Children hold up candles at a vigil for victims of the San Bernardino shootings at the Silver Spring Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. >Photos courtesy of Jay Mallin
Narrative and Conflict Resolution Analysis
“There is nothing makes a man suspect much, more than to know little.” —Francis Bacon, Of Suspicion, 1625
In today’s political climate, suspicion and fear have taken front stage in shaping the narratives around violence. The suspicion that Francis Bacon was wary of in 1625 is still alive, rife and very much rooted in ignorance of the “other.”
All Americans, not just Muslim Americans, need to engage in effective conflict resolution. We need to pay close attention to constructive and destructive narratives to help us, as a nation, move beyond a climate surrounded by suspicion and fear, and to address the real underlying, deep-rooted causes of conflict in our country. There are tools in place to address such problems, but they are not being utilized.
While all Americans mourn the lives lost in mass shootings — such as the San Bernardino attack December 2 in which 14 people were killed and 21 wounded — Muslim Americans must also brace themselves for virulent rhetoric and hate crimes directed their way in the wake of such attacks. Irrespective of the shooters’ identity, Muslim Americans are positioned in a dually traumatic situation: stuck in limbo between grief and fear of backlash. If the suspect turns out to be a Muslim, then Muslim Americans across the board — students, faith leaders, mobilizers, advocates — are pressured to immediately and publicly condemn these acts. And even when they vociferously do, some people just don’t believe them.
Many Muslim American activists and allies have desperately been trying to reframe the issues and refrain from condemning these acts as a knee-jerk reaction. They say that to condemn an act carried out by a group that does not reflect the worldview of 1.7 billion Muslims is not only accusatory, but also damaging to the identity and safety of innocent Muslim Americans. Feeding into this dishonest rhetoric that Muslim Americans are summarily responsible for domestic terrorist attacks puts them at risk for destructive government policies such as the Countering Violent Extremism program and equally vulnerable to hate crimes rooted in white supremacy.
Narrative is a powerful tool that can be used for positive transformative change. The U.S. Supreme Court honored Prophet Muhammad in 1935 with a statue as a symbol of “one of the greatest lawgivers of the world.” This statue was a goodwill gesture depicting the Prophet of Islam — a peaceful faith — alongside other leaders such as Confucius, John Marshall and Moses.
Narrative, however, is also a mechanism to brand innocent individuals as evil and worthy recipients of structural and systemic violence. Being of Muslim, Arab or South Asian descent has become a precursor in classifying an act of terror as “terrorism.” A clear counter-narrative works to dispel the myth that Muslim Americans are responsible for most mass shootings in America. Muslim Americans, however, shouldn’t be feeding into the dominant, skewed narrative and repeatedly quote verses of the Quran and prophetic teachings to deny responsibility. To step forward and continuously condemn acts of violence carried out by a small percentage feeds into the destructive narrative.
Examples of destructive narrative were on clear display during the San Bernardino shooting. The media was quick to connect the words “Islam” and “Muslim” as early as possible with the shooting, and rush into the shooters’ home and pick it apart, highlighting their “otherness.” Yet the same media was hesitant to engage in the counter-narrative, that Syed Rizwan Farook’s brother was a decorated Navy veteran and an active member in his community — just another patriotic American dedicating his life to his country.
The identity of Muslim Americans is at risk due to this continuous “othering,” Condemning and unintentionally assuming guilt leads to alienation, aggressive behavior and maladaptive mechanisms on all fronts.
Getting real policy transformation on the ground
On the bright side, there has been some breakthrough among media outlets in reframing the narrative toward labeling mass shootings as terrorism irrespective of the identity of the shooter. A recent New York Daily News cover labeled Syed Rizwan Farook a domestic terrorist, along with Robert Dear, Dylann Roof, Adam Lanza, James Holmes and the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre.
But will a slight shift in narrative be enough? Muslim Americans often get consumed by what egregious oversight and misinformation the media will share next in their speculative fashion or what hate this will engender, rather than the transformative power that media and narrative can hold. Moreover, the existing disconnect continues to expand between efforts in reframing the rhetoric in this nation and government policies that disproportionally address Muslim Americans.
Conservative presidential forerunners such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson have issued comments against Muslims that inspire hate and fear among their supporters. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton spoke out about the San Bernardino shootings, saying, “We’re going to have differences. But there’s got to be a way to end some of the hot rhetoric and the negative attitudes that people are spewing forth.”
Many Law enforcement personnel are also responsible for perpetuating this climate of fear. Former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole stated that even though “[c]oworkers have reportedly described Farook as ‘reserved,’ ‘polite,’ and appearing to be ‘living the American dream,’ … that these impressions could simply be ‘trappings of normalcy’ to cover up the plot.” She made these claims when officials were still unsure of the shooters’ motive. How can there be a plot without a clear motive?
Early claims like this from respected law enforcement officials only perpetuate negative sentiments against Muslim Americans. There is no due diligence in the media when a perpetrator is Muslim, and absolutely no protection for Muslim Americans facing backlash when they move about in public. The media and politicians alike who push this destructive narrative must also assume responsibility when Muslim Americans are targeted at their places of worship, work, homes, community centers and schools.
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting December 14, 2012, conflict resolution specialists examined the issues surrounding mass shootings and came up with a conflict-resolution response to such acts of violence:
- Work with the Institute of Medicine, National Science Foundation, or the National Academy of Science to conduct joint fact finding on what we know and do not know about the causes, triggers and public policy responses to mass shootings.
- Convene a policy dialogue to develop consensus on policy options to reduce mass shootings
- Convene a Values Dialogue between gun control advocates and Second Amendment advocates
- Conduct religious organization, neighborhood and community conversations about guns, safety and freedom.
- Conduct city or regional dialogues that integrate options from neighborhood and community conversations into city and regional approaches.
This type of constructive process is necessary more than ever in addressing the underlying issues behind many mass shootings. However, although these tools and structures are available, they are seldom used. The focus falls short on intervention and concrete approaches toward transformation, and remains fixated on haphazard analysis and fear mongering from all areas of civil society.
Concerned individuals need to ask, “What now”? We need to move beyond addressing the symptoms of violence and instead address the underlying causes. When destructive narratives are reframed, the real process of conflict resolution and transformation can occur.