by Ayesha Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 1, Jumada' al-Ula', 1436)
The rising tide of Islamophobia, promoted by the likes of Fox News and other neo-cons in America, has led directly to the murder of three promising young Muslim students in White Chapel, North Carolina. The movie, American Sniper, has also contributed to the climate of hate.
The execution-style killing of three Muslim students last month by a neighbor in their Chapel Hill (North Carolina) apartment complex sent shockwaves throughout the world. The gun-toting assailant was known to be a virulent racist and Islamophobe and had threatened the couple and their sister in the past as well.
The three Syrian-American college students were known to be exceptional human beings: the poster faces for Islam in America. Deah Barakat and his wife Yusor, who were aiming to graduate from the University of North Carolina (UNC) with degrees in dentistry; and Yusor’s sister Razan, was an architecture and design student. Deah and Yusor had been married only six weeks earlier in a joyous ceremony, which was heartbreakingly broadcast in home videos and photos after their brutal murder.
As news of their murder rippled from Facebook and social media sites, spurring American news channels to finally pick it up, the event was framed in the mainstream US media as “a parking dispute.” Many were quick to call out the hypocrisy, noting that that had the roles been reversed, the “terrorism” tag would be slapped on the case. Ironically, Fox News gave the most sympathetic coverage, broadcasting the entire janazah of the “three winners,” as they have come to be dubbed.
The murderer, Craig Stephen Hicks, was quickly presented as an atheist who was an “equal opportunity hater” and an “unhappy, angry person” — framing the crime as lone action of a delinquent, rather than the result of the media’s systematic campaign of public hysteria around the figure of the “Muslim terrorist.” The statement released by the police merely confirmed this: “preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.”
The Muslim American community, shocked to the core, galvanized into action. Muslim Students Associations (MSAs) in universities across the United States organized candle light vigils for the victims, featuring speeches by imams, community activists, and speakers known for their commitment to social justice issues. Facebook and Twitter became a hotbed of activity, with Muslim students and their friends sharing stories commemorating the lives of Deah, Yusor, and Razan.
President Barack Obama did not deign to comment, even though on the Jumu‘ah (Friday) after the Chapel Hill shooting, Muslims in the DC-metropolitan area organized a prayer outside the White House. Only when the outrage reached as far as Malaysia and Turkey, did Obama address the tragedy. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reprimanded Obama, declaring on a state visit to Mexico on February 12, “If you stay silent when faced with an incident like this, and don't make a statement, the world will stay silent toward you,” he said. “I ask Mr. Obama, where are you, Mr. President?
Erdogan’s reprimand did the trick, unseating the US from its high horse in lambasting his iron-fisted approach to the Gezi Park demonstrations. The following day, Obama whipped out his famed purple prose, declaring in a statement, “No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like or how they worship.” The traumatized family of Deah and Yusor accepted the statement, with Yusor and Razan’s brother Yousef Abu-Salha declaring that he was “humbled” by Obama’s remarks, “He actually said what’s on most of our minds. We do feel like Americans.”
In general, the family of the three has signaled their determination to take the high road in this tragedy, “If, and it was quite possible, that this was an act based off of evil and a scared ignorant man, do not let ignorance propagate in your life,” said Farris Barakat, the brother of Deah, during the UNC candelight vigil attended by hundreds of students. “Do not reply to ignorance with ignorance. Become an amazing, bright intellectual leader that I know this university can create.”
By all accounts, Deah, Yusor, and Razan were exemplars for the best and brightest of second-generation Muslim Americans: intelligent, passionate, and committed, not only to their careers and families but to the welfare of those less fortunate, volunteering their time on projects. Many of their friends and family members were amazed how the three managed to touch the hearts of so many, and make such a difference to others, in their short lives.
Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha traveled to Turkey to help perform tooth fillings and root canals for refugees, while Razan Abu-Salha helped develop a video to spread positive messages about being Muslim-American. Barakat also appeared in a video after the outbreak of the Syria war in order to help raise funds for the refugees. At the time of his death, Barakat was working on a project called “Refugee Smile,” while raising funds to give dental care for refugees of the war and to support local dentists. He was a noted athlete who was passionately fond of basketball. Family members described him and his wife Yusor, who married in December 2014, as “the lovebirds.”
Yusor participated in the StoryCorps project, saying in her interview, “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.” The beautiful wedding photos of Deah and Yusor that flooded the web illustrated young lives full of promise and hope.
Nineteen-year-old Razan was described by her architecture professor Christian Karkow, as a model student, someone with a smile on her face no matter how hard the assignments, and who was polite and shy and yet became a student leader among her peers. Razan was involved with charities like Global Deaf Muslim that provides deaf Muslims with access to Islamic materials, books, and the like.
The outflow of emotion following this tragedy brought the nation to a few moments of self-reflection that a 24-hour news cycle fostering hatred and suspicion for Muslim in the minds of the American public and the consumers of American TV worldwide, could actually lead to real-world consequences. As the Daily Beast pointed out in a February 12 article written by Palestinian-Italian comedian Dean Obeidallah titled “Friend: This was no Parking Murder”; the three were murdered execution-style with a bullet to the head. Friends of Yusor and Razan noted that Stephens had often harassed them before, appearing before their door to accuse them of making noise in the neighborhood, displaying a gun in his belt. Yusor was remembered as saying that she “felt hate” emanating from Stephens that disturbed her.
It is impossible to divorce this tragedy from the Islamophobia industry that is becoming entrenched in the United States day by day. Many observers noted that shortly before the three died, public emotions were at a high following the release of American Sniper, a Hollywood movie glorifying a man for having the highest number of “kills” in the Iraq war, and who openly vilifies the Iraqis as savages. In his February 9 article for the Huffington Post, Todd Green observed “the sea of orientalism and racism” in the movie,” and how the opening scenes with the adhan set the tone for viewing “the menacing Muslim enemy.”
Similarly, in his Daily Beast article, Obeidallah points out that the US media’s round-the-clock coverage of Kayla Mueller’s death at the hands of ISIS just before the three were murdered, was also a trigger. While Kayla’s death is undoubtedly a tragedy, it continues to be milked for political capital on the airwaves in order to authorize new military operations in the Muslim East. Kayla’s death continues to be covered, as this issue of CI went to press, while the US media has pushed Deah, Yusor and Razan’s death out of the headlines.
Muslim American organizations seized the moment to send Obama a message to stop the constant stream of negative images of Muslims pervading US culture. On Friday, February 13, 149 organizations sent a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to “open a full and rigorous federal hate crime investigation” of the brutal murders. The letter pointed out, “These killings come in the wake of a disturbing rise in especially threatening and vitriolic anti-Muslim rhetoric and activities. In recent weeks, after the release of the movie American Sniper, many tweeted hateful and deplorable messages demeaning to Muslims and Arabs.”
The joint letter added, “Federal leadership is necessary in this case in order to send the strongest message to the public that acts of violence like these have no place in a civil society and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. This would be the first time, to our knowledge, that a US Attorney General has held a press conference to announce a federal investigation or indictment of a potential hate crime against members of the American Muslim, Arab, Sikh or South Asian communities.”
The Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) releases a yearly report documenting incidents of hate-crimes and discrimination against Muslim Americans. However, in a US Congress awash with funding from lobbies affiliated with Israel and the military industrial banking complex, the facts simply don’t count. Perpetual war has distorted the airwaves, morphing the Muslim into an image of public enemy number one before the American public.
Deah, Yusor, and Razan were the brightest examples of Islam in America — young, engaged, committed to both Islamic values and to the constitutional values of the United States. Their tragic fate, and their deliberate erasure from public memory at the hands of a media that will not desist from sounding the drumbeats of war, is a troubling omen for the place of Islam and Muslims in the American society of the future.