The toxic hate behind the Chapel Hill murders

February 12, 2015

Nicole Colson looks at the background of bigotry behind the killing of three Muslims.

ON THE evening of February 10, Craig Stephen Hicks murdered three of his neighbors in Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Yusor's sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Hicks was arrested and charged with first-degree murder after he turned himself in to police.

Almost immediately, authorities declared that the motive for the killings was a dispute over parking at the condominium complex where they all lived. But it was impossible to ignore the cloud of hate and bigotry hanging over these murders.

Hicks maintained a strident social media presence in which he described himself as an "anti-theist" and expressed a disdain for the religious. Among other things, he denounced "radical Christians and radical Muslims" for causing strife in the world. He wrote:

I give your religion as much respect as your religion gives me. There's nothing complicated about it, and I have every right to insult a religion that goes out of its way to insult, to judge, and to condemn me as an inadequate human being--which your religion does with self-righteous gusto...

If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I. But given that it doesn't, and given the enormous harm that your religion has done in this world, I'd say that I have not only a right, but a duty, to insult it, as does every rational, thinking person on this planet.

From left to right: Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha
From left to right: Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha

After the tide of racism and Islamophobia that has washed over the U.S. during the "war on terror" years after September 11, it's impossible to believe that this "anti-theist" rant was directed at all religions equally. Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of the two murdered women, drew the obvious conclusion at a press conference:

It was execution style, a bullet in every head...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.

According to the Raleigh News-Observer, Abu-Salha said his daughter told her family a week ago that she had "a hateful neighbor." He added, "Honest to God, she said, 'He hates us for what we are and how we look.'"

Hicks appeared to have singled out the three college students before. In a heartbreaking post at, Amira Ata, a close friend of Yusor's, recalled an evening when friends were over at Yusor and Deah's house, playing a game of Risk, when Hicks showed up at the door holding a rifle and complaining about noise:

I think they were targeted because they were different. He was always so annoyed with them for little things. They are talking about a parking dispute online--that's definitely not true. There's plenty of space, and Deah had just gotten off the bus...I wonder what would have happened if we were there? Would he have killed us all, since we were a bunch of hijabis [women who wear the hijab]?

At a press conference, Duke University Islamic leader Imam Abdullah Antepli expressed the fear that many Muslims feel in the wake of the murders:

This incident immediately revealed the vulnerability of the Muslim community and the image and reputation of Islam as a religion and Muslims as people in American society at large. There are several hundred Muslim families in the greater Chapel Hill area, including myself, and we didn't send our children to school today. We wanted to know what was going on.

ON FEBRUARY 11, Hicks' wife issued a statement saying her husband believed in "equality" and wasn't prejudiced against Muslims.

But Hicks' strident beliefs dovetail with the rise of the so-called "New Atheist movement" that has gained attention since 9/11. Figures like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, pundit/comedian Bill Maher and the late Christopher Hitchens have used the cover of criticizing all religious thought to target Islam and Muslims as uniquely intolerant, backward and violent.

It's an attitude that fits in comfortably with the prevailing attitudes of the American empire during the "war on terror"--despite the fact some of its leaders, like George W. Bush, frequently invoked Christian "values" and "civilization" to justify war and occupation.

Then, of course, there are the right-wing ideologues who heap abuse on Islam without even pretending to challenge other religious beliefs--racists like Pamela Geller, founder of "Stop Islamization of America," a professed admirer of the fascists of the English Defense League or the dead South African white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche.

All of this has fueled an atmosphere of bigotry and violence toward Muslims. After 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims (or those who were deemed to "look Muslim") spiked. Mosques were vandalized--others under construction or in the planning stages were prevented from being built. As Michelle Goldberg detailed at

According to the latest FBI statistics, there were more than 160 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2013. Mosques and Islamic centers have been firebombed and vandalized; seven mosques were attacked during Ramadan alone in 2012. Several Muslims, or people thought to be Muslim, have been murdered or viciously attacked. In 2010, a white college student and self-described patriot tried to slash the throat of Bangladeshi cab driver Ahmed Sharif. The white supremacist who slaughtered six people in a Sikh temple in 2012 may have thought he was targeting Muslims. So, apparently, did Erika Menendez, the homeless New Yorker who pushed a man named Sunando Sen in front of a subway train that same year.

The broader backdrop to this violence is the fact that the U.S. has been at war in the Middle East--for decades on end, but with increasing violence and oppression since the war on terror was declared in 2001. On the day after the Chapel Hill murders, Barack Obama asked Congress for a three-year authorization of military force, including limited ground operations, against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria--the continuation of a disastrous war that has destroyed the country of Iraq, and been accompanied by the demonization of Arabs and Muslims, whether in the Middle East or in the U.S.

As the hate crime statistics cited by Michelle Goldberg show, Muslims are far more likely today to be the targets of violent extremists. Yet all Muslims are expected to condemn acts of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam, no matter how distant from their own lives and beliefs.

A case in point is Fox News, one of the media outlets that immediately concluded the three Chapel Hill students were murdered because of parking.

Fox is one of the main proponents of anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S., with its chairman Rupert Murdoch tweeting in January, "Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible." Fox News has repeatedly peddled false stories about Muslims and Islam--but it isn't alone, by any means.

As University of North Alabama professor Mohamad Elmasry wrote for Al Jazeera after the Chapel Hill murders:

Western media outlets will likely frame the most recent perpetrator of what some speculate is an anti-Muslim crime in the same way they frame most anti-Muslim criminals--as crazed, misguided bigots who acted alone. If past coverage is any indication, there will likely be very little suggestion that the killer acted on the basis of an ideology or as part of any larger pattern or system.

But what if acts of anti-Muslim violence are consistent with at least some strands of current Western ideology? What if Islamophobia has become so commonplace, so accepted, that it now represents a hegemonic system of thought, at least for relatively large pockets of people in some regions of the West?

THE NEED to speak out against bigotry and Islamophobia in the wake of these killings is of utmost importance.

On social media, the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter began trending as an expression of solidarity--adapted from the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag that proliferated after the police killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice last year.

In addition to expressing their grief and anger at the killings, many people pointed out the hypocrisy of mainstream media that routinely trade in anti-Islam sentiment, only to deny such killings could possibly have anything to do with Islamophobia. Another common observation: If a Muslim had murdered three non-Muslims in this manner, the media would have labeled it "terrorism" and connected the crime to the allegedly inherent violence of Islam.

A Facebook page created by friends and family of the victims titled "Our Three Winners" gained a huge following in a matter of hours and hosted tributes to the fallen students as well as information about upcoming vigils and demonstrations against Islamophobia.

As this article was being written, thousands of people had gathered for a candlelight vigil at the UNC-Chapel Hill campus to honor the victims. Though the families announced that the funerals would be closed to the media, anti-racists are planning on traveling to Chapel Hill to pay their respects and stand in solidarity. Thousands of people are expected, with more vigils planned on other campuses and communities.

The Facebook page for Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha said that the three "set an example in life and in death." Now it is time for us to set an example--our determination to speak out and take action against bigotry and Islamophobia, wherever it rears its head.

Further Reading

From the archives