On the cold night last February after Deah Barakat, his new wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister, Razan, were laid to rest, thousands of people gathered in the Brickyard at N.C. State University to hold a vigil and mourn the slain students’ loss. Defying a bitter wind that was too much for candle flames, the grieving held aloft their illumined mobile phones instead.
A year later, those who knew the shooting victims, and others who believe the students were more vulnerable to violence because of their faith, continue to work at what they see as a push against the darkness.
On Wednesday, the anniversary of the deaths, friends and family of the victims and advocates for the Muslim community will hold memorial events at UNC and NCSU. The day will end with an awards ceremony recognizing “beacons” who perform public service in their communities and educate people about Islam.
“What makes America great is us coming together with resilience and dignity,” said Farris Barakat, who is helping guide the redevelopment of his brother Deah’s former rental property in east Raleigh into The Light House, a community center. Since 9/11, Barakat said, and increasingly in the past six months or so, “I think what is happening is our two communities have started to part ways.”
Muslims and non-Muslims, he said, “are not listening to each other. There is so much rhetoric, fencing with words. There should be so much more that we agree on.”
Since the shootings, a coalition has been building across the Triangle and beyond among groups that regard prejudice against any segment of society as a danger to society at large. Some mosques have stepped up their community service work and are looking for ways to connect with non-Muslims and demystify their faith. The local chapter of a national Jewish group with liberal leanings recently began a campaign asking small businesses to post signs in their windows welcoming refugees and asking that people “Stop profiling Muslims.”
In terms of the way Muslims are regarded – and treated – across the state, “It’s mixed,” said Scott Phillips, field office director for the Raleigh branch of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. “Some things have gotten better” in the past year, he said. “Some things are worse.”
Advocacy groups say tensions rise whenever Muslim extremists strike or are suspected of violence.
After a series of fatal attacks in 2015 blamed on radical Muslims in Tennessee, California and France, presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States. Gov. Pat McCrory has asked the federal government to suspend North Carolina resettlements of Syrian refugees, most of whom are presumed to be Muslim.
Phillips’ employer is one of nine agencies in the U.S. that receive federal grants and private donations to resettle refugees and immigrants. Eight of the agencies are active in North Carolina, which is consistently among the top 15 states for the number of foreigners resettled annually.
His organization resettles about 320 people a year into North Carolina, Phillips said. Since refugees began fleeing the violence in Syria, about 50 to 70 of those have resettled in North Carolina, some with the help of Phillips’ group.
In the Triangle, Phillips said, Muslims whom his agency has helped to find homes have said they sometimes feel intimidated, “but not outright fear.” Refugees living in some other parts of the state, he said, have expressed more trepidation.
Nationwide, Muslims accounted for about 1 percent of the U.S. population in 2015, or about 3.3 million people of all ages, according to the Pew Research Center.
Carl Ernst, a Kenan professor in the UNC Department of Religious Studies and a scholar of Islam, said that because Muslims are such a small minority in the country, “most people are only encountering Muslims in the media, which almost inevitably means in stories about conflict. The only Muslims who make it in to the news are people who do something that is violent or questionable in some way. Hollywood movies are the other sources of information, and they just reinforce those stereotypes.”
With no independent knowledge of Islam, Ernst said, people readily accept stereotypes and what he calls anti-Islamic propaganda that is espoused on the Internet. There are about 100 anti-Muslim groups on the Internet, Ernst said, many of them using identical literature saying Muslims want to take over the United States.
Ernst said most people don’t know that Muslims have been in America at least since the 1700s, when they were brought from Africa as slaves. Even among those who are more recent immigrants – some of them now doctors, engineers and attorneys – many are so well integrated into American culture that most people don’t realize they are Muslim.
Anti-Muslim propaganda plays to Americans’ tendency to want to unite against common enemies, Ernst said; throughout its history, the U.S. has scapegoated Native Americans, different immigrant groups, Jews, Communists, African-Americans, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
In the Chapel Hill case, police charged Craig Stephen Hicks with shooting Barakat and Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha and quickly announced that investigators believed the killings stemmed from Hicks’ rage over the use of parking spaces at the condo complex where they all lived. Barakat and his wife, Yusor, both graduates of N.C. State, were enrolled at the UNC dental school. Razan was a design student at NCSU. Both sisters regularly wore the hijab, or Muslim women’s head covering.
The FBI launched its own investigation into the crime but has not announced its findings.
Hicks, who could face the death penalty if convicted, has not been assigned a trial date.
While the victims’ families and others say Hicks should be charged with a hate crime, most have channeled their energy to other things.
Manzoor Cheema, who co-founded the Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia in response to the Chapel Hill shootings, has spent much of his spare time over the past year speaking to groups across the state about the ways in which all prejudices are linked. The purpose of prejudice is oppression, Cheema said, and the best response to it is education.
His message resonates with Sandra Korn, a member of the Triangle chapter of the national group Jewish Voices for Peace. In recent weeks, about two dozen volunteers from the group have been canvassing area businesses, asking owners to welcome refugees and to discourage profiling of Muslims.
When a business owner declines a sign, Korn said, she goes to the next one.
Today, she said, some people are afraid of a woman who wears a head scarf in public. Not so long ago, she said, “it was the person wearing the yarmulke.”
Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989
Memorials and events
Two memorials are planned Wednesday to honor the memories of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha.
At 1:15 p.m., members of the two families as well as UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt will speak at the Koury Oral Health Sciences Building at UNC-Chapel Hill. There will be a campuswide moment of silence. Because of limited seating, the event will be available via livestream on www.unc.edu.
At 6 p.m., N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson and members of the Abu-Salha and Barakat families will speak at “Our Three Winners Memorial: A Day of Light,” at Stafford Commons on the north side of Talley Student Union. It will include a call to prayer and a candle lighting.
At 8 p.m., the “Beacon of Light” award ceremony is at the Light House, 202 N. Tarboro St., Raleigh.
On Thursday, there will be a multimedia spoken-word performance, “Shattered Glass,” written and performed by Mohammad Moussa, a friend of Deah Barakat. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., Stewart Theatre, 2610 Cates Ave., Raleigh. Free.
An Interfaith Canned Food Drive in honor of the slain students is ongoing through 2 p.m. Feb. 20 at the Islamic Center of Raleigh, 808 Atwater St., Raleigh. Proceeds go to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern NC.