How shock over murder of Muslim-Americans could counter creeping Islamophobia

Signs of anti-Muslim fears have been percolating in American society recently, but the murder of three Muslim-Americans in North Carolina could play at least a small part in challenging those views.

Al Drago/The News & Observer/AP
Suzanne Askar (r.) rests her head on the shoulder of Safam Mahate, a student at North Carolina State University, as they stand next to Nida Allam (far l.) during a vigil for three people who were killed at a condominium near UNC-Chapel Hill, Wednesday, in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The point-blank shootings of three young Muslim-Americans in Chapel Hill, N.C., come at a tense time for America's seven-million-strong Muslim population.

The motives in Tuesday's shootings are not yet clear. The family of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yosor Mohammad, and Raszan Mohammad Abu-Salha say it was an anti-Muslim hate crime. But police say that so far they have not come up with hard evidence of a bias crime, even after searching the computer of the self-avowed atheist who turned himself in, Stephen Hicks. The shootings came after an argument about a parking space, they say.

The incident, however, comes as the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq – and the group's campaign of beheadings – has made many Americans feel that the threat of Islamist terror is increasing, according to numerous polls. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that Americans felt more coldly about Muslims than any other major religious group, just behind atheists.

Earlier this month, a Muslim-awareness day at the Texas Capitol was greeted with protesters, and anti-Muslim hate speech on social media tripled after the release of "American Sniper," according to American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

But just as anti-Islam events are percolating, America today appears to have little patience for violence against followers of different religions, observers say. By shocking many Americans into outrage and forcing them to reexamine prejudices, Wednesday's shootings could help counter creeping anti-Muslim fears.

“It may be a moment where people say, ‘What is this?’ ” says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington. “You can have a moment that doesn’t completely reshape perceptions, but still has a big cultural impact.”

For its part, the Chapel Hill case is far from clear at this point. Mr. Hicks displayed “equal opportunity anger” toward residents of the condo complex where he and the victims lived, a neighbor, Samantha Maness, told reporters.

Yet Hicks’s writings do suggest a man who chafed at the overt religiosity of the kind displayed by his Muslim-American neighbors. According to Mohammad Abu-Salha, the two women’s father, Hicks also asserted himself, sometimes armed, against his neighbors. The problems got worse, Mr. Abu-Salha said, when the two women in the household began wearing hijabs, a traditional piece of women’s clothing that covers the hair. The women were wearing the traditional dress when they were killed.

“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,” Abu-Salha told the Raleigh News & Observer. “ ‘Honest to God, he hates us for what we are and how we look,’ ” he paraphrased his daughter telling him.

The question of whether facts in the Chapel Hill shootings point to a hate crime has a both a symbolic and legal importance. For example, it would add extra state and federal penalties to a conviction. But the courts can be a flawed mechanism for easing religious tensions, says Brian Levin, an expert on violent extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

“A hateful motive is a unique societal harm that we have a real interest in adjudicating,” says Mr. Levin, at Cal State. “But [because the law is more concerned with intention than motive] court houses are often ill-equipped for the moral redress that supports a community’s desire for healing."

The broader issue to be addressed, he says, is the recent uptick in anti-Muslim fears in American society.

“What makes this especially riveting is that, irrespective of motive, this crime comes at a period of intense anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States, including everyday harassments, opposition to mosque construction, and attempts to pass anti-Sharia laws,” says Professor Levin. “I don’t think this crime could occur in a vacuum.”

Pew polling shows that Americans' "unfavorable" views of Muslims declined from 2001-06 before beginning to rise again – to 63 percent, in one poll – in a trend that continues today, notes Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in a post on ISLAMiCommentary.

To some degree, America's long history of religious tolerance, embedded in its Constitution, acts as a bulwark.

“Compared to most countries, [America is] a really great place to be an ethnic or religious minority,” says Mr. Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine.

But the deeper issue, say Professor Kurzman and others, is the notion of "intolerance creep" – the gradual mainstreaming of Islamophobia to a degree that puts an edge to daily life for Muslim-Americans.

Here, the American public’s shock at a crime can be a force for change, some say.

The 1998 killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay man in Wyoming, became a national soul-searching about homosexuality. The event contributed significantly to an untangling of deeply-held prejudices against homosexuals, part of a shift that has paved the way for the rapid expansion of gay marriage today.

The murder of three young Muslim-Americans in Chapel Hill may not be that kind of moment. But it is leaving an imprint. Americans of all stripes have declared solidarity with the greater Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Muslim community as it mourns the loss of three talented local kids, all of whom graduated from high schools in Raleigh. Mr. Barakat’s work supplying dental care to needy people in the Middle East has become one powerful antidote, highlighting how Hicks stole something essential not just from the devastated families and heartbroken local communities, but from America, by disturbing some of its greatest resources: youth, smarts, and idealism.

Barakat’s fellow students met on Wednesday to remember their friend and colleague, and the overriding message was, “Don’t match the hate with hate. Match the hate with love,” Eric Rivera at the UNC dental school told the News & Observer.

This, says Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine, is the most effective way to address anti-Muslim fears.

“Clearly, the kind of phobic discourse and culture of hatred exists on the fringe – and it might be a large and growing fringe – but one of the key ways to combat this is by embracing the public and its clear concern that [anti-Muslim prejudice] not spiral into anything bigger.”

Bottom line, he says, is “you’ve got a vicious circle between ideology of hatred and current events, and you need a virtuous circle between mainstream Muslims and mainstream broader American community, where you trump a vicious circle with a virtuous one.”

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