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Hamid Dabashi

We won the narrative battle

Protests across the globe - here in Gaza - forced a change of narrative (Anadolu)

Date of publication: 16 February, 2015

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Comment: The narrative of the Chapel Hill murders became a battle between us Internet plebians and the patricians of the ‘Western media’. The plebs won.
The cold blooded murder of three young Muslim students by a heavily armed, militant atheist follower of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and their ilk in Chapel Hill North Carolina on 10 February has shocked Muslims around the world and exposed the deep rooted Islamophobic hate mongering that today defines a large and increasing strata of societies from North America to Western Europe.


There are of course extended forms of cultivated hatred

     We are the agents of our own history, not the victims of someone else’s narrative.

towards Muslims in places like India too that have been equally murderous. You don’t have to go further back then the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom, which was led by the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But they require a different diagnosis, even if the increasing military alliance between Modi’s India and Netanyahu’s Israel points to a brand of Islamophobia that brings militant Zionism and murderous Hindu nationalism together into a morbid dance macabre. Right now that murderous Hindu nationalism has turned its attention to Christian communities in India, but the memories of its most recent massacre of Muslim Indians still lingers.


Outraged Muslims around the world are rightly pointing to what they see as the hypocrisy of the so-called “Western media” and the hesitant, slow, and whitewashing coverage of this murderous act. But we need to move far beyond this passive reiteration of well-established hypocrisy. There is a more urgent and important lesson to be learned from this most heinous act of violence against Muslims just because they are Muslim.


Beyond just marking hypocrisy


The fact of this hypocrisy has been known for decades now and need not be laboured. All we need to do is to imagine if the identity of the victims were different, if these were three Jewish or white students murdered by a Muslim or a black, or Latino/Latina person. We would see what hell would break loose, what thick and frightfully large fonts the New York Times would have used, and how CNN would have supplied wall-to-wall coverage of the incident live with Wolf Blitzer and other obscene propagandists. We would have seen Obama’s schedule instantly interrupted, and how he would have rushed to the White House Press Room to issue a statement within minutes after the news broke out. We would have seen “world leaders” led by Israeli warlord Binyamin Netanyahu parading in the avenues of Washington DC by now.


This is not just something that any Muslim, Black, Latino/Latina knows. It is something that any decent human being would readily acknowledge: “Far more Americans are killed each year by the shooters in our midst like Craig Stephen Hicks” – this is Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker – “than have ever been killed by all the jihadist terrorist outfits that have ever stalked this earth … But maybe to understand the Chapel Hill murders better we need to imagine how it would be playing out if it were the other way around – if some gun-toting Muslim, with a habit of posting hate messages about secular humanists, took it upon himself to execute a defenceless family of them in their home.” Philip Gourevitch is not Muslim, Black or Latino—just a decent, fair, and conscientious person.


So none of that is strange or unusual. Muslim and Black and Latino lives do not count in this country: only Jewish and white Christian lives matter. Muslims are now actively manufactured as the externalized enmity of the internal Black and Latino lives, the absolutely othered, estranged, alienated, and demonized so systematically and consistently that their murder does not trigger an emotive universe to prompt immediate outrage and obsessive coverage. Chief among others, Muslims, Blacks, and Latinos/Latinas are so systematically dehumanized within the matrix of white-centered North American and Western European social consciousness that society at large and the media in particular simply lack the corresponding grammatology of seeing them as human beings whose life and death matters. Muslims are terrorists, Blacks and Latinos are criminals: these two complementary nexuses of manufactured Pavlovian response simply lack any room for feeling for a Muslim or Black or Latino death. It does not appear on the radar that racist Islamophobic New Atheists like Sam Harris and Bill Maher consistently cultivate.


So we are way beyond pointing to such hypocrisies of “the Western media”, whatever such creature might be. Marking, underlining and screaming ‘hypocrisy’ is no longer necessary let alone sufficient. It is in fact counterproductive to dwell on this, as if the mere fact of that recognition would be the final result of what has happened or what now needs to be done. Narrative elitism – who actually gets to write the history – has been categorically neutralized by that grand equalizer, the Internet. We write back. We, the plebeians of this planet, are no longer at the mercy of the patricians of the mass media.


From the instant this carnage happened a battle of narrative ensued between the old-fashioned journalism of the New York Times, CNN and BBC trying to whitewash the terror, and ordinary folks on the Internet trying to expose the nasty truth: A patrician and plebian confrontation of global proportion ensued.

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The police immediately threw out the phrase “prolonged parking dispute,” and soon the New York Times added another diversionary phrase of “equal opportunity anger” — and the two phrases came together to mark and sustain the barefaced banality of an attempt to rob these three innocent Muslim Americans of who they were and why they were selected to be murdered execution-style.


