To most Americans, the conviction of Craig Stephen Hicks for the murders of three Muslim college students in North Carolina might look like justice. On June 12, Hicks pled guilty to three murder charges and received three life sentences for the February 2015 slaying. However, it is a grave injustice that the prosecutors did not move forward with their original plans to try Hicks’ execution-style murders as a hate crime. As an American Muslim and a scholar of Islam, it is crucial that we recognize these murders as part of a larger pattern of anti-Muslim violence in the United States. The unfortunate (and incorrect) equation of Islam with terrorism makes it almost impossible for many non-Muslim Americans to imagine Muslims as the victims of hate, rather than its perpetrators.
I can’t help but wonder how things might have played out differently in Hicks’ trial if law enforcement questioned his words back in 2015 when he turned himself in. Would they have learned about his obsession with guns, his aggressive “anti-theism,” and his pattern of intimidating his non-white neighbors? Might they have questioned Hicks’ narrative that his issue was not with people of color, but with renters driving down property values?
Instead of prosecuting the executions as a hate crime, the prosecutors fell back on the motive that Hicks described in his initial confession to police, as “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.” Four years after Hicks shot and killed the three Muslim college students, Deah Shaddy Barakat (23), his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha (21), and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (19), Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue apologized to the families of the victims, both for the pain of their losses, and for denying the possibility that hate was a possible motivating factor in the triple murder.
I can put this no more eloquently than Deah Barakat’s brother, Farris, who said in court, “This is as much a dispute over parking as Rosa Parks was an argument over a bus seat.” It has been clear to the family and supporters of Deah, Yusor, and Razan that one of the reasons why Hicks was charged with murder, rather than a hate crime (or domestic terrorism, for that matter), was that the shooter was a white man, and his victims were Muslim.
We see this refusal to acknowledge Muslims as victims in the way that Congress reacted to the victims’ father when he testified at the House Judiciary Committee on White Nationalism In his testimony, Dr. Abu Salha identified “bigotry and hate” as the motivations for the execution of his daughters and son-in-law. Yet the responses of several Representatives nonetheless reinforced the link between Islam, terrorism, and anti-Semitism. “Did you teach your children, your daughters, hatred?” asked Representative Jackson Lee. “Does Islam teach Muslims to hate Jewish people?” inquired Representative Hank Johnson. There was no room for Mohammad Abu Salha to be a grieving father, warning his country about the threat of white nationalism. Instead, his Muslim identity became sufficient grounds to put him on trial for the crimes of radical jihadists.
Refusing to acknowledge the role anti-Muslim bigotry plays in hate crimes in the United States ignores studies like that conducted by the Pew Research Center, which reports that the number of hate crimes against Muslims in the United States has been on the rise since 2015. Currently, the number of assaults against Muslims surpasses the highest recorded number of such assaults in recent American history, following the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Zeroing in on a precise number of hate crimes against Muslims is much more complicated than one might initially think. Increasingly, scholars such as Todd Green make the case that Islamophobia is actually a form of racism.
To be sure, opponents to this argument contend that Islam is not a race, and therefore, Islamophobia cannot be an expression of racism. Muslims are nonetheless racialized and associated with supposedly recognizable characteristics- brown skin, beards on men, veils on women, and “Muslim sounding” names. For some, these features represent Muslim foreignness, and thus become the objects of anti-Muslim hate. Indeed, you don’t even have to be a Muslim to be a target of Islamophobic violence. This process of racialization is perhaps best demonstrated by the murders of Balbir Sing Sodhi, a Sikh, and Adelal Karas, an Arab Christian, in the immediate aftermath of September 11th. Neither of these men were Muslim, but the physical markers of their otherness, coupled with anti-Muslim hate, resulted in their deaths. The relationship between race, religion, and hate is complex. And yet, the FBI separates hate crimes into several distinct bias categories, race/ethnicity/ancestry, religion, and sexual orientation. These distinctions are overly simplistic, and surely downplay the number of anti-Muslim assaults in the US.
The way we talk about these slayings is crucial to understanding the relationship between Islamophobia and hate crimes. By refusing to acknowledge the murders of Deah, Yusor, and Razan as hate crimes, we overlook the growing threat of anti-Muslim racism in the United States. By failing to prosecute hate crimes, we also preserve dangerous legal precedents, like the lack of hate crime laws for felonies in North Carolina. Justice cannot be served until we admit the ideological motivation behind these crimes, and the institutional supports that give them cover.
Dr. Sajida Jalalzai is a professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.