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February 14, 2015

When terrorism is not terrorism

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

The seven-million strong American Muslim community was shocked and terrified by the execution-style  murder of three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, February 10.  The students, Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21 and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19, were shot by 46 year old Craig Stephen Hicks who turned himself in to the authorities.

On Friday February 13, President Barack Obama made his first comments about the  three young Muslims who were brutally killed, saying no one in America should ever be targeted "because of who they are, what they look like or how they worship." In a statement Obama said that the FBI would determine whether federal laws were violated in "the brutal and outrageous murders" of the three in the university town of Chapel Hill.

His comments came after criticism from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over Mr Obama's silence on the case. Speaking alongside Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto during a state visit to Mexico on Feb 13, Erdogan said the silence of Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry was "telling" and they should take a position following such acts. "If you stay silent when faced with an incident like this, and don't make a statement, the world will stay silent towards you," Erdogan said.

On Friday, February 13, 2015, 149 organizations sent a letter to U.S. 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 also said: "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 U.S. 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."

Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of two of the murdered sisters, told media that his daughter Yusor told him "on more than two occasions that this man came knocking at the door and fighting about everything with a gun on his belt, more than twice" and that "Daddy, I think he hates us for who we are and how we look." Yusor wore a headscarf as many Muslim women wear.

While police in Chapel Hill said a preliminary investigation suggests Craig Stephens Hicks acted based on a parking dispute, Facebook  posts show Hicks’ atheist attitudes and his disdain for Islam and Christianity.

Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, said that based on those posts and newspaper articles he has read about the murders — in addition to people he has talked to in North Carolina — the parking dispute explanation is likely “not the whole story.” “It’s prudent for us not to jump to a conclusion, but it’s also prudent for us to keep all options open, including the possibility that it was a biased, motivated crime,” Ellison said.  

"Based on the brutal nature of this crime, the past anti-religion statements of the alleged perpetrator, the religious attire of two of the victims, and the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in American society, we urge state and federal law enforcement authorities to quickly address speculation of a possible bias motive in this case," said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), in a statement said it firmly believed the senseless murder of the three Arab and Muslim American students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina is a result of hate rhetoric and the spread of anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia.

"The ADC has observed a drastic increase of anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia within the last few years, the ADC statement said adding: This increase in rhetoric and violence is directly linked to the negative media coverage and hateful propaganda launched against the Arab and Muslim communities. For example, the media’s biased coverage following attacks on the Charlie Hedbo offices in France; the release of the film “American Sniper;” and the false statements by opportunistic politicians such as the Governor of Louisiana Piyush (Bobby) Jindal on ‘no go zones for non-Muslims,’ all contributed to the growing narrative against the Arab and Muslim American communities.

The ADC President Samer Khalaf stated: “The use and enforcement of U.S. laws to target Arab and Muslim Americans emboldens the violence we witnessed in the Chapel Hill executions. Targeted surveillance and racial and religious profiling against our community by the government perpetuates anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia in our society. Government laws and policies endorse attitudes that all Arabs and Muslims are potential threats, enemies, and disposable.”

The American Muslim community was disappointed at the minimized mainstream coverage of the murder of the three students. The CAIR Communications Director, Ibrahim Hooper argued: "It goes without saying that if the perpetrators were Muslims there would have been international headlines immediately."

Domestic Terrorism at UNC-Chapel Hill

Arsalan Iftikhar, Senior Editor of The Islamic Monthly, called it an act of terrorism. Writing under the headline, Domestic Terrorism at UNC-Chapel Hill, Iftikhar said: To put it as bluntly as possible: The February 2015 UNC-Chapel Hill murders of 3 Muslim students is an act of “terrorism.”

He pointed out that according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the term “domestic terrorism” means any crime which: Involves acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; Appears intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population (I can assure you that 7 million American Muslims qualify as a “civilian population” and we were certainly intended to be intimidated); and Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States." 

"So regardless of whether the 46-year-old gun-loving militant atheist Craig Hicks had executed three Jewish students or three Muslim students in cold blood at the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, we should all remember that this deranged person’s clear “anti-religious bias” along with the brutality of his execution-style murders of these three innocent religious minority college students objectively encapsulates the overall definition of “terrorism” in every normative common-sense meaning of the word," he concluded.

