In Chapel Hill shootings, Muslim identity eclipsed the three victims’ American-ness.
Mustafa is black and Somali Canadian. The 28-year-old Ottawa native travelled to Fort McMurray, a far off but economically booming city in northeast Alberta, Canada. Like many upstart and ambitious Canadian men, Mattan travelled westward for opportunities unavailable at home. Several weeks later, he was found in his apartment dead. Alone and motionless on the floor, 3,700km away from his parents, family and friends.
While #MuslimLivesMatter trended for Deah, Yusor and Razan, there were sporadic tweets linked to Mattan’s story, and few questions as to why Mattan’s death received little attention. The Chapel Hill shootings have inspired a broad, diverse and lurid chorus of support and solidarity; Mattan’s name, however, has been met with relative silence.
Muslim and black
What, if anything, colours the disparity in alarm and organising, amplification and action encircling the two tragedies? The curious case of Mustafa Mattan is as much a story of intra-racial division and anti-black racism within the Muslim population as it is a narrative about the neglected death of a young man seeking a better life far from home.
Roughly 16 hours before Craig Hicks executed Barakat and the Abu-Salhas sisters in North Carolina, Mustafa Mattan was shot and killed in the Fort McMurray apartment he shared with his brother. Mattan moved to Alberta to help his family back home in Ottawa, and to “save money for a wedding”.
Hardworking and family-oriented, Mattan harmonised his Somali and Muslim values with his Canadian identity, pulled westward by the promise of a better tomorrow.
That same dream lured Deah and Yusor – who was scheduled to start in fall – to dental school at the University of North Carolina, and Razan Abu-Salha to North Carolina State University. Like Mattan, the three Chapel Hill shooting victims, dubbed “Our Three Winners” by their parents and on social media, embodied a seamless integration of Muslim and western values.
They balanced a love for basketball with a critique of foreign policy in Arab states. They took selfies and raised funds for Syrian refugees, and most vividly, pursued dreams that any Muslim American or Canadian can identity with.
Outpour of support
The outpouring of support and eulogies that followed their deaths revealed that Deah, Yusor and Razan were, in life and in death, archetypes of young, Muslim Americans. Lives neglected by the media, but ones that mattered greatly for Muslims inside and outside of the US.
Therefore, global Muslim support, sympathy and solidarity emerged rapidly around the three young Arab-American victims. Social media erupted with condolences and tributes; vigils were held from North Carolina to California; there were calls for a federal investigation into the hate crime, and there was an immediate mobilisation of Muslim advocacy organisations.
A primitive act, communal mourning symbolises that the dead's life had value and meaning. The overwhelming, global mourning for the three Chapel Hill victims testified to their value to Muslims everywhere.
Although killed a day before, not even a fraction of concern has rallied around the Somali-Canadian victim, Mattan.
Deah’s fundraiser for dental supplies for Syrian refugees went from $20,000 before his death to $380,000. In contrast, Mattan’s family still is struggling to raise $15,000 for his burial costs.
Mourning is as much an act of honour as it is remembrance. A primitive act, communal mourning symbolises that the dead’s life had value and meaning. The overwhelming, global mourning for the three Chapel Hill victims testified to their value to Muslims everywhere.
On the other hand, the silence surrounding Mattan’s death also speaks volumes about the value of his life – and those who look like him – to the global Muslim population.
In life and in death, Arab and South Asian Muslim lives seem to matter far more than the lives of black Muslims.
According to the mosque president, Mattan was a “popular role model to younger members of the Ottawa mosque he attended regularly”.
Young and industrious, beloved by many and blessed with the promise of a bright tomorrow, Mattan shared plenty with the fallen victims in Chapel Hill.
Black Muslims devalued
However, the one item Mattan did not share with Deah, Yusor and Razan was Arab identity. A commodity that seems to enhance the value of Muslim life; while blackness remains devalued.
Critics will contend: “Mattan was Canadian, which explains why Muslims in the US were ignorant of his death.”
However, following his murder in December 2014, the Muslim-American community and its institutions were relatively hush about Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein. Although the 15-year-old Kansas City teen of Somali origin was, like the victims in Chapel Hill, a target of a hate crime in the US.
Unlike Mattan, Sheikh-Hussein was killed inside America’s heartland. Yet, like Mattan, young Sheikh-Hussein’s brutal murder was met with silence and neglect, with outrage largely confined inside the bounds of Somali mosques and community centres.
The remainder of the Muslim community, particularly Arab and South Asian elements and organisations, did little.
Despite a few vocal critics, Mattan’s erasure in the discussion of Islamophobia in North America is evident. The exclusion of Mattan and Sheikh-Hussein perpetuates a harmful hierarchy that privileges Arab narratives and excludes black/African Muslims.
This racial stratification relegating black Muslim lives is evident as much in death as it is in life.
Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law.
Margari Hill is an adjunct professor and co-founder/director of the Muslim Anti-Racist Collaborative.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.