“Chapel Hill”. The first time I heard it used like that: not Chapel Hill student shootings, just Chapel Hill, as an immediately recognizable reference in the media, like ‘Ferguson’ or ‘Waco,’ as a byword- the first time I heard this it came as a shock. Particularly when I’m overseas, I tend to idealize Chapel Hill as the ‘Southern part of Heaven’, that uniquely liberal and diverse enclave in conservative North Carolina, the town with more PH.D.’s per capita than Cambridge, MA, situated as it is at the crossroads of three great universities: UNC, Duke, and NC State.
And now this. Around the world, the name Chapel Hill coupled with the senseless triple murders of three local college students, promising and optimistic young people who also happened to be openly Muslim American. I never met them or their families, but I know them: the model minority, a little more driven than your average student, from immigrant, educated Middle East families with high expectations for achievement, surrounded by a strong, supportive faith community.
In most ways, all-American. Deah Barakat was basketball mad and copied his idol Stephen Curry’s pose in a photograph, but he was also a serious young man dedicated to service who used his UNC Dental School training to help underprivileged people in this country and abroad. He looked up to his older sister Suzanne, a San Francisco physician. His wife Yusor and her sister Razan, daughters of a Clayton psychiatrist, were an aspiring dentist and architect, respectively; ambitious, bright young women who could have been Amal Alamuddin Clooney in an Islamic veil, if they had lived.
I was never ‘that sort of Muslim,’ as someone I knew once put it: the easily identifiable sort who wore a headscarf and sent their children to Islamic Sunday school. But I knew many of them, and like the Barakat and the Abu-Salha children, they felt confident that they belonged in Raleigh or Chapel Hill. If they had anything to prove, they believed their achievements would speak well for their community.
Like many religious minorities, they made a conscious effort to reach out and to represent their community among society at large. According to Rabbi Greyber of Beth El in a letter to his congregation, his colleague Rabbi Solomon of Beth Meyer in Raleigh knew Deah, Yusor and Razan quite well. “All three were very active in inter-religious affairs including an interfaith Habitat for Humanity, and Farris Barakat, the older brother of Deah Barakat, attended Beth Meyer Synagogue services and, with the Barakat family, recently opened his home to Beth Meyer congregants to share the breaking of the Ramadan fast.”
These three young people were the best and brightest of their community. What a waste. And why? This is not the place to discuss whether the murders were motivated by a parking dispute or bigotry, or a toxic mixture of both. Deah Barakat’s articulate, poised sister, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, points to the role of a media culture that relentlessly portrays all Muslims as violent terrorists, and cites as an example films like American Sniper.
What that film refuses to show is that Chris Kyle, the real-life sniper of the story, was not killed by an Iraqi or Muslim but by a fellow white American veteran at a shooting range near Chalk Mountain, Texas. Eddie Ray Routh, a former marine, is accused of turning on Kyle and another friend and shooting them dead. His motive? According to one witness, Routh shot them ‘because they wouldn’t talk to him.’ Think about that for a moment. Then think about this. Craig Hicks took the lives of three young people because, according to his wife, he didn’t like them sharing the visitor’s parking spot with him. Is that all it takes to make an armed white man turn killer in today’s America? And is that particularly reassuring to those who would dismiss the Chapel Hill murders as ‘just a parking dispute’ rather than a hate crime?
The families of the three student victims, or ‘our three winners’, as they prefer to call them, in true American style, are understandably seeking to assuage their unspeakable pain with the hope that some positive legacy might come of this tragedy, some re-examining of prejudice, some coming together of communities. And indeed, Stephen Curry, the basketball star whom Deah Barakat idolized, expressed a desire to honor his murdered fan. Rabbi Solomon of Beth Meyer, whose congregants Farris Barakat had invited into his home, is setting up a discretionary fund to help the families of the three victims or the charities of their choice. At the very least, what photos of the smiling faces of the three young people seem to be calling for, is the hope that America looks past the headscarf or the headline and sees Muslims as neighbors, not the eternal and suspicious Other.