Who Can We Mourn?
The second of five responses to the May 2017 bombing of Manchester Arena by scholar, artist, and educator Asif Majid.
In this series of time-delayed field reports, I reflect on my observations of the sociopolitical responses to the 2017 Manchester attack, responses that have taken place over the past year. They appear within the city of Manchester, across the UK, and around the world. All five posts, the second of which is below and the remainder of which are archived here, lead up to the first anniversary of the attack on May 22, 2018. The italicized portions of each post are my original thoughts, while the regular text represents more recent reflections. Much of this is linked to my ongoing research as a PhD candidate in the Anthropology, Media, and Performance program at The University of Manchester.
In a week that saw a Minnesota mosque bombed around the time of fajr prayers, I find myself wondering again about who it is that we can mourn. In particular, President Trump’s non-reaction and non-response to the attack spoke volumes about the double standard that exists between communities that suffer from violence but are simultaneously seen in the public imagination as perpetrators of violence. This isn’t the first time that President Trump has failed to tell the entire story, with his silence about the attack on the mosque in Finsbury Park by terrorist Darren Osborne only the most recent example.
President Trump’s response to these matters is no surprise. But even responses to the attack undertaken by Salman Abedi in Manchester make a particular claim. There is a double reporting standard that exists, one that positions Muslim lives as not grievable. When Abedi attacked an Ariana Grande concert earlier this year, media reports indicate that his actions claimed 22 lives and a number of others who were injured. Actually, he claimed 23 lives, but we’re socially discouraged from discussing the 23rd life for three reasons: because it was responsible for taking 22 others, it ended through suicide, and it was a Muslim life.
Two reflections are worth making here. First, I’m not claiming that Abedi shouldn’t be vilified or — if he were still alive — held responsible for his actions. I’m instead asking: what makes a life worth living, and consequently what makes a life worth remembering? How do individuals from particular ethnonational, religious, or racial backgrounds get dehumanized not for what they do, but for who they are? In the recent past, we’ve seen more attempts to humanize far-right neo-Nazis across the globe, for example, as if Western society has somehow failed them rather than them failing to adapt to our contemporary world. Even the term that the US media uses to describe these groups — the “alt-right” — makes these types of movements sound edgy, cool, and non-threatening. This is in contrast to labeling them accurately: as racist, misogynist white supremacists. Those lives, because they are primarily white, male, and Judeo-Christian/atheist, are seen to have value, regardless of their bigoted beliefs and violent actions. Muslim lives of color, on the other hand, are less worthy.
My second point follows from this. Though some may disagree, I’d argue that fear of Islam can productively be thought of in racialized terms. Political scientist Arun Kundnani, in his ironically titled book The Muslims Are Coming!, supports this contention. He understands “Islamophobia as a form of structural racism directed at Muslims” that is “sustained through a symbolic relationship with the official thinking and practices of the war on terror.” When I speak about racism directed at Muslims, I’m not only talking about race on the basis of skin color. I’m talking about a socially constructed othering that criminalizes and dehumanizes visibly Muslim bodies. The airline Royal Jordanian, in response to President Trump’s electronics ban that wreaked havoc on international travel from March-July 2017, issued an advertisement as a call to action against discrimination on its flights. The video perfectly captures the phenomenon I’m describing.
Immediately after the attack, Abedi was ostracized by all parts of British society: a mosque he attended disassociated itself from him, other nearby religious institutions said they would not handle his remains, and his family members were criticized and arrested. Given that he is a violent criminal who, unfortunately, cannot be held legally responsible for his actions, it makes sense that social institutions such as mosques and the like would decry him. Suicidal individuals are often marginalized within society as well, making his a double whammy. The third layer of social construction is that of the Muslim: all three combine to make Abedi a figure that history will forget.
Put in the context of other violent offenders like Darren Osborne, for instance, who are instead humanized and described as a “Cardiff resident” and “married father of four,” I think that the element of Muslimness added to Abedi, the Minnesota mosque, and the one in Finsbury Park is a game-changer. Is Abedi a criminal? Yes. Is Osborne? Yes. We already know that Abedi’s mosque disowned him, but did Osborne’s church, work, or community group have to do the same? No. That’s because the actions that institutions took in response to Abedi’s were not because of his violence and criminality, but rather using his violence and criminality as a cover.
Words used and slippages made in public discourse represent an essential battleground for the way in which communities are characterized. Labeling a group or individuals within that group as less than human makes it easier to employ policies that oppress and criminalize them. The shift that happens is from a focus on how people self-identify to how society has labeled them. President Trump’s rhetoric is a useful example. Calling Mexicans “rapists” contributes to a social fear of immigrants. Attacking the media as purveyors of “fake news” is part of a wider strategy to quiet activists and those who dissent against the status quo. As critical theorist bell hooks writes, “language is also a place of struggle.”
Embedded in all this is a key question about what it means to be human: “whose lives are regarded as lives worth saving and defending, and whose are not?” The fact that Osborne’s whiteness and non-Muslimness renders him worthy of protection — with no less than Prince Charles lionizing and meeting the man who saved him from a crowd of angry worshippers — yet President Trump can’t and won’t condemn attacks on buildings of Islamic practice makes the narrative that much clearer: to be Muslim is to be subhuman. If there’s one thing to thank the 45th president of the United States for, it’s for making the painful painfully obvious.
Asif Majid was born outside Baltimore, MD. His mother grew up in Tanzania on the shores of Lake Victoria, and later became an avid gardener and public health expert. His father grew up in northern Pakistan as a poetry enthusiast and budding engineer. As an infant, Asif enjoyed playing pots and pans at his mother’s feet, resulting in a lifelong passion for performance that has led him to mosques, schools, churches, cafés, festivals, treetops, concert halls, and community centers. He graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and valedictorian from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he designed his own major focusing on peace and conflict. Asif then earned an MA with distinction in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University, during which time he devised and assistant directed Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices on Stage at The Lab. Currently, he is pursuing a practice-based PhD in Anthropology, Media, and Performance at The University of Manchester, for which he is doing an ethnography of devising theater with British Muslim youth. As an educator, Asif has engaged thousands of young people in the United States and abroad through summer programs, Model UN activities, and work at Arena Stage, Seeds of Peace, and Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth, using online and theatrical simulations to develop their understandings of racism, identity, and conflict.