On Charlie and Chapel Hill

At the beginning of January, I was in Paris during the attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, just a short walk away from where it was occurring (read about my experience here). As I learned more about the attack, those that happened in the days to come, and the reasoning behind it, I wasn’t particularly surprised. France in general and Paris in particular has had its issues with racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Thus, it didn’t come as much of a shock when my current home became a focus of international media for a terrorist attack because of the offensive portrayal of the prophet Mohammad in a publication.
What did come as a shock was the murder of three students in my hometown for the “crime” of being Muslim.
As a person with rather conservative tendencies, I have always been acutely aware of how liberal Chapel Hill is. While this hasn’t always been a positive thing for me, I do appreciate how open and accepting the community is, especially to those who might not find acceptance elsewhere. Additionally, we’ve always been a fairly tight-knit community. Spend enough time in Chapel Hill, and six degrees of separation becomes more like two, maybe three at the most; everyone ends up knowing everyone. So when something happens to one of our own, everyone feels it. Deah, Yusor and Razan are no exception.

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, Razan Abu-Salha
Photo via Our Three Winners, Facebook
I’m following all the news publications on the shooting with my heart sinking lower and lower. The world is watching my home, my university, the neighborhood where I went to birthday parties in middle school and got the wind knocked out of me falling over a tennis net. None of it feels real. How could this have happened in my peaceful little town? Chapel Hill gets in the media in February because of our basketball team’s ACC standing. Not hate crimes. Not this.
Anyone who really thinks this was over a parking dispute needs to get their head out of their ass and face the music. The parents of the victims have said that the police confirmed that all three were shot in the head execution-style, and that this isn’t the first problem they’ve had with this neighbor. It was a blatant hate crime, and one that’s startling in an otherwise relatively calm, tolerant community. The worst part is that whatever misconceptions this man, the neighbor who murdered three young people, had about Muslims, they couldn’t have been further from the truth with this trio. Everything I’ve seen and heard and read about them has painted them as a loving, recently married couple and her sweet younger sister. Everyone in my network who knew Deah describes him as the kind of person who inspired you to be better, Yusor’s best friend said in an interview that she was, like her husband, always putting others ahead of herself, and the videos of Razan doing art and design pretty much speak for themselves. As current and future UNC Dental students, both Deah and Yusor dedicated much of their time to provide dental relief to Syrian refugees in Turkey (donate to Deah’s cause here). They took the profession they loved and used it to help those who needed it most. How could someone kill people like that?

Candlelight vigil in Chapel Hill, 11 February 2015. Photo by Sierra Fender

As I watched my social media flood with photos of the candlelight vigil held in the center of the campus I know so well, I desperately wished I were at home to stand in solidarity with my university and my community. Thousands of miles away, I feel like I don’t deserve to feel as sad as I do about this tragedy, knowing how much more difficult it must be for their families, their friends, all those whose lives they touched.  I didn’t even know them, and I’m still choking up scrolling through my Facebook news feed, the Overheard at UNC page, and the #ChapelHillShooting hashtag on Twitter. There are demonstrations in Gaza, a major focus area of my undergraduate research, for Deah, Yusor and Razan. How is it possible that people in an area that has struggled so much are mobilizing and marching for people who worked with charity organizations to bring them aid? Deah himself had recently traveled to Palestine to provide dental care for special needs children. It’s absolutely mind-boggling.

My dilemma, however, goes further. How can I be a supporter of #JeSuisCharlie, a movement which almost glorifies a magazine whose writers and cartoonists published content that is very offensive to a religion, and still be so grieved over the deaths of these three, who were in all likelihood killed for being members of that same religion?
It’s this question I’m struggling with as I attempt to make sense of what’s going on back in Chapel Hill. Are the kind of things that the cartoonists were publishing at Charlie Hebdo problematic enough, and well-circulated enough, that they cause unjustified prejudice towards Muslims in a culture that already marginalizes them, or does the hate stem directly from the retaliation of extremist Islamic groups? To say nothing of the portrayal of Muslims in American media, which is no better. The same kind of hate crimes occurred all over France in the aftermath of the Charlie attacks, though those received much less news coverage- undoubtedly few people were surprised that in an Islamophobic society, any attacks committed by Muslims were going to have backlash. Many on Twitter have wondered why this non-Muslim-on-Muslim crime hasn’t gotten anywhere near as much media coverage as the Muslim-on-non-Muslim attacks here in Paris, or wherever they may occur.

The answer doesn’t lie in repressing the right of journalists to publish what they want, nor the right of Muslims to practice their faith. The only satisfactory conclusion I’ve managed to come to is outrage- straight up anger that anyone thinks they have the right to take someone else’s life. The important thing to remember is that #JeSuisCharlie, at its heart, what it should mean, isn’t really about Charlie Hebdo the publication at all. It’s about the fact that no one deserves to be killed for voicing an opinion or making a (distasteful) joke. In the same way, no one deserves to be killed for practicing a tenet of their religion. According to various news sources, the neighbor who committed this heinous crime didn’t give Deah any problems until Yusor moved in- she kept to the traditional practice of wearing a hijab. And people are trying to say this was over a parking space.

I’ve been offered a unique perspective to have been in Paris during the attacks in January and to be a part of the Chapel Hill community that is reeling from this violence, but my heart is so heavy to know the cost at which this perspective comes.

Front of Hotel de Ville in Paris, 12 February 2015, 36 days post-attack. What kind of memorials will still be standing in Chapel Hill in 36 days?

And I have to say, it’s absolutely unfair. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the world immediately cried “terrorism” and the whole city went on high alert. Friends back home knew immediately and got in touch to ask if I were okay. But the news of this story trickled out, slowly- all the major news sites took hours to report it, and even then probably only because it was trending on Twitter- and my friends and host family here in Paris didn’t know it had happened until I told them. Now three words I never thought I’d see together, #ChapelHillShooting, are everywhere. But what made Charlie terrorism and what makes this not? Why was there a nationwide backlash against Muslims here in France after Charlie and no massive backlash against bigoted 40something white men in NC now? Why is it that, no matter what the crime, Muslims end up suffering the most, as victims of either the original crime or the subsequent backlash? What if the roles were reversed?

And why did it take the loss of three incredible, innocent lives to get us to talk about it?

We as a society need to realize that all lives matter, whether they be black, white, Muslim, Christian, male, female, transgender, anything. It’s also unfair to people with mental health issues for Craig Hicks’ lawyer to be pulling the mental health card, especially after saying the victims were “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” (they were at home…) The whole situation keeps filling up with more and more prejudices and stereotypes and it amazes me that in 2015 we still consider ourselves to be “advanced” as we continue to have these problems.

There are so many questions that still remain, and so many of them that will never be answered. I can only pray now that the upcoming weeks and investigations bring answers, closure and a bit of peace to the grieving families and loved ones. My heart is home in Chapel Hill this week.
#OurThreeWinners- rest in peace.

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