February the 11th marked the 2-year anniversary of the Chapel Hill Shootings. The tragic incident took place in the city of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and ended in the murder of Razan Abu-Salha, 19, her sister Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her husband Deah Barakat, 23. Syrian-American Deah was on his way to completing a degree in dentistry at North Carolina State University, where his new wife Yusor, an American of Palestinian heritage, was due to join him at Dental school in the fall. Their killing touched the hearts of people for many reasons; the tender ages at which they were taken, on the cusp of beginning their adult lives, their engagement with their local and international communities as volunteers, and the way in which they gracefully harmonised their American and Islamic identities. Around 400 family and friends had joined Deah and Yusor to celebrate their wedding in December of 2014, with that number swelling to 5,000 who just 6 weeks later attended the somber funeral of the three young victims.
Their lives were ended by their neighbor, Craig Hicks, a man who had regularly harassed Deah over parking disputes. Hicks is a staunch atheist who had a 13-strong collection of guns. During his disputes with neighbors over parking, he would at times be brandishing a gun. He often posted statuses on Facebook proclaiming his hatred of religions. Deah’s family are convinced that it was his hatred of Islam in particular that fuelled Hick’s actions that ill-fated day. While the police initially reported that the murders were a result of a parking dispute, there had been no parking issues on that day. Hicks had called to Deah’s house while his wife, her sister and he were eating and immediately shot Deah, after which he executed Yusra and teenager Razan in cold blood. Deah’s older sister, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, addressed this soon after the murders by taking to the media and highlighting her brother’s murderers’ Islamophobia.
Dr Suzanne’s Message
Dr. Suzanne has since given a now famous TED talk in which she shared the pain of her loss, as well as her experiences drawn from the murders. Feeling the responsibility of imparting to those who would listen on the fallout from tragedies such as this, she used her voice to highlight the importance of engaging with the media to reclaim the narrative. Were it not for her family’s astute neighbor Neal’s support and experience in journalism, this might not have been possible and the world would only have briefly heard about a senseless murder, sparked by a parking dispute. It was Neal who advised the family of the victims to engage with the media and reclaim the narrative. To bring home this point, Dr Suzanne also highlighted the case the late Khalid Jabara, a Lebanese-American Christian who was murdered by a man driven by a hatred of Arabs; it’s likely that you’ve never heard of him before, as his murder did not make it to national news.
We are living in concerning times. Murders such as these do not occur in a vacuum. Anti-Islamic feeling is on the rise; Germany and the U.S. are but two of the countries that are experiencing record levels of hate-attacks on mosques. January’s murders in Quebec serve as a stark reminder that the toxic Islamophobic climate can lead to innocent lives being taken in a country regardless of how Islam-friendly a particular government might be. White Nationalism, a deceptively gentle term for a racist, xenophobic movement, is rising fast, with one study reporting that it had risen 600% since 2012. The rise of Trump to the American presidency has brought with it the accompanying rise of Steve Bannon, an overtly White Nationalist to the position of Chief Strategist to the office of the most powerful government in the world. Bannon frequently used his previous pulpit on national radio to talk about being at war with Islam. Trump ran on the promise of putting in place a ban of Muslim immigration to the U.S., and has attempted to follow through with his promise this year. To put it succinctly, the proverbial dark clouds are gatheried. It would be naïve not to expect more Chapel Hills in the coming yeas.
The Voice of Friends
Given these dark new realities, we would be wise to heed the advice of Dr. Suzanne. When faced with Islamophobia, we need to speak up, label it for it is, and have our voice of dissent heard. In her TED talk she pertinently quoted the late Dr Martin Luther King, who said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”. She also went on to list a few of the many who are speaking up on our behalf, in different but caring ways; Dr Layycia Hawkins, who wore a hijab in solidarity with Muslim sisters only to be fired for it, Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, who helped teenager Rayouf Alhumedia in her mission to have a hijabi emoji added to the emoji keyboard, or Women’s Magazine, who featured the first hijabi to be on the cover of a U.S. Fitness Magazine. These moves, as insignificant as they might first seem, play a huge role in normalising and humanizing Muslims. They fly in the face of those who claim that Islam and its adherents are “the other”, dangerous and an existential threat to “us”. They have striven to change the climate so that Islamophobia is fought against and no more innocent lives are lost. While these examples are all on a grand scale, simply speaking up in the face of Islamophobic hate, rather than taking the comfortable option of staying quiet, could make a huge difference to someone’s life. This is of particular importance for those of us who are not Muslim; we need your voices in solidarity now more than ever.
Fight for the Narrative
But the realist will tell you that there are more innocent lives yet to be lost. As painful as these will be, we must strive to embody the example of those like Dr. Suzanne, who have weathered their losses without letting it spill over into hatred. Fight for the narrative, be a voice for the victims, but do not sink to misplaced hatred. Toxic cycles are only broken when those who have been targeted with violence make a conscious and difficult decision to chose love over hate. However, we cannot afford for this to be a passive love, apathetic to the world around it. The time for having our voices heard is now; the narrative that simultaneously demonises Muslims while dismissing the realities of Islamophobia need to be challenged with the truth. The perpetuation of this narrative leads to acts of terror against innocent people.
Out of the ashes of tragedy hope remains on the backs of the Dr Suzannes, and Alissa Torres’ of the world; Alissa lost had her husband taken from her in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Despite the fact her husband was murdered by terrorists claiming to represent the religion of Islam, she is having her voice heard as an opponent to Trump’s immigration policies, taking the crucial step of not generalizing the actions of a few to that of a whole religion. This level of compassion, level-headedness and class is what we should be striving for when we inevitably face more terrible losses. Remember the words of the Prophet Muhammad, “Verily, God is compassionate and is fond of compassion”, and “you will not complete your faith until you love one another”.