Thousands gathered on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last night to remember the three Muslim students shot dead by a gunman who had posted anti-religious messages online. The victims were two sisters – 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha and 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha – and Yusor’s husband, 23-year-old Deah Barakat. Suspected gunman Craig Stephen Hicks has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder. Hicks had frequently posted anti-religious comments on his Facebook page and was a supporter of the group Atheists for Equality. On Wednesday, police said the killings resulted from a dispute over a parking space. But Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of Razan and Yusor, described the shootings as a hate crime. The killings in Chapel Hill have sparked an international outcry, with the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter spreading across social media. A community Facebook page was set up Wednesday in memory of the three victims, called “Our Three Winners.” We are joined by two guests: Amira Ata, a longtime friend of Yusor, and Omid Safi, director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thousands gathered on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill last night to remember the three Muslim students who were shot dead Tuesday by a gunman who had posted anti-religious messages on Facebook. The victims were two sisters—19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha and 21-year-old Yusor—and Yusor’s husband, 23-year-old Deah Barakat. Yusor and Deah were married in December. Photos from their wedding day were shared widely on social media yesterday.
The suspected gunman, Craig Stephen Hicks, turned himself in to the police and has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder. Hicks had frequently posted anti-religious comments on his Facebook page and was a supporter of the group Atheists for Equality.
On Wednesday, police said the killings resulted from a dispute over a parking space. But Mohammad Abu-Salha, Razan and Yusor’s father, described the killings as a hate crime. He also accused the media of propagating anti-Muslim sentiment.
MOHAMMAD ABU–SALHA: They both, my daughters, wear the scarf. There is not a single week that our daughters don’t share with us their fear of walking down the street because of what the media is saying about us. Inflammatory media all the time. Inflammatory media all the time. They pick up the bad apples, and they magnify the picture, and they dwell on it day and night. …
We’re sad. We’re distraught. We’re shocked. We’re angry. We’re—we feel we were treated unjustly. This is uncalled for. We heard from the media—not from the media, from the police folks that each one of these children had a bullet in the head. This was an execution style, this was a hate crime from a neighbor our children spoke about, they were uncomfortable with. He came to their apartment more than once, condescending, threatening and despising and talking down to them.
AMY GOODMAN: Deah Barakat’s sister, Suzanne, described the three students as “gems of their communities.”
SUZANNE BARAKAT: Deah, at 23, a second-year dental student at UNC, was well known for his all-embracing kindness, lightheartedness, dedication to community service, love for basketball and anything Steph Curry. Yusor, 21, who was on track to join him at UNC Dental in the fall, matched his gentle demeanor, had a calming presence, and she and Deah found in one another a kindred spirit. Razan, at only 19, was tremendously gifted, studying architecture, incredibly creative, giving, generous and a loyal friend. They were gems of their communities and left a lasting impression on the people around them.
AMY GOODMAN: Craig Stephen Hicks had posted a picture of his gun on Facebook.
The killings in Chapel Hill sparked international outcry. The hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter spread across social media. A community Facebook page was set up Wednesday in memory of the three victims, called “Our Three Winners.”
To talk more about the killings, we’re joined by two guests in North Carolina. In Raleigh, Amira Ata is with us, a childhood friend of Yusor Abu-Salha. Her piece for Fusion.net is headlined “My best friend was killed and I don’t know why.” In Durham, Omid Safi is with us, director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is former professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Our condolences to you, to the whole community. Amira, I want to begin with you, to describe your best friend, Yusor Abu-Salha, her sister, to talk about what has taken place and what we should know about them.
AMIRA ATA: OK, well, I’m going to start about what we should know about them. So, Yusor was—or is—my best friend. I hate to say “was,” just because I—it’s hard to accept this. So I want to keep on living as if she’s still by my side. Yusor kept me strong through so many things. She was always helpful. She gave me and all of our friends a lot of advice and support. She encouraged us, and she was an inspiration. She was an inspiration to me. Her father was—is an inspiration to me. I actually want to follow his career path. Ever since I was little, I was determined to become like him. I loved his job. I loved what he does. And Yusor encouraged me to do that, as well. And we’ve been in school all—like, together all of our life, since third grade. I met her when she moved to Raleigh from Clinton, North Carolina, and we were just inseparable since. We went to the same elementary school, middle school, high school and university. So—
AMY GOODMAN: And Yusor’s sister, Razan, 19 years old, her little sister?
AMIRA ATA: Yes, Razan. So, Razan, since I was best friends with Yusor, of course, we were—Razan was always with us, growing up. She was always playing with us. She may not have had the best roles in all of our games, but she was included. She was lucky that she was included, because we were older. So we kind of, you know, tried to boss her around a little, as much as we could, or as much as she would let us. But then, when she grew up, she was smarter than us, so it didn’t work anymore. Razan is—she’s so kind and loving, and she’s just really cute, like there’s just something about her that’s just adorable, like she kind of makes your heart melt a little bit.
