The Canvas

On the morning of February 12th, I read a few social media updates with the hashtag Chapel Hill shooting. At first, I thought it was just another school shooting. In my ignorance, I set my phone back down to get ready for the day.  But it wasn’t “just” another shooting. That word “just” seems so odd to me now. It’s like I’ve become desensitized by the common tragedies which plague our society over and over again. It’s stories from Columbine to Columbia that have shaped our perceptions from what once was shock and disbelief, to what is now, “just” another shooting. That’s “just” a thought. 

Later that day, I received a text about a vigil to be held outside the University of New Mexico bookstore for the Chapel Hill shooting. I wasn’t sure why so I finally opened up the full story on my phone. What I perceived initially to be “just” a shooting was in fact unjust in every sense of the word. It was the loss of innocence. It was three, young, Muslim students shot dead in their apartment. Over, it was reported, a parking dispute. I sat there in shock and disbelief.

How could anyone do such a thing? I read through comments on a New York Times article later that night seeing the words hate crime thrown into almost every personal interpretation of the incident. I wasn’t too sure. The motive, if really over a parking dispute, seemed weak. Very weak.

And yet the core issue of this story is not whether the atrocities committed were spurred by hateful resentments. The true issue is our inability to recognize the injustices surrounding us and our lack of tolerance for others. The world is without three, innocent, caring individuals. And no matter how much we as Muslims push for this to be labelled a hate crime, it never will be. As much as we call for widespread media coverage, it will never happen. Perhaps it is all in the name of weathering a storm that Muslims have faced in America for over a decade. One disguised by the media, born on 9/11, and bred through fear.

Islamophobia, as most have come to know the term, has scorched the American landscape and left many afraid of even their own birth names. Hoping that by dissociation, they can live away from the magnifying glass of society. And so, in situations similar to the tragedy at Chapel Hill, we reach and we grasp. At any passing ear that may listen. At any wandering eye that may see. As if to say, that for once, we are not to be feared. That for once, we are the victims and we have a voice. And yet without tragedy, we are but missing in action. MIA. Muslim in America.

This reactionary tale, however, can never serve as the catalyst.  It will never turn what is feared into what is accepted. It is simply not enough to respond only when faced with tragedy. And I write this as a reminder to us all.  It is a necessity of the human privilege to stand when one has been forced to sit.  And to speak when one is forced in silence.  To dream as Dr. King once did, is to push beyond the limitations of our present situation.  To once again resist as Mandela against apartheid, refuse as Ghandi against occupation, and respect as Eleanor Roosevelt in her Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  And we must not waver in our attempt to find peace.  The ingredients have long been lost, but we must stir our emotions in the proper way. And once we have tasted its glorious flavor, we will never return. As the great Cesar Chavez once said, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours”.

In that same night, on Feb 12th, I realized something else. Sadly, this too would pass. We would soon forget. We would move on. We would once again succumb to the common notion that what happens elsewhere cannot happen to us. It is the same way in which we treat any tragedy.  By distancing ourselves from those affected. Those individuals that as of yesterday, lived by the same mind state we do, day to day. And yet now, as I sit here writing this piece, I give pause to the thought that it could even happen to me.  That someone in Albuquerque could do the same. And could tear my soul from the warm days and the cold nights of this world, all for what I believe.

And yet despite all that, despite our innate ability to forget and move forward almost as quickly as we become appalled and outraged, I think we should remember one thing. That in our search for justice and equality, we must not only change our lack of tolerance for others but also our tolerance of violence against others. Against people we do not relate to. People we cannot see as ourselves. When James Boyd was shot in the Albuquerque foothills, I wrote nothing.  When Eric Garner was choked to death and Officers Liu and Ramos were subsequently murdered in New York City, I wrote nothing. When a Nigerian school bombing claimed the lives of 50 children, nothing. Why, then, Chapel Hill? The answer is simple. It strung a rippling chord through my heart which had not been played for James Boyd, Eric Garner or even Nigeria.  A chord which was reserved only for my people. Only for my community. For three Muslim students in Chapel Hill. For 147 teachers and students killed in a Pakistani school just one month after the Nigerian tragedy. And that is exactly what we must change in our search for tolerance. In our search to find the strongest chord within ourselves.  One that fights and feels pain for the tragedy of all people.  One that compels us to write, to act, and to speak for all of humanity.

We can no longer afford to wait for the next tragedy but instead to lead by example. To show our neighbors, our teachers, and our friends, that we all belong to the same organic history that is woven into this country’s tapestry. One that has been stitched into the global fabric and cut from the common thread which binds us all. We live in a world of differing viewpoints, ideas, cultures, and religions. It is a collage of diversity which defines our existence. And every so often, it is attempted to be painted with a single brush. A brush that is brash, with torn bristles of understanding, and a wooden handle splayed by intolerance. And at times, I feel like we are just living from brush stroke to brush stroke, until what was once a beautiful canvas full of color and life becomes scarred with strokes of tragedy and death.

And so, what is defined as “just” gives rise to the unjust. And as such, we move forward from brush stroke to brush stroke. From Columbine to Columbia. From Rodney King to Tamir Rice. From Kansas City to Chapel Hill. Hanging, from stroke to stroke. There will always be another. Another Deah Shaddy Barakat. Another Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha. Another Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Until we realize that in our debilitated state, we can no longer move forward without first changing ourselves. Without realizing that our survival, as a community, as a nation, and as a world, depends on an idea of acceptance and tolerance. And without that, we are “just” a painting without reason on a canvas of inequality.


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