The Politics of Mourning: From Charlie Hebdo to Chapel Hill



Chapel Hill murder victims, Deah Shaddy Barakat (left) and his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salah, on their wedding day.

Last week, I lost someone I can never regain. With that, I lost a specific integrity of the “I” I can never regain either. I will be skinless for a while, as many are with me, as many have been before and will be, growing skin and scale anew.

On 10 February 2015, three Muslim students – as they have be referred to repeatedly in U.S. media – were shot in their home in Finley Forest Condominiums in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salah (age 21), her husband Deah Shaddy Barakat (23), and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (19) were found dead of gunshot wounds after several horrified phone calls from neighbors. The very next day, their shooter, Craig Stephen Hicks, a White man identifying as an anti-theist, turned himself in. It took a rallying cry from the victims’ family members, as well as Muslim and allying communities all over the country, for the attack to be investigated as a hate crime, versus – as suggested by some – a meager parking dispute.

The incident became a public event not too long after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, during which, on the morning of 7 January, two Muslim brothers – identified as such by said media – named Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, forced their way into the headquarters of the French satirical weekly newspaper and shot-to-death many of its journalists. Eleven were killed, and eleven more were wounded. The same two men proceeded to kill a police officer, a Muslim-French man, after the initial attack. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, Amedy Coulibaly orchestrated a heinous hostage situation in a Kosher shop in Porte des Vincennes. The three-day attack was largely covered as a war, a war on Western values by a backward Islamism, even by the family members of the fallen, with some public outcries to not use this incident to further institutionalize an uncritical apotheosis of the West and the Other.

It is quite jading to write about these incidents back to back, as it was to watch and read of them, specifically the way they were constituted by cable news coverage in the West. What was most interesting, and troubling, in juxtaposing how the lives of the victims were narrated across both incidents – the French Journalists, the American students, or should I always say, Muslim or Muslim-American students – was how inextricable the way the victims were identified in their death was from their “mournability.” There is no doubt that the murders were senseless on both accounts. But while the legitimacy of the French journalists’ victimhood to a particular hatred was unquestioned – with no mention of their racialization as White, or their power to critique as French citizens – it took a bit more struggle with American media to (partially, or maybe) institutionalize a narrative of innocence, of victimhood to a particular and unwarranted hate, for the Chapel Hill students.

Among the many things I am, I am a writer. And I have a strong affinity with the primary religion of my upbringing, that of Islam. I am still undoing not only the shock left by each event, but the shock left by the media’s juxtaposition of both these events and the way in which they were constituted. While President Obama framed both incidents as an affront on nationalist values of freedom and diversity and such, the mourning was segregated. When it came to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I was asked to either cuss the terrorists along with White colleagues and friends or to explain away the terrorists, while with the Chapel Hill attacks, I was offered condolences, assured that “Americans” know that “not all Muslims are…” And, in both cases, I felt more vulnerability stepping out of my dwelling, into the street, into the groundlessness of public life.

Not too long before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I joined millions of Americans who yielded our bodies into this groundlessness, and lied down for forty-minute, thirty-second die-ins for Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager shot by a police officer on 9 August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Dozens of incidents where unarmed Black youth and adults are killed by cops all over the United States have preceded and would follow, up to the recent death of Tony Robinson, Jr. on 15 March, 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin. Although not definitively by a cop, one day before the Chapel Hill shootings, a Black Muslim student is shot in his apartment in Ottawa, Canada. His name is Mustafa Mattan, 28 years old, a Somali immigrant, who had just moved to Western Canada a few weeks before to seek better opportunities and help out his family.

The male among the fallen in the Chapel Hill incident, Deah, is displayed all over news networks with a beaming, lighter-skinned smile. They display photos of him playing basketball, as well as video footage of his work as a dental student with Syrian refugees in Turkey. He is lauded as a precious, dedicated, exemplary young Muslim, with middle-class interests and a service ethics that employs all he has access to for good. There are but a few photographs “we have” via public media of Mustafa, plus a few mourning tweets of him under the Chapel Hill-centered hashtag, #MuslimLivesMatter, which was also written in some articles as a “Ferguson moment” for Muslim Americans. There is little vestige of Mustafa to allow for public mourning.

