This post was originally posted in February 2015 on the Center for Media, Religion and Culture’s Third Spaces blog.
Over the last few days, the image of three smiling, happy, young people has spread through social media and appeared on various news sites. The young woman on the far right wears a light blue graduation cap and gown with numerous cords, signaling her many accomplishments, hanging around her neck. The other two, a young man and young woman, stand with their arms around each other, proud and happy to be celebrating the achievements of their loved one. While there is nothing extraordinary about this image of a typical graduation, this photograph has become part of a larger grassroots campaign online to commemorate the loss of the lives of these three young people who were killed in a tragic shooting on February 10 in Chapel Hill, NC.
When logging into social media platforms on the morning of February 11, many people were faced with this photograph of the victims: Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. Various grassroots projects were staged almost immediately by people online to spread these positive images of the victims and to push the news media to focus on the angle that these three students were killed not simply over a “parking dispute” but because of deeper hatred and fear over their religious identity as Muslims. Most notably, the on-going social media campaign to share stories and photos from the lives of Deah, Yusor and Razan has been a way for Muslim Americans to force these positive representations into the public. The tragic irony of this situation is that it took the brutal death of three innocent lives in order for most Americans to finally see a positive image of Muslims.
Through various social media campaigns, such as #MuslimLivesMatter on Twitter and the Our Three Winners Facebook page, individuals have been gathering and disseminating photos, videos, status updates, Tweets, Vines and other posts from the social media accounts of the three victims. While it is somewhat haunting to see the social media activity of three people who are no longer living, the posts offer a more nuanced and complex view of the lives of young Muslims than are ever seen in mainstream news and entertainment media. We see photos that are typical of the social media feeds of most 20-something-year-old Americans: Yusor dancing with her father at her wedding, Deah practicing his basketball skills, Deah and Yusor standing proudly on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, Deah on a mission trip to do dental work in Palestine, Yusor doing service work for Habitat for Humanity, and Razan hanging out with her friends.
It appears that Deah had the most active social media presence, focusing on, as he writes in his Vine profile, “Islam. Family. Career. Basketball. In that order.” Deah’s Twitter feed features a profile image of him and Yusor at a Carolina Panthers football game, decked out in the team colors. His feed focuses on sports and popular culture, but he also posts items about politics and religion. In January 2015, Deah had tweeted about the situation in the Middle East and commented about how sad it is to hear people on either side talking about killing Jews or Palestinians. Deah then retweeted a response from his friend that said simply, “kill hatred not people.” It’s quite eerie to read this tweet on Deah’s Twitter feed, posted just days before he was killed.
Deah’s social media feeds also feature a lot of light-hearted posts, such as a Vine of Yusor shooting a basketball with her back turned and from beyond the 3-point-line. At the end of the video, Deah can be heard in the background, yelling in celebration, and Yusor just grins triumphantly at the camera.
Deah also frequently posted about his favorite basketball player, Stephen Curry. After the murders, Curry tweeted his condolences to the loved ones of the three victims and wrote Deah’s name on his shoes during a 2015 game.
Finally, several images have been circulating of Deah, Yusor and Razan doing service work in the community. Deah has images of his work, providing dental care to children in Palestine, and the sisters are shown doing work with Habitat for Humanity. A video surfaced of Deah on his trip with United Muslim Relief to the West Bank in 2012. In the video, Deah is helping a young boy who has just gotten a tooth pulled, and in another scene, he is joking around with another boy in the waiting room.
Looking through all of these images, videos and posts is a sobering activity, as one realizes what has been lost because of this horrific act, supposedly over a parking space. It has been said that everyone presents their best selves on social media, so we can’t assume that the lives of these three young people were completely perfect. On the other hand, the social media activity shows the great joy with which these three people lived their lives, loved their family and friends, followed their faith, and cared for others.
It is notable that this is one of the first instances where these complex images of life as a young Muslim in America are made visible to a wider audience. While this tragic event was not planned, the response to the event online fit in with a larger and growing movement of young Muslims, mostly in North America, who are using whatever means possible to push their stories into popular culture. We can see several examples from the last few years of more complex representations of Muslims in popular culture: the introduction of a Muslim superhero, Kamala Khan, in the Ms. Marvel comic series and then the guerilla campaign to plaster images of Kamala over Islamophobic ads on buses in San Francisco; the videos of Muslims dancing to Pharrell’s incessant Happy song; the Mipsterz movement and the much-discussed fashion video; the romantic comedy, Amira and Sam, featuring an Iraqi refugee falling in love with an Iraq war veteran; Wajahat Ali and Dave Eggers’ work to try to create a TV show about a Muslim American cop; and comedian Aasif Mandvi’s streaming family sitcom, Halal in the Family.
These are just some examples of the ways that Muslim Americans have tried to use any and all techniques at their disposal to counter the dominant representations of Muslims as outsiders to be feared. Although these efforts are not without their problems, there is no doubt that there is a desperate need for Muslims to be seen in popular culture as real people who live complex lives. With the recent success of television shows that feature minority-led casts (Jane the Virgin, Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish, Empire), the hope is that Muslim Americans may have the opportunity to break into these cultural forms.
Unfortunately, strong political and cultural forces are working to promote negative stereotypes of Muslims. Years of negative representations in culture cause the bodies of Muslims, like these three young people, to be marked as objects to be feared and destroyed. This is one of the many tragedies of this situation: that someone could see Deah, Yusor and Razan as threats. But maybe it is not that hard to imagine when the only public images of Muslims are as terrorists and victims. What is most haunting about all the images of Deah, Yusor and Razan that have circulated after their deaths is that these are a few of the only positive Muslim figures to ever be featured in the mainstream media—and now they are gone. Throughout social media, many are expressing the hope that this terrible event will lead to social change and will assert that Muslim lives have equal value in society. Change in the way that Muslims are represented in the media must come about to honor the legacies of Deah, Yusor and Razan.