Dr Mohamad Elmasry, an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama, believes that the murders were carried out in apparent response to the January murders  of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris. Writing under the headline - Chapel Hill shooting and western media bigotry - he pointed out that the" Western media outlets will likely frame the most recent perpetrator of what some speculate is an anti-Muslim crime in the same way they frame most anti-Muslim criminals - as crazed, misguided bigots who acted alone. If past coverage is any indication, there will likely be very little suggestion that the killer acted on the basis of an ideology or as part of any larger pattern or system."

Dr. Elmasry went on to say, given what we know both about western media portrayals of Islam and Muslims on the one hand, and media effects and theory on the other hand, it would be foolish to dismiss western media representations as potential causal factors in anti-Muslim sentiment and crime. "In fact, it is likely that anti-Muslim sentiment and crime are, at least in part, driven by one-sided, narrow, sensationalistic, and arguably bigoted western media portrayals of Islam and Muslims."

Increasing hate crimes against Muslims

According to the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a leading Muslim civil rights organization, anti-Muslim violence and incidents are the second most frequent religiously-motivated hate crimes. From mosque permits being denied to women with head scarves being discriminated against to bullying of Muslim students, the nation has not seen this level of anti-Muslim hysteria in recent years. The execution-style of the three students at Chapel Hill and the environment of hate warrants a moment of national reflection: What is it that we are doing to create such a toxic atmosphere? Where does this anti-Muslim sentiment stem from? Who are the individuals and groups who are peddling this hate?

The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), another leading American Muslim organization, pointed out that the three Muslim students were killed by a man who openly spewed anti-Muslim rhetoric online. The ICNA said terrorism knows no religion, no skin color, and has no ethnic creed. The President of ICNA, Naeem Baig, said “This goes to show that savagery and hatred knows no religion, no culture, and no skin color.”

Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) President Azhar Azeez said:"Although the police have initially commented that a parking dispute may have been a factor to the shooting, we fear that this may be also a hate-motivated act based on the suspect's anti-religion posts on social media and the viciousness of the crime itself. We are concerned that the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in our society may have encouraged some to commit violence against American Muslims. We urge law enforcement to investigate this case as a possible hate crime."

The Muslim American Society said with the increase of anti Islamic rhetoric, anti-Islamic sentiment and related bias attacks have been on the rise. In a statement, Muslim American society executive director Mazen Mokhtar said: “The vilification of an entire religion has led to widely spread anti-Islamic sentiment, an issue that not only threatens the security of Muslim individuals, but also the security of entire communities.

 “The facts we’re learning about this tragedy is worrisome because it appears the shooter may have picked on these students because two of them wore the Islamic headscarf,” said Khalil Meek, Executive Director of Muslim Legal Fund of America. “Religious expression is a protected freedom, and acts of violence motivated by contempt for one religious identity is a threat to the religious freedom so many cherish in America.”

In an earlier statement, Meek urged community members to be cautious in aftermath of these killings, citing information his organization was receiving about an increase in threats against Muslims by people seemingly “emboldened by the Chapel Hill shooting.” He advised Muslims who feel their life may be in danger or see someone else being threatened to immediately call 911 for help.

Arab American Institute said: With hate crimes targeting Arab Americans and American Muslims on the rise, we expect our country’s highest elected officials and the Department of Justice to demonstrate leadership and a commitment to justice.  AAI is not only troubled by those who are detracting from the seriousness of this crime by insisting that this was simply one neighbor attacking another, but we are more deeply troubled by the remarks of local law enforcement officials. Of note is the Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue, who stated the perpetrator appears to have been "motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.”  

Another concern is U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina Ripley Rand statement that, “The events … are not part of a targeting campaign against Muslims in North Carolina. [There is] no information this is part of an organized event against Muslims. This appears, at this point, to be an isolated incident.”  What might have been intended to calm nerves regrettably minimizes the insidiousness of bigotry, whether it manifests in one single hate crime or is connected to a larger campaign.  The only correct course of action is to open a federal hate crimes investigation into the murder of the three beautiful lives that we lost this week. By opening a hate crime investigation, the Department of Justice will be sending a clear and powerful message that violence against our community has no place in this country, and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America