Today marks one week since 23-year-old Yousef Abu-Salha’s younger sisters — Yusor, 21, and Razan, 19 — were murdered by their neighbor. Yousef told The Electronic Intifada over the the phone from North Carolina that he has no doubt their murder was an anti-Muslim hate crime.
The women were executed along with Yusor’s husband, 23-year-old Deah Barakat, in the newlywed couple’s condominium.
All three were remarkable individuals devoted to helping the disenfranchised at home and refugees abroad. As their social media posts demonstrate, the plight of Syrian and Palestinian refugees were particularly near and dear to their hearts. In fact, Razan and Yusor were of Palestinian descent, which has been largely glossed over in the media coverage of their deaths.
Originally from the port city of Jaffa, the Abu-Salha family was driven out of historic Palestine by Zionist militias in 1948. Yousef’s father was subsequently born in Jordanand raised in Kuwait. His mother, whose maiden name is al-Azzeh, was born in al-Bireh, a city in the occupied West Bank.
Yousef and Yusor, both born in Jordan, are dual Jordanian-American citizens. Their parents immigrated to the United States when they were little. Razan was born in 1993. The family was living in Virginia Beach at the time. Soon afterwards, the Abu-Salhas moved to North Carolina, eventually settling down in Raleigh, where the children spent most of their lives.
After learning there had been a shooting, Yousef said his parents immediately suspected that Yusor and Deah, who weren’t answering their phones, had been shot by the neighbor they had on so many occasions expressed fear of. The families rushed to the apartment complex for confirmation of their worst fears. But for five grueling hours, police refused to tell them whether their loved ones were shot and if so, whether they were alive or dead.
The agonizing suspense was captured in a video report by the local news station WNCN, in which Deah Barakat’s father is seen pleading with officers to tell him whether his son is dead or alive.
It came as “a huge shock” when Yousef learned that Razan had also been killed. “I had no idea that my youngest baby sister was visiting,” he said.
By Wednesday morning, the police declared that the shooting was motivated by an ongoing parking dispute, a conclusion that appeared to be based almost entirely on the killer’s account.
“Gun toting” atheist
Craig Stephen Hicks, the 46-year-old white man who executed Yusor, Razan and Deah with what the family says were bullets to the back of the head, hated religion.
A self-described “gun-toting” atheist, Hicks’s Facebook postings were devoted almost exclusively to expressing hostility towards religion. Commenting on Christians, Muslims and Jews, Hicks said in one post, “I wish they would exterminate each other!”
According to residents, Hicks was a threatening and aggressive neighbor who acted as a self-appointed watchman of the condominium complex obsessed with parking spaces and noise. He called the local towing company so frequently about parking issues that the company stopped responding to his calls and had him banned.
“Yusor and Deah told us that one time [Hicks] knocked on their door and told them they were being too loud, with his gun at his waist,” recalled Yousef. “I knew in my head this was hate because of who my sister was and how she looked — she wore the headscarf proudly,” he added, noting that the violent harassment didn’t begin until Yusor moved in with Deah. “Even then my sister sympathized with him. She said maybe this man has been influenced negatively by the media and she was going to show him the truth about Muslims by showing him kindness.”
Yousef added that Deah, Yusor and their friends saw Hicks brandish several different guns. So Yousef was not suprised when law enforcement discovered an arsenal of more than a dozen firearms in Hicks’ home, along with several loaded magazines and a massive cache of ammunition.
Deah and Yusor went out of their way to avoid angering Hicks.
“Deah used to send us a picture of the parking map and highlight the numbers we could park in,” recalled Yousef.
But it wasn’t enough to stop Hicks from invading their home and murdering them in cold blood. Nor has Hicks’ barbaric crime compelled the media to reflect on its role in inciting against Muslims and Arabs.
