In the quiet moments before Ahmed Al-Jumaili died, he and his wife stepped out of her family's apartment, in a small complex in a suburb of Dallas, to photograph the first snowfall he'd ever seen.
Al-Jumaili had hesitated to leave his home in Iraq, but his wife had urged him to come to the US, where he'd be safer. She'd gone ahead to Dallas not long after their 2013 marriage, but he stayed in Iraq to work and save for their new life. Finally, last month, he followed her to Texas, where she had family, and left behind the chaos of Iraq.
On Thursday, the last night of his life, three and a half inches of snow fell on Dallas, the most since 1942. It was almost midnight when he and his wife stood outside to take photos of this new sight, in the country that was to be his new home. As they lingered, what residents would later describe to police as two to four men, moving on foot, entered the small complex. One or more of the men raised a rifle and shot Al-Jumaili. Police would later find bullets lodged in nearby cars as well. He died a few hours later at a nearby hospital; he was 36 years old and had been in the US for three weeks.
An echo of Chapel Hill's murders, and the silence that first greeted them
Neither police nor Al-Jumaili's family are yet claiming a motive, but focus has naturally fallen on the growing trend of violence against Muslims in the United States. Dallas Police Major Jeff Cotner said police considered hate crime a "possibility." A local Methodist pastor, as well as a representative from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have both said the local community already fears as much.
And yet Al-Jumaili's killing has received strikingly little attention, other than a few mostly brief media reports, and the statements of faith leaders in Dallas hinting at a climate of hostility toward Muslims there.
This is a silence that has accompanied the recent wave of hostility against Muslims in America. Just three weeks earlier, when a man in Chapel Hill gunned down three Muslim-American college students, it took a grassroots social media campaign — #MuslimLivesMatter — to compel coverage of murders that were initially treated as a "parking dispute," and of the growing fear that Muslims are made to feel in this country.
Yes, perhaps the murder will turn out to be unrelated to Al-Jumaili's faith or background. It could have been a random attack, or even, as police say they are considering, an accident. But it seems odd that Americans, who pride themselves on inclusiveness and tolerance, would be so blithe and so uninterested that, in a time of increasingly overt hatred toward a minority group, yet another member of that group has been murdered for no apparent reason, in his third week in this country, while photographing snow with his wife.
"We're here to stand up for the American way of life"
When Ahmed Al-Jumaili left Iraq for America, in February, his wife Zahara greeted him with a homemade sign: "I've waited 460 days, 11,040 hour, 662,440 minuts for this moment. Welcome home." The English that was to be their new language was imperfect, but the expression on Zahara's face universally recognizable.
Whether he knew it or not, Al-Jumaili was also arriving in Dallas at a moment when hatred of Muslims was spilling over. A few weeks earlier, in the nearby suburb of Dallas, thousands of local residents had gathered to protest a Muslim community conference held at a local event center. Meant to raise money to build a center dedicated to promoting tolerance, it was organized by the local school system and called "Stand With the Prophet Against Terror and Hate."
Protesters waved anti-Muslim signs and American flags for hours, surrounding roads and sidewalks leading to the conference and forcing local Muslim families who attended to endure a gauntlet of hate. "Go home and take Obama with you," one sign read. Many referenced the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
"We don't want them here," a woman at the protests told a local TV reporter. One man explained, "We're here to stand up for the American way of life from a faction of people who are trying to destroy us."
What happened a few weeks later, when unknown men entered Al-Jumaili's apartment complex and killed him, might have had nothing to do with those protests. But the possibility that it wasn't a coincidence has received strangely little attention.
After the murder, a local Methodist pastor named Wes Magruder told the Los Angeles Times that he and others in his community feared a connection.
"There are more and more Iraqis coming here to Texas," Magruder told the newspaper.
A local representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Alia Salem, was more circumspect about suggesting a motive, but made what is in some ways the more salient point: that Muslims in the area, and in America, are increasingly made to live in fear of violence.
"Because of recent incidents targeting American Muslims, including the murder of three young Muslims in North Carolina, we urge law enforcement authorities to address community concerns about a motive in this case," she said.
Salem has set up a crowd-funding page to raise money for Zahara, who had planned to rely on her husband for financial support. What else can they do?
A wave of hatred is becoming a wave of violence
Alia Salem's concern, that the murder will deepen fear among American Muslims for their safety, even if it was not a hate crime, makes more sense if you consider the broader context.
The rise of ISIS in the Middle East, and attendant media coverage, has coincided with Islamophobia's growing acceptance in mainstream American discourse.
Media outlets, particularly on TV, are increasingly promoting overt bigotry against Muslims, stating over and over that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that peaceful Muslims are somehow to blame for ISIS. Hateful stereotypes are treated as fair game; the question of whether Muslims are somehow lesser human beings is raised as a valid or even necessary debate.
The politics of Islamophobia are ascendent as well. These attitudes initially spiked after President Obama's election — a continuation of the dogwhistle politics that Obama is a secret Muslim, or at least suspiciously un-hostile toward Islam — but are now resurfacing. State legislatures are passing laws banning "sharia" or "foreign law," a barely-veiled expression of official legislative hostility to Islam and to Muslim-American communities.
