When Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were murdered last month by their neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, my skin crawled as I watched the public reaction. First, there was silence. Then, major outlets framed the incident to be about a parking dispute instead of calling it what it was: a hate crime. Then, slowly, a dominant trend began to emerge, both in mainstream and social media. At local vigils in Toronto, through my networks of the Muslim social media community, and in my own family, I kept hearing about how sad it was for these beautiful, educated people—a future dentist, his wife, and his sister-in-law—to be killed in a senseless act.
There is no doubt that Shaddy Barakat and the Mohammad Abu-Salhas were admirable individuals, and that their deaths were indeed a tragedy. But this kind of repeated focus on the victims’ academic and volunteering achievements reflects a narrative that Muslims in the West like myself have been taught from a young age: that we must become role models in our community to have value as humans.
This pressure to conform to an ideal was, for me, a direct consequence of coming of age in a post-9/11 world. Ever since September 11, the fear of being a “useless Muslim,” as the xenophobic, colonialist public stereotype went, has been integral to my existence on an individual and community level. In response to this damaging prejudice, older Muslims push a notion of the “perfect Muslim”: someone who excels in as many arenas as possible, achieves merit and wealth, and fulfills the American Dream they crossed oceans for. My parents, both explicitly and implicitly, illustrated to me from a young age that Muslims and non-Muslims allocate love and respect to only certain people who have succeeded academically and professionally. Other influential people in my life fed me this narrative, too, including community leaders and teachers. Even my non-Muslim teachers throughout primary and secondary school encouraged me to be a certain way: a contributing member of society, an overachieving brown kid who could be a token in diversity brochures.
I listened. I entered university a model of what so many hands had molded me into, having won multiple awards and racked up thousands of volunteer hours at the local hospital alone. People constantly used microagressions coded in praise to let me know I was doing well, “good for my community,” “a good kind of Muslim,” “a moderate progressive Muslim.” I was a version of myself I did not entirely understand, nor did I know why I hardly slept and worked so hard. It broke me, fragmented me into pieces. I sacrificed my own mental health and well-being to be the type of Muslim that would attain this romanticized public assimilation—and by extension, the approval of others in my community. I have splintered myself over and over into slivers to have some type of value in a Western society that will never return my love.
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And it still wasn’t enough. I couldn’t keep up with that kind of life, not while watching non-Muslim white peers get to take a different path with the support of their families, communities, and strangers. Upon closer examination, my transcript has blemishes. I didn’t do well the first time I took the MCAT. I took a semester off of school. I volunteer, but it may not be at the “right” places—I’ve concentrated on feminist causes rather than continuing to spend time at the “honorable” hospital. I take controversial stances as part of my existence. I am human and filled with contradictions. My story is not perfect. So if I were killed in a hate crime, would there be such an outcry as there was with the three Chapel Hill victims? Am I impressive enough to be worthy to my community? Furthermore, am I valuable as a Muslim to the American media?
Plus, I am a young Muslim woman. I couldn’t help noticing that Deah Shaddy Barakat specifically seemed to get the most media coverage and space in discussions. His volunteer work and potential future status outweighed the experiences of the two young women killed—Yusor, who had been accepted into law school, and Razan, who was majoring in architecture. Both wore the hijab. I don’t wear the hijab at this point in my life, but I will forever be a defender of the role it plays for Muslim women. Many Muslim women have been targeted for violence and abuse while wearing the hijab; in a post-9/11 world, the symbol has even been reclaimed by many young Muslim women as a form of resistance, of resolve not to waver to appease the Western gaze. Its very existence is an unmistakable sign of anti-colonial solidarity and the Muslim identity. So I do not think it is a coincidence that the stories of two visibly Muslim women who wore the hijab were pushed to the margins, while that of Shaddy Barakat—a clean-shaven, light-skinned, basketball fan who fit the all-American “bootstrap” narrative—moved to the forefront.
These three people in Chapel Hill were special, yes. But what made them more special than my people killed during a drone strike? My people raped and killed during the invasion and occupation of countries?
A growing number of Muslims are dying without names or significant recognition of their deaths. They, too, have names. Rohingya Muslims are facing an ethnic cleansing in Burma. Many Muslim men have spent the prime of their lives uncharged in Guantanamo Bay Prison. Countless children have also died in Pakistan and Yemen—fellow Muslims, in whose death I am complicit because I live in the West and have paid taxes to a government that has sold us the notion that drones are precise even as we see multiple accounts of weddings and schools being targeted. These people have names. But they are simply labeled “collateral damage,” or maybe given it a brief mention at the bottom of a scrolling news feed.
In Canada, where many Somalis live in diaspora, dozens of Somali men have been murdered. The same week of the Chapel Hill shootings, a security guard named Mustafa Muttan was shot in Edmonton, Alberta, as he went to answer a knock on the door. In December, a 15-year-old Somali Muslim boy named Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein was killed in a hit-and-run in Kansas; his death was reported as a hate crime. Why was there no broad-ranging outpouring of rage and grief for them? Was it the fact that they did not have an impressive enough résumé? The darker color of their skin? I believe it was a combination of both.
All heinous and egregious deaths should matter, apart from this forced meritocracy. And it must be noted that being “respectable” requires privilege, too: Getting an education and having the time, energy, and opportunity to volunteer and “give back” does often require a socioeconomic level that some people cannot achieve, and that does not make them less worthy. Status and mobility play a pivotal role in the lives we are all able to lead—subsequently, it is erasure of context to only mourn and highlight those who “contributed” to a society, when some of us are set up for failure from birth.
These observations will continue to disturb me. These days, even as I try to fight the forced “good young Muslim” trope, I still find myself performing respectability to access privilege, spaces, and survival in North America. I do this by sometimes distancing myself from being “the other,” trying to draw on strategies like volunteering, participating excessively in the community, seeking approval, dragging myself through academic spaces that often aren’t safe spaces for identities on the margins. I would like to resist doing so, but this is the only way I know I will be acknowledged in both dominant Muslim and non-Muslim spaces. The coverage of the Chapel Hill shootings only further solidified my apprehensions about failing as a young Muslim.
I often find myself choosing between fear of rejection and working within this safer, “model minority” framework. Others don’t have the privilege to make this decision at all, even within our own communities. Colonialism has truly limited our ability to appreciate nuances and different forms of labor and contributions to society. Those who are not able to pursue academia, professional studies, monetary success—to navigate the Western and non-Western world as acceptable and approachable Muslims—remain expendable and unnoticed. They receive no name, no hashtag, no public outcry, no national vigils; their stories are untold.
This is the only strategy we are given. It means survival for those of us who can afford it, and erasure for those who cannot.