“It’s a shame that you turn on a major news channel and you see a news story about ISIS and then they’ll cover our story and they do an okay job, but immediately after it will be another story about these radical groups,” remarked Yousef. “I think it sends US citizens a bad message that these Muslims are all the same.”
Withholding gruesome details
Meanwhile, authorities have kept a tight lid on the manner in which the three victims were killed.
Yousef said the family is “as clueless” as the public. However, he did see the bodies of the three victims before burial. “It appeared that Deah and Yusor put up a fight,” he said.
Deah Barakat’s brother, Farris, told the website BuzzFeed that he noticed some of Deah’s teeth were knocked out, a cruel irony given Deah’s profession in dentistry.
In the call to 911 dispatchers, a woman reported hearing around eight gunshots and “more than one girl screaming and then there was nothing and then I heard about three more shots go off.”
Though police have yet to release a coroner’s report or play-by-play of how the crime unfolded, some insight can be gleaned from search warrants released on Friday.
“According to the search warrants, a woman flagged down police and directed them to Barakat’s and Yusor Abu-Salha’s condo, saying her friend was bleeding,” reportedWRAL. “When officers arrived, they found Barakat dead in the front doorway bleeding from the head; one of the sisters was found in the kitchen, and the other was in the doorway to the kitchen. Police found eight shell casings in the living room of the condo and a bullet somewhere inside, according to a second warrant.”
Three days after the murders, Deah Barakat’s sister, Suzanne, revealed that police had yet to interview her family members, adding that it was “insulting, insensitive and outrageous” to blame the triple homicide on a parking dispute, especially since “on the day of the murders, the parking spot that was ‘disputed’ had no car in it.”
That changed on Saturday, when, according to Yousef, the families met with local and federal law enforcement officials, who are now investigating whether the murders were motivated by hate. Chapel Hill police chief Christopher Blue sincerely apologized to the families for the initial police statement, according to Yousef. The family, he added, was satisfied and understanding.
Appearing on CNN, Suzanne Barakat slammed the inconsistent application of the “terrorism” label:
Had roles been reversed and the man was Muslim, was of Arab descent, was of South Asian descent, this would have immediately been labeled an act of terror. I haven’t heard anyone use the term terrorist here. Why the double standard? He has terrorized our families. He has terrorized our lives. He has terrorized our community locally, nationally and internationally and it’s time that people call it for what it is.
Suzanne’s analysis was proven right the very next day, when a gunman opened fire at a Copenhagen café during “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression,” an event hosted by the Swedish artist Lars Vilks. Three police officers were injured and a film director was killed.
Danish police believe the target of the shooting was Vilks. Vilks has faced threats on his life in the past over his offensive drawings of the Muslim prophet Muhammad as a dog, artwork that has gained him international notoriety.
Hours later, the gunman opened fire outside a synagogue, injuring several police officers and killing a Jewish security guard who was standing watch outside a bat mitzvah.
Within hours the Obama administration issued condolences and offered assistance.
In stark contrast it took Barack Obama three days to utter a word about the execution-style murder of three Muslims in his own country, and he did so only after being shamed for his silence on the international stage.
Still, Obama’s condolences meant the world to Yousef. “I broke down in tears when I read his message and the fact that he quoted my sister was really humbling,” he told me, adding that the family feels no animosity towards Obama for waiting so long to speak out. “We know President Barack Obama is a busy man.”
While the Abu-Salha and Barakat families continued to demonstrate forgiveness and understanding, the corporate press devolved into hysterical fear-mongering at the first sign of violence potentially committed by a Muslim.
Danish authorities immediately categorized the attacks as “terrorism” based on nothing more than the suspected ethnicity of the still unidentified gunman and the identities of his victims. And the international press corps followed suit.
The suspected gunman, who was killed in a shootout with police, was later identified by local media as Omar el-Hussein, a Danish-born 22-year-old with a violent criminal past unrelated to religious extremism. Two weeks prior to his shooting spree, el-Hussein was released from prison where he was serving time for stabbing a passenger on a commuter train. A petty criminal with possible gang affiliations, el-Hussein exhibited characteristics common to mass shooters. According to people who knew him, he suffered from anxiety and never quite fit in.
