This morning, I saw that my teenage daughter had posted an article to Facebook: “Chapel Hill Police Arrest Man for Triple Murder.” She’s a smart girl, socially engaged and actively interested in social justice issues but not usually interested in general crime stories, so I knew these murders must have more to them. I clicked my way through the rabbit hole, and the more I read, the more my stomach turned. Whether or not it is ever officially prosecuted as a hate crime, this was a crime committed out of what can only be described as the deepest of hatreds.
“It was execution style, a bullet in every head,” Abu-Salha said. “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.” – Charlotte Observer
“The man arrested on suspicion of killing three young Muslims in North Carolina described himself as an “anti-theist” and criticised all religions online..” – Independent
I read that those killed were bright, talented young people, two of them newly married, who spent their free time caring for those in their community and abroad. The killing of any innocent youth is a tragedy; the senseless deaths of shining stars such as these is an unspeakable heartbreak. It has been suggested that a long term parking dispute was part of the impetus behind the murders. I can tell you this: No person executes three other people in their own homes for any reason unless he has already abandoned his own belief in their humanity. We can lay any veneer we want over this act, but you can’t argue that it was motivated by a biased, deeply irrational, anti-theistic hatred.
Having found out about these murders just as I was arriving at work, I spent all day wishing I had a safe space to cry, and wondering how this could happen here. North Carolina, sadly, is not known for its strong defense of religious diversity and acceptance; the Chapel Hill area is. Had this happened thirty miles down the road, I would be heartbroken over the tragedy; I would not, however, have been shocked. People in Chapel Hill take great pride in their community’s open-mindedness, acceptance, and welcoming of all people. They want to be the kinds of people who work through differences with intention, who learn from each other with respect, and who are open to growing from conflict. They don’t typically shrink from examining their privilege.
They don’t murder neighbors they’ve targeted for harassment and intimidation, execution style in their own homes. At least, we don’t want to believe they do, because to believe that is to believe the harsh truth that extremists work their narrow-minded destruction in every community.
Tonight, needing to connect with others as we grieved, my daughter and I attended the vigil on UNC’s campus to honor and remember Deah, Yusor, and Razan. Chancellors of both UNC and NCSU spoke, offering words of support to their students. The Mayor of Chapel Hill reminded us that as people try over the coming weeks to apply labels to what happened, some of which will fit and some which will not, to remember the three people who are the focus of this story. Omid Safi, Director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center, encouraged us to continue supporting the works they began. Imam Abdullah Antepli stressed that while we cannot bring them back, we can take part in fulfilling their dreams. And friend after friend remembered what beautiful people they were, while also encouraging us to follow our own dreams to make the world a better place.
It was a moving, powerful, and motivating experience, not just because of the words spoken or prayers offered, but also because of the communal strength of thousands gathered together to stand against senseless murders motivated so deeply by religious hatred. There were people as far as the eye could see in every direction, many holding candles, many silently crying. If you’ve ever thought that young people couldn’t spend more than a minute away from their phone, you’d be wrong. Every eye and all attention was focused on the pictures playing on the huge screen before us, ears strained to hear above the background noise of traffic and the sounding of the bell tower.
I’m not sure what I can offer in terms of healing or hope for those who loved Deah, Yusor, and Razan, or those who now fear that because of their religion or appearance they are no longer safe in their community. I can’t offer to “ride with you,” because our public transit doesn’t reach my home. I am not Deah, or Yusor, or Razan, because I haven’t experienced the kinds of discrimination and othering that they have. I can’t rewind time, and take the gun out of the murderer’s hands, or go back farther into his own timeline to help offer him a different way to think, to be, and to live. I can’t fix this.
But I can stand with you. When Muslims in this country or abroad are threatened, murdered, or oppressed, I will lend both my voice and what resources I can to helping end or ameliorate suffering. And if you are a Muslim in my community who fears that you are being targeted, know this: you are definitely being targeted for a love that exceeds all love, for friendship when it is wanted, and to have another voice added to your chorus demanding equality, acceptance, and having your humanity acknowledged and honored. I’ll stand with you.
In my home, I have a small, sacred space where I light a large candle when I’m meditating or praying. Over the past years, I’ve added many “flames” to this candle — individual candles that have been lit for a specific cause, whose fire has been blended with the flames on my central pillar candle when it’s a cause I hope to add to my regular practice and daily reflections. Tonight, I brought home the candle I had held during the vigil. I re-lit it, and then lit my pillar candle’s flames off of the fire that burned for justice, equality, and interfaith understanding, and for the Triangle’s Three Winners. Every time I light my pillar candle for my personal spiritual work, may the fire that burns in my heart tonight be rekindled. May I always work with you, and others, that love and compassion may always win.