Elements of the Republican party have been hijacked, at state and national levels, by a fringe group of anti-Muslim activists who see Islam itself as a threat. While some leading Republicans resist their agenda, others embrace it; Louisiana Governor and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal has falsely claimed that Muslims in the UK have set up "no-go zones" that police refuse to enter and where sharia law prevails, and that Muslim immigrants coming to the US are an "invasion" and "colonization."
In January, Warner Brothers released American Sniper, an Iraq War film that portrays Iraqis as an undifferentiated mass of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers who can only be confronted with violence. In one scene, the film's protagonist and namesake shoots an Iraqi woman and child to death — an act the film tacitly approves by later showing them as having carried a grenade. The morality of killing Iraqi civilians is raised only so that the hero protagonist can shout down whoever has had the gall to question his decisions by explaining that those civilians were no innocents. The film went on to become one of the most successful war films in American history, to be nominated for the Academy Award for best picture, and to inspire a wave of death threats against Muslims and Arabs.
These sentiments are translating into physical violence. Thankfully, so far most of that violence has targeted Islamic buildings rather than people — a series of mosques and Islamic cemeteries have been vandalized — though even this is rightly perceived by Muslims as a threat of more deadly attacks.
In November, someone opened fire on a California mosque as several worshippers prayed inside. In December, a man in Kansas City wrote on his SUV that the Koran was a "disease worse than Ebola," then drove it into a 15-year-old Muslim boy in front of a local mosque, severing his legs and killing him. Then the Chapel Hill murders. And now this.
In late January, shortly before Al-Jumaili arrived in Dallas, a state legislator from a different part of Texas protested the state capital's Muslim Capitol Day, meant to promote tolerance, by demanding that any Muslim "publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws" before entering her office. "We will see how long they stay in my office," she said.
Her stunt likely seemed silly to many Americans — another far-flung legislator saying something outlandish — but it was surely not perceived as such by the 2.6 million Muslims in America, for whom such statements are neither isolated nor fringe at all, but rather part of a concerted and deliberate campaign to promote anti-Muslim fear and hatred that has coincided with anti-Muslim violence.
Ahmed Al-Jumaili's murder should concern all Americans. Why doesn't it?
While Muslim American circles are acutely aware of the growing hostility and even danger facing them and their families, this has received less attention in American media and politics than one might expect.
The absence of concern may be easier to see if you consider, briefly, how we might view these killings if the identities of the killers and their victims were reversed.
If Islam had been the religion of the shooter rather than the religion of the victim, if police suspected a motivation of Islamic extremism rather than a possible motivation of anti-Muslim extremism, the murder would have been enormous national news. But because the shooter was perhaps instead motivated by extremist Islamophobia (again, at this point an unconfirmed but widespread perception), and because it was the victim rather than the killer who was Muslim, it hardly caused a blip.
In February, when a man known for railing against religion murdered the three Muslim-American college students in Chapel Hill, Muslim-Americans asked on social media why the crime was not considered an act of terrorism. Had the killer been a Muslim who killed three non-Muslim with an apparent religious motivation, it would have been instantly labeled as terrorism - and there would surely be a beltway political controversy if President Obama failed to denounce it as such within hours. But because the religious identities were reversed in this case, it did not "count" as terrorism, and the press has shown very little interest in compelling a response from the White House.
In Dallas, the killer or killers' names are not yet known, and so there are no clues to motivation beyond the larger climate of anti-Muslim hate that has pervaded the US, including Dallas, and the absence of any evidence suggesting a different motivation. All the same, Muslim-Americans could not be blamed for asking the same questions they asked after Chapel Hill. Why do so many Americans seem so unconcerned by this? Would this wave of hate and violence be so ignored if it were targeting Christians or Jews, and if not then why do our lives matter less?
Those in America who truly hate Islam enough to use violence are a tiny fringe. Still, the problem of Islamophobia in America is larger than them, and it would be wrong to focus only on those most extreme voices. So too would it be wrong to focus only on those in more powerful positions, the Bill Mahers and Bobby Jindals who use their platforms to push an Islamophobia that is less extreme but still encourages those who take it a step further.
In many ways, the onus of responsibility lies with the larger mainstream that neither promotes nor resists Islamophobia, that immediately classifies the murder of three Muslim-American students as a "parking dispute" and doesn't bother to even acknowledge the dead-of-night murder of Al-Jumaili. The absence of concern for or even knowledge about the rising wave of anti-Muslim hatred, deliberately or not, enables it to proceed.
Americans have a national responsibility to protect their own. Even if it turns out that Al-Jumaili's death had nothing to do with his religion, it is at this point a very real possibility that he was another Muslim targeted in the United States for this faith, and the national shrug that has met this possibility — the fact that most Americans have no idea this man was shot to death on Thursday night while photographing his first snow — shows that we, as a country, are not fulfilling that responsibility.