She loved Yusor so much. And yesterday, when we were at their parents’ home, I was thinking to myself. Like, you know, we’re standing in the kitchen, and we’ve been there so many times, and it brings back so many memories, like I can see Razan sitting at the end of the table. And she always used to sit kind of at the head of the table. And I can always just see her always studying. She was always reading. She has like this huge library in her room, like you wouldn’t believe how many books this girl reads. And she’s just a very smart young girl that had just an amazing mind. Her thought process was amazing. She loved her family so much. She loved Yusor a lot. And I just can’t imagine if Yusor was to leave this world and Razan didn’t. I don’t think Razan would have been able to survive without her sister, because they were so connected together. So, I’m kind of looking at it—last night I was thinking about it—it is kind of a blessing that they happened to pass all together, because they all needed each other so much. And I don’t think Razan would have been able to do it without her, and vice versa.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’d like to talk to Professor Omid Safi, as well, about what’s occurred. Professor Safi, could you explain to us what—your response to the way in which the media has been covering these tragic deaths?
OMID SAFI: Thank you, Nermeen. Thank you, Amy. It’s obviously a very heavy time for all of us here in North Carolina and in the country. I think the initial response of the community here has been to ask the media focus to be on the lives of these three beautiful, young, idealistic, passionate people, these three young Muslims who connected the suffering here in America to the suffering around the world, who work in inner cities of North Carolina, as well as working with Syrian refugees in Turkey, working with Palestinians and others, rather than simply keeping the focus on this vile murderer and the horrific act of an execution-style murder.
And then the other aspect that we have seen has been the request of the family, and indeed the Muslim community here, to fully consider this as a possible hate crime. When you see a man breaking in with a gun, having threatened three people repeatedly over a course of weeks, and then shoot them in the head, as I mentioned, in an execution style, we’ve simply found it unbelievable that the police force would have initially dismissed this as a possible hate crime, or at least removed that possibility, minimized that possibility. And so I think the other aspect that the community here is wholeheartedly asking for is for this to be investigated as a serious hate crime.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to Deah Barakat in his own words. Along with his friend Ali Heydary, Barakat had started a fundraising campaign to raise money for a trip they were planning to Turkey this summer to provide dental care to Syrian refugees. This is a clip.
DEAH BARAKAT: My name is Deah Barakat. I’m a dental student at UNC, and I need your help. Have you ever felt helpless about the situation in Syria and felt like you can’t do anything about it? Well, this is your opportunity to help. This summer I’m embarking on a trip to Turkey with 10 dentists to help Syrian refugee students in need of urgent dental care. These kids don’t have access to the same healthcare as us. And their prolonged pain can easily be taken care of with the work that we do. But we need the proper funding. So let’s relieve their pain. If you want to make a difference in the life of a child most in need, then I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Deah Barakat’s campaign had originally set a goal of raising $20,000. It’s now raised nearly $200,000, mostly raised since news of the killings broke. So, Professor Safi, could you talk about some of the work that Deah was involved in, both here in the United States, the social justice and humanitarian work here, and abroad, as well as Razan and Yusor?
OMID SAFI: Absolutely. So, the very last Facebook message that most of us saw from Deah—and these people are really the pillars of the community here. They’re the absolute role models for what it means to live an engaged, faithful life in the public space. And the last time that we all saw Deah in the social media context was he was talking about leading a campaign to provide free dental care for inner-city, primarily African-American, community in Durham, and to hand out free food. And this was just a short while after he had gotten married. And, you know, this is the kind of person that he was—
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, hadn’t he just been—hadn’t he just been—
OMID SAFI: —open-hearted, always with a smile, starting his action here at home, but then also with an eye toward suffering halfway around the world. And this is what we ask of the best of our young people, is to connect the suffering here at home to the suffering globally, because we want them to always be mindful of the fact that our humanity mingles together.
As far as the other ones, Yusor had also done very similar dental relief work in Turkey in the city of Kilis. And, in fact, she was about to start at the UNC dental school in August. And Razan, this extraordinary bundle of goodwill and brilliant young woman, was already recognized for her work in 3D design, so an Arab Muslim woman, a hijab-wearing woman, who’s breaking ground in a very male-dominated world of engineering. And the way that she had chosen to respond to the horrific Paris shootings and the pornographic cartoons mocking the prophet was not by simply engaging the cartoonists at their own level, but she was the artistic visionary and genius behind a project that’s called “Optimism is a Lost Sunnah,” “Sunnah” meaning the pattern of the prophet, the example of the prophet. Optimism—I mean, this is what these folks stood for. This is how they had been raised to live their life. And one reason that a lot of us are mourning is that a few minutes of hateful violence, in a sense, have deprived all of us of decades of benefiting from the loving service of these beautiful young people.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Karen Hicks, the suspect’s wife, who held a news conference Wednesday in attempt to refute claims her husband was motivated by religious bigotry.
KAREN HICKS: I can say with my absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or victims’ faith, but in fact was related to the long-standing parking disputes that my husband had with the neighbors.
AMY GOODMAN: And I also want to turn to the lawyer for the suspect. [His] attorney, Rob Maitland, also addressed reporters and suggested the suspect had a history of mental health problems.
