Remembering Chapel Hill one year on

Before they were social media hashtags, they were humans.

by &
    Remembering Chapel Hill one year on
    Before major news outlets covered the story, social media was sharing the death of three Chapel Hill students as a hate crime against Muslims, write Beydoun and Nour [AP]

    It's just another Wednesday. Deah Barakat is a third-year dental student at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry. His wife, Yusor, who followed in his footsteps, is beginning her second semester of dental school. The young couple, who just celebrated their first anniversary on December 29, often romanticize about establishing their own dental practice.

    Deah and Yusor discussed this, and other plans, while watching the Super Bowl last Sunday. Draped in black and blue, the colours of their beloved Carolina Panthers, the young couple and little sister Razan, nearing graduation at North Carolina State University, have much to live for. Promising careers and loving families, revelling in a Golden State Warrior championship run or Cam Newton dabbing on the opposition. And, most importantly, the adventure of having their lives run their natural courses.

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    Yet, their savage execution a year ago today stole these dreams away, and stripped us from the picture illustrated above. Before they were social media hashtags, they were humans. Whose names should be widely known for their professional achievements or philanthropic commitment. Not forever tied to a horrific tragedy, or the horrific spike in American Islamophobia that spawned it.

    Part of the process of remembering what happened the day Deah, Yusor and Razan were murdered includes reflections on what did not happen. And specifically, what role the law plays in endorsing the demonisation of Islam, and emboldening hate crimes against Muslim Americans.

    February 10, 2015

    The Durham County Police received a call at 5:11pm reporting gunshots at Finley Forest condominium complex in Chapel Hill. The call described loud gunshots, and kids screaming.

    A witness also reported that a white male in his forties had left the apartment abruptly after. Upon arrival, the police found the body of Deah at the entrance of his apartment. The bodies of his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan-Abu Salha were inside. They were all dead.

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    An hour after the execution-style murder, the suspect Hicks turned himself into the authorities. The Police department initially claimed that the incident was over a parking dispute. This was the popular narrative around the story, while a counter-narrative was percolating through social media that the murders were triggered by Islamophobia.

    Yusor previously complained to her father that Hicks disliked her because of the way she dressed, and specifically, the headscarf that she wrapped around her head everyday.


    Before major news outlets covered the story, social media was sharing the death of three Chapel Hill students as a hate crime against Muslims.

    Family and friends of the victims made statements claiming that this was beyond a parking dispute, and rooted in hate against Muslims. Yusor previously complained to her father that Hicks disliked her because of the way she dressed, and specifically, the headscarf that she wrapped around her head each day.

    Before this incident, Hicks had threatened the three with his gun claiming that they were too loud. Hicks had a history of being aggressive towards them despite Deah's attempts to appease his abrasive and hostile behaviour.

    When the family of the victims arrived at the scene of the crime, they were met by Durham County Police, who briefed about what had happened and the suspect's claims that it was over a parking issue.

    The family rebuffed that claim, as did the public, convinced that Islamophobia on that day - and a pattern of it before - spurred Hicks' execution of the three young Muslim Americans.

    Islamophobia as the trigger

    The state routinely imputes terrorism on to a violent actor when he or she is Muslim. However, as illustrated by the murder of Deah, Yusor, and Razan, the reverse is seldom true.

    The burial of the three murdered students at the Muslim Cemetery of the Islamic Association of Raleigh in North Carolina last February [Getty]

    While rising to even higher degrees, with the bombastic and brazen rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates, the state has only paid lip-service to monitoring and countering Islamophobia.

    Indeed, the Obama administration has dedicated considerable resources and attention to countering-radicalisation policing - which exclusively focus on Muslim bodies and communities.

    Yet, aside from lofty rhetoric and a long-awaited visit to a US mosque, no formal programming has been launched to prevent the murders of more Muslim Americans amid an intensifying climate of Islamophobic violence.

    In fact, formal state policy abets the bloodthirsty Islamophobia manifested by Hicks. Counter-radicalisation policing, like the Patriot Act (PDF) before it, is driven by the notion that Muslims - citizens and otherwise - are suspicious, prone to extremism, and ultimately, presumptively un-American. This legal stigmatisation not only endorses Islamophobic views held by private citizens, like Hicks, but emboldens them to participate in the state campaign against Muslims radicals.

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    Furthermore, blatant Islamophobia has occupied centre stage in the 2016 Presidential Campaign. The rhetoric of front-running candidates such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are far more than mere words. But for their swelling supporters, a rallying cry to take action against Islam, caricatured as an enemy race, within and beyond American borders.

    "Muslim bans" and making "the sand glow" are hardly isolated sound-bites, but common threads in a pattern of Muslim-bashing that dominates Republican debates and media coverage.

    This rage, shared by law and politics (PDF), has made Islamophobia an institutional staple within governmental halls of power, the campaign trail, and indeed, Chapel Hill, Los Angeles, and every US city in between and beyond.

    Islamophobia is institutional, not aberrational

    Islamophobia, both in rhetorical or murderous form, is not aberrational. It emanates from laws and formal state policy that position Islam as the civilisational nemesis of US democracy. And Muslims as ripe and unripe radicals, or transgressors who must be banned altogether.

    It springs from the mouths of mainstream politicians, vying for the highest office in the land, who reaffirm age-old ideas that Islam cannot be reconciled with Americana. And condemning or attacking Muslims is not criminal - but patriotic.

    At this juncture in its history, the United States is wed to Islamophobia. Its legal and political processes are advancing Islamophobia. Not countering or curbing it. Which, by letter of the law and the pleas of politician, arms Islamophobes to target and gun down Muslims.

    Much like it did with Deah, Yusor, and Razon, one year ago today.

    Asha Mohammed Nour is the Civic Engagement and Advocacy Specialist with the Campaign to Take On Hate in Detroit, Michigan.

    Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.

    The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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