In the first hours following news of the King Soopers shooting on Monday, March 22, there were reports of far-right and conspiracist QAnon profiles on alternative social media sites claiming the whole thing was staged by actors, a “false flag” and “no one died,” some suggesting it was a ploy to “take away our guns.” But the tone quickly changed once the suspected shooter’s name was released the next morning, as media quickly revealed his Syrian birth and Middle Eastern heritage.
Almost immediately, notorious far-right social media users began assuming the attack was connected to Islamic terrorism. The Colorado Muslim Leadership Council quickly condemned the attack and expressed support of Officer Eric Talley, the other nine victims and their families. But some extremist experts began raising concerns over how the shooter’s identity could be co-opted to stoke Islamaphobia. At the same time, Muslims across Colorado questioned their safety, and some mosques, like the Islamic Center of Boulder (ICB), even shut down operations for a while as a precaution.
On March 24, Tracy Smith of ICB told the community during a special virtual City Council meeting that some members of ICB are afraid to leave the house, others are changing the paths of their daily walks; women are afraid of wearing their hijabs in public, men feel they could be threatened because of their beards.
“The sad reality is, right now within the Muslim community there is fear, stress and anxiety because of the very name of the [suspected] killer,” she said. “He does not represent the Muslim community, he doesn’t represent Islam, he just happens to have a Muslim name.”
By March 26, reporters at a press conference were asking Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty and Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold about any links with international terrorism or if the suspected shooter had ever returned to his birth country after immigrating to the U.S. when he was 3 years old.
Dougherty assured the crowd that he had already shared all the information they had about the investigation into the suspect, which isn’t much, and said authorities were taking a “deep dive into the offender’s background.” But so far, no such connection has been shared with the public. And reporting from the Washington Post reveals that an analysis of the suspected shooter’s social media didn’t find evidence of “any radical or extremist views.”
“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” says Eric Ward, an extremist expert and executive director of Western States Center. “But what we know is that a community was impacted by an unimaginable tragedy.”
In his work, Ward says unconscious biases can often bubble to the surface in times of high anxiety, fear and stress, eliciting bigoted reactions and commentary, that are then often manipulated by extremist groups in support of their own agendas.
“These opportunities provide a moment for those who believe in white nationalism or cultural or religious exclusion in the United States to attempt to reshape narratives that take advantage of that stress we are under,” he says. In the wake of the mass shooting in Boulder, Western States Center has been tracking disturbing and racialized rhetoric from “the usual suspects.”
Charlie Kirk, conservative talk show host and co-founder of Turning Point USA, quickly blamed Joe Biden’s administration, claiming the suspected shooter is a “purported ISIS sympathizer.”
Brigitte Gabriel, a prominent anti-Muslim activist, drew a direct connection between the mass shooting in Boulder and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying it is “exactly what I’ve been warning this nation about for the last 20 years.”
(The Council on American-Islamic Relations told the Guardian in 2017, Gabriel’s Act! For America organization is “one of the main sources of growing anti-Muslim bigotry in our nation.”)
A Republican running for California governor called the shooting “racism against whites,” assuming the suspected shooter is a “Muslim jihadist from Syria.”
It’s not just that these figures are posting such sentiments online, Ward says. What’s more disturbing is the rate at which they are retweeted and shared, eliciting comments that are even worse. Other national articles and commentary about the shooting have generated similarly incendiary messages through comment sections, as well.
These comments, and the fear they invoke in Muslims in particular, is concerning to be sure. But Benjamin Teitelbaum, a professor at CU Boulder who studies far-right movements, doesn’t believe attempts to racialize this shooting have been as effective as they may have once been.
“In the past, a lot of far-right activism has been marketed such as it has to mainstream society on the grounds that these figures are going to establish order,” he says. “Whereas lawlessness and chaos are reigning today, the far right provides the counterbalancing voice of order.”
In these narratives, Teitelbaum says, the far right, whether more tempered elected officials or the most extreme of militant groups, attribute the chaos to either the welfare economic policies of big cities or to the multiethnic state, “and that made Islamic terrorism a very useful tool, especially following Sept. 11.”
But in the last decade or so, mass shootings committed by white men have proliferated across the U.S., from Connecticut to South Carolina, Florida, Las Vegas and El Paso — then Atlanta just six days before the shooting in Boulder.
“I do think that the zeitgeist has changed so much that these can’t be instrumentalized in the way that they once were,” he says. “The mass shooting as a sort of icon and spectacle, I don’t think is as useful to Islamophobia as it used to be, because there’s really no plausible way to describe it as an exclusively Muslim form of terrorism. … It’s quite obviously and recently moreso a form of white male terrorism.”
Still, Islamaphobia has been growing worldwide, including in the U.S. in recent years, according to a United Nations Human Rights Council report released at the beginning of March. The rise of far-right groups, negative portrayals in the media and local conditions of underlying class and ethnicity issues are just some of the reasons given in the report to explain an increase in hate toward Muslims of “epidemic proportions” around the world.
And just a few days after the Boulder shooting, starting on March 25, there were social media reports of white supremacist graffiti, stickers and flyers at South Boulder’s Tantra Park in connection with the group Patriot Front, which both the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League qualify as a hate group. Since then, the graffiti has been removed and the Boulder Police Department is investigating, according to the District Attorney’s office, which was notified of the propaganda through its Bias Hotline.
Both the NAACP Boulder County Branch and Boulder Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) received images and reports of the propaganda, as well, and strongly condemned any hate speech or attempt to use the shooting to intimidate Muslim or BIPOC members of the community.
“The crude flyer that we received attempts to create moral panic around diversity with an us-versus-them narrative after a tragedy that touched many facets of the community,” writes Sepideh Miller of the NAACP in an email. “Now is a time that we need each other more than ever.”
From what BW has seen, nothing in the fliers or graffiti was explicitly anti-Muslim or elicits a connection with the shooting. But, with inflammatory rhetoric like “white lives matter” and “diversity equals white genocide,” residents expressed concerns about the location and timing of the propaganda, just a few blocks away from the Table Mesa Shopping Center.
“We have to be extra wary in this moment of anti-Muslim bigotry,” Ward cautions. “And just as we shouldn’t have a great tolerance for violence — particularly political, religious, racial, ethnic violence — in our society, neither should we have great tolerance for those who try to take advantage of these moments by promoting bigotry.”
And the fear of Islamaphobic backlash is very real for many within Boulder’s Muslim community. The decision to close the Islamic Center last week was more a precautionary measure than anything else says Farah Afzal, who’s been a member of ICB for 11 years. While most of its activities and services have gone virtual this last year during the pandemic, a small group has been gathering regularly for daily prayers during the pandemic. The Center also suspended its regular congregational prayers on Friday. By Sunday, less than a week after the shooting, the Center was open again, according to Afzal.
“It’s not like something happened, there wasn’t any threats, but it’s more an individual fear, like this could happen,” she says. “It is Boulder after all, we are a very close-knit community and very supportive of our neighbors.”
If anything, ICB has been overwhelmed with community support in the wake of the shooting, receiving dozens of cards, flower bouquets and offers to accompany members of the faith community to the store or on hikes in solidarity.
“Volunteers have been working tirelessly, answering all the supportive messages,” she says.
Afzal encourages the Boulder community not to generalize the shooting by race or religion or fall for comments promoting skewed stereotypes. Rather, she urges the community to push back on such narratives with positive experiences and interactions with Muslim neighbors and friends or direct anyone to ICB if they want to learn more about Islam.
“One of the things we can do again, to honor the lives of those taken, is for those of us who are non-Muslim to speak out against the anti-Muslim bigotry,” Ward adds. “Increasing the fear in the community isn’t how we heal. It’s not how we find accountability, and it’s not how we find justice. And if we allow that to happen, then the people with the guns, and those taking to the airwaves to divide us, win.”