ROB MAITLAND: My personal opinion is that this highlights the importance of access to mental healthcare services and us removing in our society the stigma for people to ask for that clinical help when they need it.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Craig Stephen Hicks’ attorney, Rob Maitland. Professor Safi, your response?
OMID SAFI: I have a couple of responses. One of them is, I find it intriguing that whenever we have a white person engaging in horrific acts of violence, the immediate response is to say they’re a lone ranger, they’re disturbed, they’re marginalized, and possibly they suffer from mental illness. When we have people from a Muslim background who are coming, all of a sudden the conversation shifts to a culture of death and an ideology that somehow produces this, and then there’s an expectation of a communal apology on behalf of it.
Also on behalf of people who deeply care about issues of mental illness, I think it’s really important to say that while we do need extraordinary commitment to mental health here in North Carolina, where many of the institutions have in fact been shut down under Republican administration, the association between mental illness and violence is simply something that is not bore out by the facts on the ground.
And the second thing that I would say that came out of that really unacceptable presentation yesterday that you just alluded to is that the same lawyer also said that the three victims were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were in their own home. Since when is being in one’s own house being in the wrong place? Where are we supposed to be?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And before we conclude, I’d like to ask Amira Ata—you wrote in your piece, “My best friend was killed and I don’t know why,” you spoke about an incident in the fall when you were at Yusor’s house, and the neighbor, who is now the suspect in this killing—in fact, who turned himself in—came and complained about the level of noise that there was in that apartment. Could you talk about that incident? What happened that night last fall?
AMIRA ATA: Yes. We were invited over to Yusor and Deah’s house for dinner. Deah had made us dinner. We went over there. And this was in the engagement period. We were still, you know, getting to know him and that type of stuff. And after dinner, we were playing a game; it’s called Risk. I’m not sure if everybody knows about it. But it’s a game that you basically, like, conquer the world. And so, we were getting a little competitive, but we weren’t that loud. And the house is—like, where we were sitting, we were sitting in the living room. Like, there’s still another bedroom on one side and another bedroom on the other side, so there’s plenty of walls that are surrounded around us.
Soon after we left, Yusor contacted us, and she told us, “Did my neighbor say anything to you guys when you guys left out?” And we were like, “No, we just left. We didn’t see anybody.” And she said, “Oh, my neighbor came to my doorstep, and he was holding a gun and was telling me that we were too loud and we woke up his wife.” We told her, all of us that were there—it was four of us—we told her, “Call the police. Tell them what happened.” And she was debating whether she should or she shouldn’t, whether—because she was like, “He didn’t really do anything. I don’t know if I should make this a big deal. I’m not really sure what to do,” that type of thing. And, you know, she was so nice to him. Like, she was just explaining to him, you know, “We weren’t that loud, but I’m sorry. You know, if we were loud, I apologize for that.” And I don’t know, it was just a weird situation.
So, on Tuesday, as we were getting all of the phone calls and hearing all of the gossip and everybody is telling us, “Get to Chapel Hill,” we had no idea what was going on. As I’m driving down there, I’m thinking if—I thought only Deah was dead, honestly; I didn’t think Yusor had died, and I didn’t know Razan was involved. Driving there, I was like, if Deah was shot, the neighbor had to do it. I knew, automatically, because I thought immediately, “Who would do something like this to them? It was their neighbor.” She complains about him to her parents. I don’t know if he—how many times he’s threatened her. Her dad knows more. But she wasn’t comfortable staying there. And she used to always try to convince one of us, if we finished class at State, to come to Chapel Hill and spend time with her so she wouldn’t be alone all the time. So, I’m not really sure if that was just a fear she didn’t want to be alone, but, I mean, she knew that it wasn’t really safe there, with that neighbor that tends to come to her house holding a gun. Like, if I had a problem with my neighbor, I might write a letter, you know, put it on their doorstep or on their car, but I wouldn’t go to my neighbor holding a gun, at night.
AMY GOODMAN: Did she say he ever—did she feel that he felt anger or hatred towards them because they were Muslim?
AMIRA ATA: Yes, of course. She was saying, because they were different, she felt that she was hated. And she didn’t know why, because she’s such a sweet and calm person. She didn’t understand why anyone, you know, wouldn’t like her. So it didn’t make sense to her. And we told her, “It’s probably because you wear a scarf, you wear a hijab, and you are a Muslim.” So, people—some people are, you know, ignorant, and they are going to not like you because of what you represent, because people think that Islam is a bad thing. But, I mean, not all Muslims are bad Muslims.
AMY GOODMAN: Amira Ata, we want to thank you for being with us. Again, our condolences. Best friend of Yusor Abu-Salha. We’re going to link to your piece at Fusion.net, “My best friend was killed and I don’t know why.” And Professor Omid Safi, thank you for being with us, director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. The three young people are being buried today in Raleigh. Again, 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, her 21-year-old sister Yusor, and her new husband, 23-year-old Deah Barakat, all killed on Tuesday.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, One Billion Rising. Stay with us.