On 22 May 2017 a suicide bomber, who was later identified by authorities as 22-year old Briton Salman Ramadan Abedi, blew himself up at Manchester Arena in Manchester, England, after a concert by American singer Ariana Grande. Twenty-two young adults and children, including the bomber, were killed and 59 injured.
For days and nights after the horrific incident, BBC led the British public in national mourning detailing the identities, narrating life stories, and showing the grieving family and friends of the victims. I was one among millions of people around the globe following the news on the BBC, wondering how as a Muslim I could join this public mourning, express my sympathies with the British people in general and Mancunians in particular mourning this tragedy.
The question that concerned me then and again now centres around a very simple fact: Muslims as Muslims are collectively identified with those murderers, and therefore as Muslims, they are not admitted into the moral domain and the ethical spectrum of those who are mourning the consequences of such heinous crimes.
As best evidenced in the speeches and executive orders of US President Donald Trump, today the most globally loud voice of Islamophobia, the words “Muslim” and “Islam” are categorically identified with “violent extremist terrorists” and as such they are inadmissible into any human domain, any feeling of sympathy with their fellow human beings in an act of collective mourning.
Moments and histories
There is a short history to this moral conundrum.
The impossibility of a Muslim mourning the loss of a fellow human being is the singular challenge to a future theology of emancipation facing Muslim thinkers for generations to come.
For more than a decade and a half, Muslim countries from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya to Palestine have been the targets of the most colossal war machines that the US and its European and regional allies could mobilise. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have been murdered and millions have been forced into the indignity of exile and refugee status.
This is not something the Muslims did to themselves. This is something that, beginning with former President George W. Bush and then continuing with Barack Obama and now Trump, the US and its European allies have done to Muslims. President Bush’s Secretary of War (the euphemism for it is “Defense”) Donald Rumsfeld called it a “campaign of shock and awe”. The world indeed is still in shock and awe with the enormity of misery the US and its European allies have unleashed and perpetrated in the Arab and Muslim world, from Afghanistan to Iraq, to Libya.
Aided, abetted, and enabled by both US and Europe, Israel too has been engaged over even longer decades stealing Palestinian lands, murdering and maiming innocent Palestinian civilians in their thousands, and branding anyone who dares to resist their thievery and murder or voice an objection as a “terrorist” or else an “anti-Semite”.
A murderous byproduct of the systematic, consistent, unrelenting, dismantling of key Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya has been the rise of the creatures that call themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Muslims and Arabs are the primary targets of these monsters. But occasionally heinous mass murders in Europe are correctly or falsely (for propaganda purposes) also claimed by ISIL, the most recent of which has been in a concert hall in Manchester attended mostly by innocent teenagers.
With every such heart-wrenching crime, Muslims living in Europe and the US face a paralysing question: how could they ever express the depth of their anger, frustration, despair, but above all sympathies in a manner that brings them into the bosom of national and global mourning in their homeland, where they live – in this case in the UK, or else in France, or the US.
The moral paradox
The question arises from the towering moral upper hand that denies Muslims as Muslims the agency to mourn the victims of Manchester and sympathise with their loved ones. Terms such as “Briton,” “British,” or by extension “European” or “American” is kept exclusively for the victims, as the term “terrorist” is made exclusive to Muslims. Muslims, therefore, cannot ever enter the moral domain and the ethical precinct of sympathy.
The systematic demonisation of Muslims as subhuman, the persistent interchangeable identification of the very word “terrorism” with the word “Muslim” has now made it forever impossible for a Muslim, any Muslim, as a Muslim, to be anything but a “terrorist”. Islamophobes, liberal or fanatical, in their common hatred of Islam and Muslims, have expelled Muslims from the moral domain where a human being as a Muslim (a Muslim as a human being), can express her or his sympathies without appearing guilty by association and thus hypocritical.
If you were to watch the BBC ever since the horrid event, you’d see it is absolutely fixated on the news, as it should, as it must. There is of course nowhere near any such fixation when a bomb targets civilians in Istanbul, Aleppo, Baghdad, Gaza, Kabul, or Cairo – again why should there be? Why should BBC care to find out the names of the innocent Egyptian Copts murdered just a few days after the victims of Manchester by the selfsame ISIL, suspend its programming to show the grief of their loved ones or a gathering of national mourning in Egypt?
The first word in BBC is “British” and therefore they care about their own people more than they do about others. But a false universalisation of BBC or the New York Times (a universalisation based on their imperial pedigree) instantly translates that imbalance between the two coverages into the reduction of one life in comparison to another and therefore exacerbates the normative equation of the Muslim with the terrorist.
Of shadows and fears
The extended shadow of a vicious subhuman terrorist today stands between any ordinary Muslim and a white European or American who is placed in the overpowering position of either pointing an accusing finger or else casting a forgiving glance at him and her.
Having lost infinitely more of their own family and friends to acts of violence perpetrated by Europeans, Americans, and Israelis, than the other way around, the Muslim is denied an even a fraction of that admonitory look, or even of that forgiving gaze. The subject of a constant European gaze, the Muslim lacks moral agency. Muslims are not in a position even to apologise, let alone sympathise, for fear that perchance they may look back, talk back, reverse the gaze, and to ask if the life of a Muslim child, the life of a Palestinian teenager blown to pieces by an Israeli sharpshooter in Gaza, by a NATO fighter jet in Afghanistan, by a US bomb in Syria, is any less dear than the equally precious life of a teenager in Manchester.
This impossibility of a Muslim mourning the loss of a fellow human being is the singular challenge to a future theology of emancipation facing Muslim thinkers for generations to come. The moral domain, the ethical precinct, indeed the very metaphysical foregrounding of “the European” is now made constitutionally inhospitable to being a Muslim in their world. Without a radically transformed moral universe, Muslims will continue to mourn their own loss in silence and be admonished for the mass murder in Manchester without a voice publicly even to say, “I am sorry”.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.