By Sahar Aziz
Not just anyone has the capacity for cold-blooded murder. The perpetrator would have to be either a malicious criminal or severely mentally ill. In the tragic murder of three Muslim students (one at UNC-Chapel Hill, two at NC State), the perpetrator was a criminal whose motives reveal a strong bias against all religions, with particular barbs aimed at Islam. Police have blamed the incident on a petty parking dispute to explain this hateful act, which cut short the lives of three brilliant and beautiful individuals: Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha.
But reality belies this lazy assertion and calls into question law enforcement’s understanding of just how dangerous anti-Muslim bias has become in the United States.
Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric has become commonplace on Facebook, Twitter and out of the mouths of prominent elected officials. As this kind of speech becomes prevalent, the concept of just how immoral and dangerous such speech can be is being eroded. As the shock factor ebbs, so too does our indignation. To believe this has no effect on people’s behavior is to naively assume we all live in a bubble unaffected by our surroundings and the narratives perpetuated in the media.
Still many doubt it was a hate crime, even after the father of two of the victims repeatedly said his daughters felt that their neighbor “hates us for what we are and how we look?” Four key facts point to a hate crime as a much more likely motive than a petty parking dispute.
First, Craig Hicks was a self-described “anti-theist,” whose rants on social media against religion — including Islam, — were interwoven with pictures of his gun. He blamed Islam for the barbaric acts committed by ISIS – a group that mainstream Islamic scholars around the world have condemned as criminals violating Islamic principles.
Second, in the months prior to the murders, Hicks harassed his Muslim neighbors over parking and noise while brandishing his gun, making obvious threats against them. Other neighbors had also complained that Hicks was often angry about the parking issue as the dispute entangled him with other neighbors aside from the three. And yet, Hicks does not appear to have threatened any of these other neighbors with his concealed handgun.
He chose to shoot these three particular victims, execution-style, in their homes. All three were Muslim, especially Yusor and Razan who each wore a Muslim headscarf. In fact, many have noted that Deah had no major disputes with Hicks until his wife, who obviously looked Muslim, moved in with him.
Third, following his arrest, Hicks’ wife launched a press conference, in which her attorney argued that this case was proof that mental health illnesses are not adequately addressed in America, and that if there were no stigma attached, then people would get treatment.
This revelation is surprising – and awfully convenient. Hicks reportedly had a license to carry a concealed weapon, which involves a background check. He showed no signs of mental illness leading up to the murders, just occasional lapses in judgment. Hicks turned himself in to the police and stood calmly in court as he was arraigned for triple homicide. This is not the behavior of an individual who is so mentally ill that he would walk into the home of his three young neighbors in broad daylight and shoot them, one at a time, point blank in the head.
The fourth and most important factor leading up to this incident is the surge of virulent anti-Muslim hate that has gripped this country for over 13 years. It has become too easy to assume that malicious criticism of American-Muslims’ beliefs represents an ideological position, rather than bigotry. Muslims have been subjected to targeted government surveillance and profiling, discrimination in employment, and racial violence in the streets and in public places.Muslim children have been bullied and Muslim women wearing headscarves have been harassed, verbally abused, and physically attacked. Most recently, in December of last year, a young Muslim boy of Somali descent was run down by a car in front of his mosque in Kansas City, a car driven by a man who had made virulent anti-Muslim statements in front of the mosque in the weeks previous. The 15-year-old died as a result of his injuries on December 6 – just three weeks before Deah and Yusor were married.
In the past week alone, the nation has seen a slew of hate crimes, many of which are currently being investigated by the FBI: The arson at an Islamic institute in Houston, vandalism of an Islamic school in Rhode Island, a bomb threat aimed at an Islamic center in Austin and the stabbing of two Muslim men in a suburb of Detroit. This trend of Islamophobia ropes in minorities from the Arab and South Asian communities which are not in fact Muslim, including the severe injuries sustained by an Indian grandfather in Alabama as a result of being beaten by local police for looking suspicious and the graffitied hate language on a Hindu temple in Washington state. Hate crimes are being seen in Canada as well, with the murder of Mustafa Mattan just days prior to the deaths of Deah, Yusor and Razan.
Instead of covering these stories, mainstream American media fills the televisions with images of nefarious-looking, dark-skinned Muslim men and headscarf-clad Muslim women in story after story about alleged terrorist plots in the US and abroad. Rather than inform Americans about the philanthropy of Muslim communities, such as Deah’s work with refugees and poor communities, the media portrays violent terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda as representative of the more than 6 million Muslims in America.
This was not just another example of gun violence plaguing our country. This is the logical outcome of 13 years of dehumanization of an entire religion and its adherents. So much so that Hicks viewed the lives of Deah Yusor, and Razan cheap enough to warrant killing them, purportedly over a parking spot.
That is the epitome of hate.
Sahar Aziz, associate professor at Texas A&M School of Law where she teaches civil rights, national security and race and the law. She is the author of From the Oppressed to the Terrorist: Muslim American Women Caught at the Crosshairs of Intersectionality