representative Hank Johnson similarly asked, “Does Islam teach Muslims to hate Jewish people?”

Elsewhere, Representative Guy Reschenthaeler asked Morton Klein about interventions to combat anti-Semitism, while remaining silent on the question of Islamophobia despite hearing directly from Abu-Salha, a survivor of Islamophobic hate violence. Increasingly the hearing felt like a space where Muslims were denied the ability to be victims, while all other victims of hate crimes had their say.

Donald Trump calls question put to him about white nationalists 'racist'

Abu-Salha concluded his initial statement by saying that, “We miss our children so much. At times the pain is just as sharp now as when they died. I ask you, I truly plead to you, not to let another American family go through this because our government would not act to protect all Americans. Please remember them, Yusor, Deah and Razan. They are my children and they are gone.” Despite this plea, if the hearing revealed anything, it is that the government isn’t going to protect Muslims any time soon — whether it’s from white nationalists or the state itself. While Muslims are rejected as “true Americans” and unable to be seen as victims, we can have little confidence that any hearing on white nationalism will protect every group sorely in need of protection.

It’s clear to me that the government at this time refuses to acknowledge the Muslim lives lost in this time of fomenting hate — but their legacies should be positive change. And so long as there are people willing to utter their names in local mosques and the halls of Congress, we will make sure that change comes to pass.

Dr Maha Hilal is the co-Director of the Justice for Muslims Collective where she focuses on research and political education addressing institutionalised Islamophobia

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