RALEIGH, NC (The Washington Post) — Family members and Muslim leaders mourning three young people shot to death last week by a white neighbour said that whether or not the killer’s motivation was religion, anti-Islamic sentiment is a deep and painful problem that American Muslims confront daily.
University, local and religious leaders have publicly cautioned against jumping to conclusions about whether the killings of three, hailed as beloved volunteers and mentors in the area’s large Muslim community, were a hate crime motivated by the victims’ faith.
But at a solemn outdoor funeral Thursday attended by several thousand people, Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of two of the victims, called for a federal investigation into the case, which he said “has ‘hate crime’ written all over it.”
The FBI said Thursday evening that it had opened “a parallel preliminary inquiry to determine whether or not any federal laws were violated”.
Police have said their initial investigation suggested that Craig Hicks, 46, shot the three university students to death Tuesday because of a long-running dispute over parking at their condominium complex in Chapel Hill, close to the campus of the University of North Carolina. Hicks has been charged with three counts of murder.
President Barack Obama issued a statement Friday on “the brutal and outrageous murders”.
“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,” Obama said.
And yet many believe that is what happened.
Reflecting global interest in the case, the Palestinian government in the West Bank on Saturday condemned the deaths as “terrorism” and called on US authorities to include its investigators in the probe, Reuters reported.
“We consider it a serious indication of the growth of racism and religious extremism which is a direct threat to the lives of hundreds of thousands of American citizens who follow the Islamic faith,” the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, the wire service reported.
“It’s really hard to believe that it wasn’t induced by some sort of racism toward them,” said Imam Adeel Zeb, Muslim chaplain at Duke University in nearby Durham.
Zeb said the national response to the deaths of Deah Barakat, 23, and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, a married couple, and Abu-Salha’s sister Razan, 19, highlights the “double standard” that exists in the United States.
He said that if a Muslim had killed three non-Muslims, the news coverage and public discussion of the case would be vastly different.
“Any time an incident happens and it’s done by a Muslim, it has to be because of Islam,” Zeb said. “But if it’s somebody else, it must be because of mental illness, or something else, like an argument over parking spaces. There is a double standard, and it makes you feel like a second-class citizen.”
Imran Aukhil, 30, a close friend of Barakat’s family, was for nearly a decade the spokesman for the Islamic Association of Raleigh, where Thursday’s funeral took place. Born and raised in North Carolina and a longtime member of the mosque’s governing board, he recently moved to New York to work for a consulting firm but flew to North Carolina when he heard the news.
Aukhil said he believed the problem in the United States was greater than anti-Muslim bias; he said the issue was how all US minorities are treated in a culture of “white privilege”. “The greatest threat in America is, frankly, white men with grudges and guns,” he said at a local coffee shop just before the funeral.
Aukhil said he understood that his language was inflammatory and would anger some people. He said he was speaking bluntly because he was emotional, angry and grieving the loss of three “charitable, loving, kind and generous” friends — and was frustrated by anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States that he says has been growing since September 11, 2001.
“You would think that the way politicians and media outlets talk about it, that Muslims are lurking right around the corner waiting to kill anybody and everybody,” he said. “But that is not the case at all. The reality is deranged people, many of whom are white, many of whom are proud Americans with flags all over their cars and their homes, they are the greatest danger to America.
“They are the ones who are committing some of the most atrocious crimes — the Aurora, Colorado shooting, the Connecticut shooting, how many mass murders committed by white males can we list? That, unfortunately, is completely misrepresented by the media, who say that Islam and Muslims are going to come and destroy America.”
Imam Abdullah Antepli, a top Duke University Islamic leader, noted at a news conference Wednesday evening that many Muslim families had kept their children home from school that day because they were worried for their safety. “The sense of alienation, the sense of vulnerability, I cannot describe,” Antepli said.
While cautioning that it was too soon to judge whether the shooting was a hate crime, he said Muslim Americans had already been feeling rising tensions, due in part to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
It is “absolutely the case that rising anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiment in American society has revealed its ugliest face over this case,” he said. “But I think dwelling on this will only add layers of pain to the families of these three wonderful individuals.”
At the funeral, which was held on an athletic field across the street from the mosque to accommodate the huge crowd, most of the focus was on remembering Barakat, who was studying dentistry at the University of North Carolina; his wife, Yusor, who was scheduled to start in the same programme in the summer; and Razan, a design student at North Carolina State University.
Abu-Salha called his younger daughter “the breeze of the day — she walked on this Earth lighter than air”.
In interviews, people who attended the funeral recalled Barakat’s charitable work. He passed out free dental supplies to homeless people in Raleigh and Durham and was planning a trip to Turkey this summer to distribute dental supplies to Syrian refugees there. His wife, whom he married in December, made a similar trip to refugee camps in Turkey last year.
The three have been remembered in moving candlelight vigils Wednesday night at the University of North Carolina and Thursday evening at North Carolina State. They were buried Thursday in simple plots in an Islamic cemetery in the North Carolina countryside.
Amid the tributes and farewells, people discussed whether bias against Muslims might have played a part in the shooting. Many said it was premature to judge before the police finish their investigation. But others said that Abu-Salha was right when he said that hate clearly motivated the “execution-style” murders.
“It was not about a parking spot,” Abu-Salha said, calling on Obama to order a federal investigation.
Abu-Salha and others have pointed to Hicks’s Facebook postings, in which he professed his atheism and condemned all religions. Hicks’s wife and her attorney have denied that the shootings were motivated by the victims’ religion.
“What’s the difference between Charlie Hebdo and what happened here?” said Molham al-Hasni, referring to the deadly attack on a satirical newspaper by radical Islamist militants.
“In Charlie Hebdo, all the presidents of the world went into the streets to march,” Hasni, who said he came to the United States from Syria three years ago, said at the funeral. “When we see a Muslim killer, we say ‘terrorist’, but if he’s white, we say he’s crazy. It’s not fair.”
Hasni said he was granted asylum in the United States because he was a human rights activist in Syria and feared for his life in the war raging there. He said he is grateful to the United States for helping him and “saving my life”, but he still believes that many Americans are biased against Muslims.
“There is no other country in the world that gives Muslims as much freedom and support and kindness as America, broadly speaking,” Aukhil said. “But the underlying bias and injustice that Muslims have been subject to for the last couple of decades” is “really starting to get frustrating.”
Aukhil said the huge crowds at the vigils and the national outpouring of support for the victims was heartening.
“If there is a silver lining to this, I feel like the tide is changing,” he said. “I feel like this has shaken the entire nation, the loss of these three incredibly beautiful people, these innocent people who were beloved by every single person they touched.”