Yet, I could not help but internalize these two men as the pipe dream I aspired to for so long as an immigrant Muslim – becoming integrated, integral to America in some way, becoming a citizen, visible in life and mournable when gone, collectively mournable on the block and on the television, like the firefighters of 9/11, becoming lighter-skinned as a consciousness, even if not physically, as a tongue and a paradigm and a paycheck – avoiding the double racism that darker-skinned and Black Muslims face in America, becoming the un-interrogated insider. I shed that skin a long time ago, and as much as I would like to think I’ve replaced them with scales, I was hurt, ashamed. I have let a dehumanizing hierarchy of human relations seep into my skin. As I write this article, I am compelled to suspend my solidarity ethics and prioritize the burning questions I have for Mustafa. To interrogate an unacknowledged silence of his life is to mourn his death.

In her poignant collection of essays, Precarious Life: the Power of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler tackles mass narratives of vulnerability and mournability after 9/11. She asks, “Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, what makes for a grievable life?” She theorizes that loss is so powerful because of its heightened state of vulnerability and unknowability, not yet knowing what fully happened or how one will emerge from it is inextricably coupled with it never being a solitary event. She writes, “What grief displays… is the thrall in which our relations with others hold us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of ourselves as autonomous and in control. I might tell a story here about what I am feeling, but it would have to be a story in which the very ‘I’ who seeks to tell the story is stopped in the midst of the telling; the very ‘I’ is called into question in relation to the Other… let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” One never mourns alone. Meanwhile, one never mourns the Other alone, but also what is inseparably lost of the self, and of others, of many simultaneous lives.

Meanwhile, cable news narratives would like the public to believe that mourning is as definitive as borders (which they are, with very little finitude). I go back to Butler, who, writing about Emmanuel Levinas’ concept of being ruptured by the face of the Other, describes how “…media representations of the faces of the ‘enemy’ efface what is most human about the ‘face’ for Levinas…those who remain faceless or whose faces are presented to us as so many symbols of evil, authorize us to become senseless before those lives we have eradicated, and whose grievability is indefinitely postponed.” Within the span of a month, media representations of “Muslim faces” went from ubiquitously criminalized against the edifice of a liberating West, to harmlessly moderate and mournfully included, to near absent and barely claimed by a mobilized collective – although members of both Black and Muslim communities have decried this absence. Yet, much like how “the media” covers the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s consistent decrying of the shooting of innocent police officers, which is still far less proportionate than that of innocent Black lives, or – on a more severe example – much like how it covers international Muslim opposition to the Islamic State, there is a well-funded hierarchy of which lives are more innocent, and which deaths more mournable.

I write this in light of recently losing someone I can never regain, my last grandmother and one of the lives I loved the most, and myself in light of her loss. I could not be present for her funeral in Cairo, and so I took it to Facebook, and a new family emerged from my CUNY Graduate Center colleagues – for whom I awkwardly facilitated a book launch party while the Muslim Writers Collective launched a night of poetry and memory nearby, called ‘A Parking Space Called America.’ Mourning can be most palpable when not in location, when outside of the ritual parameters of where it is to be spoken of, felt, smelled, even financed, and the question of it is embodied in exile. But is that where one should settle for location, pitch up a tent and become content with the refusal of rupture, with allowing a society to formalize who can get under whose skin and when? And even for the lives purported to be aptly mourned, is stuffing their memories between the cracks of a nationalist monument enough to empower a people to face violence, to know its senselessness, to know the inseparability of the Other? I am here reminded of the words of James Baldwin in Untitled, “Lord, / when you send the rain, / think about it, please, / a little? / Do /not get carried away / by the sound of falling water, / the marvelous light / on the falling water. / I / am beneath that water. / It falls with great force / and the light / Blinds / me to the light.”


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