We would have lost the narrative battle if the family of the victims were not so eloquent even in the painful grip of their unfathomable grief; if their friends were not so quick to hit the Internet and flood it with the beautiful pictures and stories of the victims; and if people of conscience — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — around the world had not joined the battle.


Consider the fact that the New York Times had to publish a piece on “reporting bias” in this case entirely under the pressure of the Tweeter and Facebook outrage. “People,” the NYT reported, “expressed outrage on Twitter at what they perceived to be inconsistent standards when either the suspects or the victims of a crime were Muslim.”


Without that global coverage, the NYT would not have been put on the spot, nor indeed would President Obama be forced, days after the carnage, to come out and issue a statement condemning the murderous act as “brutal and outrageous”. He effectively called it a hate crime against Muslims, and thus put an end to the inanity of the initial police report that this was “prolonged parking dispute”, or the NYT’s earlier feeble attempt to start circulating the equally crass phrase of “equal opportunity anger.”


Were it not for this Internet pressure, the FBI would not have announced its own investigation either. This is how this insidious machine works when it comes to Muslim, Black, and Latino/Latina lives, any life in fact other than Jewish and/or white. The phrase “parking dispute” within days took off as the defining moment of this event—so much so that a popular news show called Inside Edition in fact used the news of this murder “to segue into a segment providing viewers tips on how to avoid aggressive drivers and find parking spaces while shopping”.


At that point, the murder of three Muslims was being categorically shoved under the rubble of a “parking dispute” by the old patrician press. The new plebian Internet though was fighting back.


Winning the narrative battle


Even if this indeed were the result of a prolonged “parking dispute” as the police early suggested and this murderous thug was equally angry with everybody else – though he did not opt to murder them at point blank range – these are issues exclusive to the over-legalized and racist parameters of this society and scarce mean anything any more to the world at large.


Two facts that must first and foremost concern Muslims and non-Muslims who care about the future of North American and Western European societies: (1) this heinous murder is the direct result of an Islamophobic environment masquerading as New Atheism, and (2) people around the world are no longer at the mercy of the so-called “Western media” to report, to acknowledge, to understand, analyse, theorise, globalise the nature of these crimes. We are the agents of our own history, not the victims of someone else’s narrative.


What matters most is that old media now must acknowledge and accommodate the fact and force of the new media. Consider this passage in the New York Times first major coverage of the incident: “The killings immediately set off a debate throughout the world over whether the students had been targeted because of their religion, with Muslims picking up some of the language of those who protested police shootings in the United States, using the phrase #muslimlivesmatter. Even as Chapel Hill awoke on Wednesday, frustration had already spread on Twitter throughout Europe and Asia, as Muslims as far away as Indonesia shared photographs and details of the victims’ lives.” Twitter and Facebook are the force with which old-fashioned media must contend.


I for one could not care less if “the Western media acknowledges or does not acknowledge, or the legalese languages of the police and the wife and the public prosecutor concur or do not concur with the blatant fact that stares us all in the face: three bright, beautiful, magnificent human beings have been slaughtered by a murderous thug who identified, with his gun posted proudly on his Facebook, as a militant atheist follower of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other members of their racist fraternity club.


There is timing to the urgency of a narrative, or as French philosopher Paul Ricoeur would say the narrative emplotment brining the diverse forces of a condition into an imaginative order. That emplotment and imaginative order are stacked, right off the bat, against Muslims who live in the US and Europe. Racist and bigoted Islamophobes like Sam Harris and Bill Maher who consistently racialise and profile us are lucratively rewarded by their employers. They have made it possible for Muslims to be considered guilty unless proven otherwise, and reviled so systemically that murderous thugs like Hicks feel empowered to pick up their gun and execute three young Muslims.


But we are not helpless, nor are we sitting ducks. What we experience in the Chapel Hill case is the capacity of ordinary people to write back and reveal the narrative of three innocent young people’s death against the terrorizing power of dominant narrative seeking to strip them of their innocence and making them subject of a random rather than systemic violence. Ordinary people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, won and the dominant narrative lost. We demanded and exacted President Obama’s statement of sympathy for the family of the victims, a statement that already acknowledges the fact they were the specific targets of murderous Islamophobes enabled by the so-called New Atheists.


We will now laser beam on these Islamophobic New Atheists, globally scandalize them, expose their dirty souls, uncover their infested minds, and hang on every street corner of this globe for the whole world to see their diabolic racism. Muslim and non-Muslim people of conscience, courage, and conviction will not let them get away with murder. They know we are on their case, and they are nervous and angry. This is good. 

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