Leave Muslims Out of This. Let’s Discuss White Violence on Its Own Terms.
A group of participants at an iftar, a meal eaten by Muslims to break their fast during Ramadan, hosted by Gov. Tim Walz at the governor’s residence in St. Paul on May 7, 2019.LEILA NAVIDI / STAR TRIBUNE VIA GETTY IMAGES
In the last two weeks alone, the U.S. has seen 31 people die and tens of others injured due to three mass shootings across the country.
Over and over again, despite the fact that this violence was rooted in white supremacy, pundits and news articles have repeatedly invoked violence committed by Muslims when discussing these attacks. These invocations divert attention from white supremacy as its own unique form of violence, spreading the damaging idea that white supremacist violence can only be understood in comparison to violence committed by Muslims.
As a Muslim scholar who studies institutionalized Islamophobia in the “war on terror,” I clearly see what this comparison is designed to do: avoid confronting white supremacist violence as systemic, while presenting violence committed by Muslims as the exemplar of real and systemic violence.
However, white supremacy and mass shootings and racially motivated violence generally are not new phenomena. Only those whose historical consciousness has completely erased the United States’s violent legacy of genocide of Indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans could believe as much.
In recent times, white supremacy has been at the root of the caging of migrant families, the torture of Muslim prisoners, the surveillance of communities of color, the extrajudicial assassination of citizens, the incarceration and police murders of Black and Brown people — the list goes on and on. And lest anyone forget about the normalization of overt white supremacist violence, there are 22 states that had active KKK groups until at least 2017. Moreover, if it’s not the government enacting violence rooted in white supremacy, then it’s proxies for the government — white supremacists outside the state who take off where the government leaves off. The El Paso shooter is a clear example of such a proxy: Trump’s description of immigrants as invaders, and the anger in the shooter’s manifesto about Texas being subjected to an “invasion” signaled not only the mirroring of wording, but also that the shooter was in fact acting on Trump’s words.
Despite the fact that they often act as a proxy for larger forces of white supremacy, mass shootings perpetrated by white people tend to be treated as incidents of exceptional violence — not violence that is deeply embedded into the United States. However, when the perpetrator is Muslim, such events are categorized differently. In this case, acts of mass violence are unquestioningly labeled acts of terrorism — a construction that has been repeatedly enforced in order to justify abusive policies against Muslims. Even most of those who point to the double standard in how acts of violence are covered and treated depending on the identity of the perpetrators are doing nothing to shift the ways that Muslims are presented. In fact, when politicians and the media call on us to take white violence as seriously as violence perpetrated by Muslims, they actually reinforce the trope of Muslims as terrorists, injecting Muslims into a discussion that should have nothing to do with them.
While white supremacists perceive themselves to be under attack, Muslims actually are being attacked in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and in the United States.
To this point: In an interview last week, California Representative Adam Schiff commented that “the threat domestically from white supremacist violence now I think is eclipsing the threat from the doctrinations of ISIS and al-Qaida and the like in terms of domestic crimes.” But this has long been the case. The only reason white supremacist violence has been dealt with differently is because of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia — not because of numbers — something which he failed to address.
In fact, the FBI expends more resources to challenge violence committed by Muslims than it does on white supremacist violence despite this discrepancy in numbers. The FBI’s resource expenditure has nothing to do with what is actually a bigger threat, but instead serves to reiterate the narrative of violence committed by Muslims as an exceptional threat while simultaneously exculpating white violence.
Moreover, the consistent injection of violence committed by Muslims into the mass shooting narrative suggests that these forms of violence share the same motivations. But the U.S., through imperialism and intervention, facilitated the creation of many of these groups, such as ISIS, to which politicians are now eagerly comparing white supremacist violence. Additionally, while white supremacists perceive themselves to be under attack or subjected to an “invasion,” Muslims actually are being attacked in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and in the United States itself precisely because of their identity. Furthermore, the entire infrastructure of the War on Terror has explicitly targeted Muslims.
White supremacy and the violence that comes with it should be treated for what it is: part of the unique and racist culture of violence in the United States.
Nevertheless, the parallels are continually drawn and through these comparisons violence committed by Muslims is said to serve as a conceptual blueprint for understanding white violence. But whatever else these comparisons are supposed to do, they stop short of suggesting that white violence should actually be treated in the same way that violence committed by Muslims is. No one is suggesting that an entire infrastructure of state violence be built with the aim of holding white people collectively responsible. And, as Kelly Hayes pointed out in Truthout, the invocation of “terrorism” and comparisons made between white supremacist violence and violence committed by Muslims mainly serves to legitimize interventions that will only target more Muslims – not hold white people accountable for their violence, which has always been systemic.
With all this said, the theoretical parity of both types of violence should be disavowed. White supremacy and the violence that comes with it should not be treated as anomalies. It should be treated for what it is: part of the unique and racist culture of violence in the United States.
As a Muslim, I know all too well what happens when public discourse reinforces the connection of Muslims to terrorism, and I’m angry that the comparison is made to shield white people from confronting their own violent legacy. Attempts to include Muslims in the current conversation should be seen as nothing but a cheap attempt to malign us once again.
Dr. Maha Hilal has a Ph.D. in justice, law and society, and the focus of her research and expertise is on Muslim Americans’ responses in the context of national security post-9/11. She is the co-director of Justice for Muslims Collective and an organizer with Witness Against Torture. She has written and spoken extensively on the topic of institutionalized Islamophobia in the war on terror, with a focus on the Guantánamo Bay prison and torture.