The identification a week ago of accused Boulder King Soopers shooter Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, who was born in Syria but came to the United States at age three, led to an immediate explosion of hateful, racist rhetoric and thus-far-unsupported claims of terrorism on Twitter and other social media sites.
And in recent days, a conspiracy theory has emerged suggesting that the motive for the March 22 attack was retaliation for a U.S. bombing in Syria last month.
Gadeir Abbas, senior litigation attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the country's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, acknowledges the frustration of these accusations. But given the blatant anti-Muslim bias exhibited during the years when President Donald Trump was in office, and the enormous shift in tone that's marked the first months of President Joe Biden's term, he says he prefers to look at fallout from the attack from a positive perspective.
"There has been a social media faction committed to characterizing this despicable massacre as attributable to Islam," he notes. "But reputable mainstream publications have, for the most part, showed a lot of restraint here and didn't jump to the conclusion that it was religiously motivated, or that it was anything other than what it appears to be — a tragedy that seems to be related to the perpetrator's mental illness" — as was claimed by the shooter's attorneys during his first court appearance last week — "and not some terrorist act."
A barrage of tweets following the naming of the shooter certainly didn't display this level of nuance. Many relied upon familiar racial slurs — "Turns out that Boulder shooter was a raghead," one message read — while others castigated the press for reporting early witness assertions that the shooter was white and failing to note that the ten victims in the shooting were Caucasians. And then came the theory that Alissa decided to launch a killing spree to punish the United States for the late-February bombing of a Syrian site reportedly used by Iranian-backed militia groups.
This hypothesis has already been co-signed by at least one member of Congress, North Carolina Representative Madison Cawthorn. "The Syrian immigrant is now shooting people up in Colorado," Cawthorn said. "I think the two are linked."
Abbas, who previously spoke to Westword about two allegedly anti-Muslim incidents that took place in Denver in 2019 (racial profiling at a Denver Nuggets game and a profane rant against Muslim students praying at Metropolitan State University of Denver), is hardly surprised by this last development.
"It is a sign of the times that there are politicians and organizations that breed Islamaphobia and look for signs that allow them to present the Muslim community as some sort of Fifth Column," he says. "Emerging from the Trump years, I think it's in line with expectations that some folks are going to do those kinds of things."
He adds: "There's a whole infrastructure for fomenting and organizing anti-Islam sentiment in the United States. It started after 9/11 and really coalesced around 2010, with the coming-out party being the Ground Zero mosque controversy in New York City. Donald Trump became president in part on the back of the energy that the anti-Muslim movement in the U.S. provided him, so that's not going away anytime soon."
But in Abbas's view, "one of the silver linings of the Trump era has been that the public's view of Muslims in the United States has improved. I think folks feel that — and at the same time, the Muslim community has matured tremendously in the past four years because of the existential threat that the Trump administration posed."
Unlike in that administration, at least twelve Muslims are part of Biden's team, which Abbas sees as a "sea change." And he's equally heartened that most media coverage has accepted the possibility that the Boulder shooter's horrific acts weren't motivated by his nationality or faith.
"It's possible that the attacker being white-presenting might have played into the media's reaction, but you can't have a controlled experiment in a situation like this," Abbas explains. "Overall, I think it reflects that the media processed this incident more responsibly than in many other situations."