Sunday, February 15, 2015

Lessons from the Chapel Hill Tragedy

A deranged American, a ticking time bomb by any definition, kills three bright, young Americans in cold blood in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It is not clear if the killings are due to a
long-simmering parking dispute or to the killer’s antipathy toward the “otherness” of
his victims.

What is clear is that when Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, shot dead Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, in their home, it sent a tremor through Muslim communities throughout America. Hicks’s victims were Muslim.

American Muslims are experiencing the same combination of shock, fear, frustration, anger and grief as they did in the aftermath of 9/11.

Events have a way of juxtaposing themselves. On February 2, the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, got underway. On the same day as the Chapel Hill murders, the terrorist organization ISIS confirmed that the 26-year-old American Kayla Mueller it had abducted months ago was dead. In Peshawar, in the same city where the Taliban had killed 145 people, including 132 schoolchildren, last year, the same group killed at least 20 worshipers in a Shiite mosque on February 12. And on Valentine’s Day, one or more terrorists attacked a cultural center and a synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark, perhaps copying the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris on January 7.

Some Americans have unfortunately conflated the atrocities of these terrorists with the religion of Islam. What makes the situation even scarier for Muslims is that the conflation is fueled by media personalities and public officials with impunity.

Television host and comic Bill Maher often speaks of a “Muslim problem,” and has suggested that “the Muslim world … has too much in common with ISIS.” The neuroscientist Sam Harris is convinced that Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas.” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a GOP Presidential hopeful, has concluded that “Islam has a problem,” and called the immigration of Muslims to the U.S. an “invasion” and a “colonization.” Oklahoma state representative John Bennett recently declared to applause that Muslims in America were a cancer that needed to be cut out of the country.

The list goes on, despite the unequivocal condemnation by Muslims of terrorist acts that occur in their name.

Anti-Muslim bigotry seems to have gained a firm foothold in America. Is it any wonder that American Muslims feel besieged?
Yet there are reasons for hope. Anyone watching the funeral of the three slain Americans must have noticed the inspiring mix of attendees representing all creeds and color. Their presence spoke far louder than what we read in the media and hear from some of our public officials. As the pastors of the United Church of Chapel Hill said in a statement: "As leaders of faith communities in Chapel Hill, we deplore the senseless killing of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and we share in the profound grief of their families. An attack on any of God’s children, our sisters and brothers, is an attack on us all. We renew our pledge to continue the vital work of fostering mutual understanding and respect that cross all lines of difference."
President Obama condemned “the brutal and outrageous murders,” adding that no one in America should be targeted “because of who they are, what they look like or how they worship.” The President was echoing what Yusor recently said of her life in America: “Growing up in America has been such a blessing. It doesn’t matter where you come from. There are so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions – but here, we’re all one."
At the somber Friday congregational prayers in mosques throughout America following the murders, Imams emphasized the need for patience and faith in the due process of law. At the South Bay Islamic Association’s mosque in San Jose that I attend, Imam Tahir Anwar reminded congregants that when any calamity befalls them, believers are instructed by the Quran to say, “To God we belong, and to Him shall we return.”

One way we American Muslims can remove the fear of the “Other” from among our fellow-Americans is by getting to know our neighbors. Instead of offering a perfunctory “hi,” as many of us often do when we run into them, we should introduce ourselves and lend a helping hand whenever there is a need. Woe to the worshipers, the Quran warns, who do not heed the needs of their neighbors.

There is a lesson that, particularly the youth, can draw from this tragedy as well. Barakat and his wife Yusor often volunteered to help the homeless in their college town. They were also active in raising money to help Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Setting aside a part of our busy lives to help those in need is perhaps the best way to honor and remember these selfless Americans.

As for Craig Stephen Hicks, we pray that God’s grace will find its way into his heart. And when the time comes for society to judge him, we pray that society will temper justice with mercy.

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