If not Abdul-Malik Abu, then who? Who would stand up for them? Who would speak for them? Who would tell the world that the three young students gunned down in Chapel Hill were not terrorists or extremists or any other demonization of Islam but kids like Abu, good kids trying to do good, who happened to be Muslim?
Who better to do it than a basketball star on a basketball-crazed campus who knew the victims, shared their religion, grieved their loss?
This was the obligation Abu embraced a year ago, when he learned that his friend Deah Barakat had been shot dead in his apartment along with his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister, Razah Mohammed Abu-Salha. A neighbor was arrested and charged with murder in their killings.
The morning after the killings, while the world still tried to grapple with the senselessness of the shootings, Abu wrote a lengthy Instagram post eulogizing the victims, then he sat that night on a folding chair under the stands at PNC Arena after playing for N.C. State – the Wolfpack lost to Virginia 51-47 – and told the story over and over again of how he met them, what kind of people they were, how he would miss them.
A much sought-after recruit, Abu chose N.C. State from Boston in large part because of the welcoming Muslim community, the mosque just off campus where he and Barakat’s family prayed together. And now, as a basketball star on a basketball-crazy campus, he was given a platform to speak if he chose to use it.
It was less a choice than a responsibility he embraced.
“I just feel like, for the situation how it happened, and the Muslim community, they didn’t have a voice,” Abu said recently, reflecting on the events of a year ago. “Me putting it on the platform that I had, helped it reach the eyes of everyone. I feel like, if I didn’t shine light on it, their voices would go unheard. I didn’t want to hide from it.”
Barakat, 23, and Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, were recent N.C. State graduates and dental students at North Carolina. Razah Mohammed Abu-Salha, 19, attended N.C. State. Abu met Barakat playing basketball at N.C. State’s Carmichael Gym, and their love of basketball bonded them as much as their religion.
In the wake of their deaths, Abu tried to strike a delicate balance between speaking up for the victims and claiming the spotlight. He didn’t attend any of the rallies or memorials because he was afraid his status as a star athlete would distract from the families and friends who knew the victims better.
No one would have noticed if he had declined to say anything, but he could not be silent in the face of his loss.
A year later, Abu still veers into the present tense occasionally when he talks about Barakat. He laughs and marvels at the audacity of his wedding promise to Barakat and Abu-Salha, guaranteeing victories over Duke and North Carolina before Abu, a freshman, had even played in an ACC game.
The Wolfpack won both, answering the call just as Abu did in the days after the shootings without regard to his personal safety. In the immediate aftermath, no one knew if what happened in Chapel Hill was an isolated incident or part of a larger targeting of Muslims in general. Abu, a star athlete standing 6-foot-8, had nowhere to hide, something his parents pointed out to him afterward and N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried worried about before the game.
Abu also became linked inextricably to the victims, and as much as he didn’t want to become a face of Islam in the Triangle, when a basketball star who is also a devout Muslim chooses to speak out like Abu did in the face of international attention, that’s somewhat unavoidable.
“I understand that. That’s what I mean about my voice. Me not knowing them, you probably don’t write this,” Abu said. “But a year later, my words reflecting back on what happened, people are going to read it. That’s the opportunity I have, to either use my voice, maybe put myself in harm’s way possibly, who knows, and help give hope and shed light on things. Or not do that. And I couldn’t see myself not doing that.”
So he’d do it all over again. For his friends. For others. For himself.
“Wherever life takes me, if my platform gets bigger or it gets smaller, every voice matters,” Abu said. “You can do anything to make a change, to help people. When you have the opportunity to give hope or shed a light, you should take it.”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock