Craig Stephen Hicks murdered three of his neighbours in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on the evening of February 10: Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Yusor's sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.
Hicks was arrested and charged with first-degree murder after he turned himself in to police.
Almost immediately, authorities declared the motive for the killings was a dispute over parking at the condominium complex where they all lived. But it was impossible to ignore the cloud of hate and bigotry hanging over these murders.
Hicks maintained a strident social media presence, in which he described himself as an “anti-theist” and expressed a disdain for the religious. Among other things, he denounced “radical Christians and radical Muslims” for causing strife in the world.
He wrote: “I give your religion as much respect as your religion gives me. There’s nothing complicated about it, and I have every right to insult a religion that goes out of its way to insult, to judge, and to condemn me as an inadequate human being — which your religion does with self-righteous gusto …
“If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I. But given that it doesn’t, and given the enormous harm that your religion has done in this world, I'd say that I have not only a right, but a duty, to insult it, as does every rational, thinking person on this planet.”
After the tide of racism and Islamophobia that has washed over the US during the “war on terror” after 9/11, it is impossible to believe that this “anti-theist” rant was directed at all religions equally.
Dr Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of the two murdered women, drew the obvious conclusion at a press conference, stating: “It was execution style, a bullet in every head … This was not a dispute over a parking space; this was a hate crime.
“This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt. And they were uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far.”
The Raleigh News-Observer reported that Abu-Salha said his daughter told her family a week ago that she had “a hateful neighbour”. He added: “Honest to God, she said, ‘He hates us for what we are and how we look.’”
Hicks appeared to have singled out the three college students before. In a heartbreaking post at Fusion.net, Amira Ata, a close friend of Yusor’s, recalled an evening when friends were at her house and Hicks showed up at the door holding a rifle and complaining about noise.
Ata said: “I think they were targeted because they were different. He was always so annoyed with them for little things.
“They are talking about a parking dispute online — that’s definitely not true. There’s plenty of space, and Deah had just gotten off the bus … I wonder what would have happened if we were there? Would he have killed us all, since we were a bunch of hijabis [women who wear the hijab]?”
At a press conference, Duke University Islamic leader Imam Abdullah Antepli expressed the fear that many Muslims feel in the wake of the murders, saying: “This incident immediately revealed the vulnerability of the Muslim community and the image and reputation of Islam as a religion and Muslims as people in American society at large.
“There are several hundred Muslim families in the greater Chapel Hill area, including myself, and we didn't send our children to school today. We wanted to know what was going on.”
On February 11, Hicks' wife issued a statement saying her husband believed in “equality” and wasn't prejudiced against Muslims.
But Hicks' strident beliefs dovetail with the rise of the so-called “New Atheist movement” that has gained attention since 9/11. Figures like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, pundit and comedian Bill Maher and the late Christopher Hitchens have used the cover of criticising all religious thought to target Islam and Muslims as uniquely intolerant, backward and violent.
It is an attitude that fits in comfortably with the prevailing attitudes of the US empire during the “war on terror” — despite the fact some of its leaders, like George W Bush, frequently invoked Christian “values” and “civilisation” to justify war and occupation.
Then there are the right-wing ideologues who heap abuse on Islam without even pretending to challenge other religious beliefs. This includes racists like Pamela Geller, founder of Stop Islamization of America, a professed admirer of the fascist English Defence League and late South African white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche.
All of this has fuelled an atmosphere of bigotry and violence toward Muslims. After 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims — or those deemed to “look Muslim” — spiked. Mosques were vandalised and others that were planned were stopped from being built.
Writing at The Nation, Michelle Goldberg said: “According to the latest FBI statistics, there were more than 160 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2013. Mosques and Islamic centres have been firebombed and vandalised; seven mosques were attacked during Ramadan alone in 2012.
“Several Muslims, or people thought to be Muslim, have been murdered or viciously attacked. In 2010, a white college student and self-described patriot tried to slash the throat of Bangladeshi cab driver Ahmed Sharif.
“The white supremacist who slaughtered six people in a Sikh temple in 2012 may have thought he was targeting Muslims.”
The backdrop to such violence is the fact that the US has been at war in the Middle East — for decades, but with increasing violence post 9/11.
On the day after the Chapel Hill murders, US President Barack Obama asked Congress for a three-year authorisation of military force, including limited ground operations, against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This continues the disastrous war that has destroyed Iraq, and been accompanied by the demonisation of Arabs and Muslims.
As hate crime statistics show, Muslims are far more likely to be the targets of violent extremists. Yet all Muslims are expected to condemn acts of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam, no matter how distant from their own lives and beliefs.
A case in point is Fox News, which immediately concluded the Chapel Hill killings were due to parking.
Fox is one of the main proponents of anti-Muslim bigotry in the US, with its chairperson Rupert Murdoch tweeting in January: “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.”
But Fox is not alone, by any means.
University of North Alabama professor Mohamad Elmasry wrote in a February 11 Al Jazeera article: “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.
“But what if acts of anti-Muslim violence are consistent with at least some strands of current Western ideology? What if Islamophobia has become so commonplace, so accepted, that it now represents a hegemonic system of thought, at least for relatively large pockets of people in some regions of the West?”
The need to speak out against bigotry and Islamophobia in the wake of these killings is of utmost importance.
On social media, the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter began trending as an expression of solidarity — adapted from the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag that proliferated after the police killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice last year.
Many people using the hashtag point to the hypocrisy of a mainstream media that routinely trades in anti-Islam sentiment, but denies such killings could possibly have anything to do with Islamophobia.
One common observation points out that if a Muslim had murdered three non-Muslims in such a manner, the media would have labeled it “terrorism” and connected it to the allegedly inherent violence of Islam.
A Facebook page created by friends and family of the victims titled “Our Three Winners” gained a huge following in a matter of hours. It said the three “set an example in life and in death”.
Thousands of people gathered on February 12 for a candlelight vigil at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus to honour the victims. Though the families announced that the funerals would be closed to the media, anti-racists are planning on traveling to Chapel Hill to pay their respects and stand in solidarity. Vigils have also been planned on other campuses and communities.
It is time for us to set our own example — with our determination to speak out and take action against bigotry and Islamophobia, wherever it rears its head.
[Abridged from Socialist Worker (US).]