Fifty-two weeks ago I woke up to horrific news. No, it wasn’t that spine-chilling fear that the name released of a terrorist perpetrator was a Muslim name. It was the horror and shock, the gut wrenching pain that three outstanding, American Muslim university students were gunned down execution style in their own home in Chapel Hill, NC, the Tar Heel state, known for its southern hospitality and being a center of academic excellence in the “Research Triangle” of North Carolina.
I had just visited this city a few months prior with my own three hijab wearing children and wondered how we would be treated in this place that was named for the Anglican chapel erected atop a hill called the “chapel of ease”. This little chapel lent its name to what came to be called New Hope Chapel Hill, and eventually just Chapel Hill. But there was little hope for Deah, Yusor, and Razan.
These three young people did everything right to represent themselves and their religion in the positive light they knew to be true, the religion of Islam led by a Prophet who was known for his forbearance, service, humility, and radiant piety. They knew that their Prophet was such a shining example of service and graciousness that when a mad servant girl of the city of Medina took the Prophet by the hand pleading with him to help her with her chores, he bid her to find a place to rest and went and completed her chores.
They took this humble servant of God and humanity as their example in their manners, smiling faces, humor and light-heartedness, their academic excellence and their commitment to community service. They were spokespeople for the dignity of their beliefs and their rightful presence here as part of the fabric of the American diverse landscape. Yusor was interviewed by NPR for a StoryCorps project and spoke of her vision of life as an American, “Growing up in America has been such a blessing. And although in some ways I do stand out, such as the hijab I wear on my head, the head covering, there are still so many ways that I feel so embedded in the fabric that is, you know, our culture…but here we’re all one, one culture. And it’s beautiful to see people of different areas interacting, and being family. Being, you know, one community.”
But in their own community, in their own home, their own neighbor would horrifyingly and brutally take their lives. To add salt to this deep and wrenching pain, the media portrayed this blatant hate crime as a dispute over a parking space. The outrage felt and echoed throughout the Muslim community was off the charts, because this wasn’t an issue of a parking space but the right to exist in the public space as noted by Dr. Timor Yuskaev, Professor of Contemporary Islam of Hartford Seminary. How could the broader community stand for such an injustice on top of injustice, and miss the real issue? How could the thinking public allow for an execution to be trivialized to a petty neighborly dispute?
If the tables were turned, and the perpetrator had a Muslim name, headlines would have bled “Terrorist in the Neighborhood”, “Deport The Muslim Threat”. In fact the sister of the victims, Suzanne Barakat, points a finger at the media’s uncensored hate of Muslims as a definitive factor in this hate crime:
“To perform something so vile, so gruesome, so wicked, requires acute dehumanization at the minimum, hatred that is deep and well rooted. The climate that we’re in, one that allows public figures, no matter where they are in the political spectrum, from Ben Carson to Bill Maher, to sweepingly bash Muslims, undoubtedly played a role in fuelling this hatred.”
Not only did this rise in the media’s and public figures’ dehumanization campaign against Muslims contribute to this, but gun accessibility was a factor as well. The perpetrator of this heinous crime, Craig Hicks was a gun owner and flaunted his scorn for the Middle East, his anti-religious beliefs and his gun equipped with “five extra rounds in a speedloader” on his social media account.
Even his former wife, Cynthia Hurley, confirmed his violent and dangerous inclinations describing his incessant obsession with the film “Falling Down,” a fictional account that featured a day in the life of an unemployed, divorced man who went on an arbitrary shooting rampage. These factors cannot be ignored and more needs to be done to foster a healthy climate in the US for all of us to live up to our shared ideals of a peaceful and free society, where freedom means to live without fear of harm.
The outcome of this tragedy has been an incredible and vocal community response, from numerous vigils, to Muslim town hall meetings and prayer services, and to massive commitment to keep “Our Three Winners” Deah Barakat, Yusor and Razan Abu Salha memorialized through community service, acts of kindness and humanity throughout this past year.
Today, vigils, events, and commemorative services from balloon releases, to roses for remembrance, to book drives, to refugee support are planned all over the country via United Muslim Relief, and what is the triumph of this tragedy is that “Our three Winners” and all who remember them live on embodying the advice of the Holy Quran:
“O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear God. For God is well-acquainted with all that ye do.”
The Holy Quran 5:8