There is no indication he was involved in a larger terror cell and the head of PET — Denmark’s domestic security agency — concluded that he never traveled to Syria or Iraq as a Jihadist fighter and had no known ties to last month’s Paris attackers. And his motives remain unknown.
Meanwhile, media outlets have managed to portray Chapel Hill killer Craig Stephen Hicks as a defender of freedom in spite of his murderous rampage. The Associated Press ran the headline ”Shooting suspect slams religion while defending liberty” in a piece profiling Hicks, which ends by citing the “precious video link” Hicks shared on his Facebook page of a “dachshund puppy, repeatedly dinging a small silver bell with its paw to receive a treat.”
If the reaction to the Denmark attacks isn’t evidence enough of a glaring double standard, then the response to the recently foiled mass shooting plot in Canadacertainly is.
Over the weekend Canadian authorities thwarted a Valentine’s Day attack on a Halifax shopping mall. The three attackers — all white youths, including one American woman who traveled to Canada specifically to carry out the attack — were prepared to kill as many citizens as possible and then themselves.
But Canadian officials refused to categorize the suspects as terrorists.
“I would classify it as a group of individuals that had some beliefs and were willing to carry out violent acts against citizens, but there’s nothing in the investigation to classify it as a terrorist attack,” declared Brian Brennan, a commanding officer with the Nova Scotia Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
“The attack does not appear to have been culturally motivated, therefore not linked to terrorism,” proclaimed Justice Minister Peter MacKay, who described the suspects as “murderous misfits.”
Contrary to official claims, the suspects left an online trail of social media posts that show an infatuation with Nazis and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenagers who killed twelve people and injured another 21 at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.
According to her online presence, Lindsay Kantha Souvannarath, the American woman believed to be the leader of the band of so-called “murderous misfits,” is an avowed neo-Nazi with deep admiration for Adolf Hitler, white separatists and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Had an American Muslim with an online jihadist profile traveled to another country to carry out an attack in concert with local Muslims, it’s difficult to imagine the press corps and law enforcement ruling out terrorism and “cultural motivations” as factors.
“Open season” on Muslims
While many united in horror against the Chapel Hill murders, Islamophobes seem to have hardened in their hatred.
A Muslim school in Rhode Island was vandalized with graffiti over the weekend that said ”Die Pig” and “Fuck Allah Now This Is A Hate Crime.”
A 55-year-old white man named Darryl Ferguson set fire to the Quba Islamic Institute in Houston, Texas, on Friday morning. The fire came just days after a masked manthreatened people outside of the building.
Hours after the Chapel Hill murders, Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore, California, implored her followers to “#StandUpAgainstIslam” in a tweet about the death of Islamic State hostage and Palestine solidarity activist Kayla Mueller.
In Bothell, Washington, a Hindu temple was tagged with a swastika and the words “get out” — possibly by someone who confused a Hindu house of worship for a mosque. A middle school down the block was similarly vandalized with a swastika and the words ”Muslims get out.”
As Suzanne Barakat pointed out, it is “open season” on Muslims in the US, thanks in large part to incitement from politicians, vilification in the media and the dehumanization of Muslims in movies like American Sniper, which inspired a deluge of death threats aimed at Muslims and Arabs.
In spite of this hateful climate, Yousef said his family is comforted and inspired by the outpouring of love for Yusor, Razan and Deah.
“We are getting pictures of vigils marches and prayers from everywhere — South America, Australia, South Africa, Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan,” he said. “There are people that we used to pray for and cry for, and now they’re praying for and crying for us.”
The lives of his sisters and brother-in-law, he added, are “a testimony to the world of the true representation of the headscarf and Islam.”
“They did not die in vain,” Yousef declared. “They are influencing the world.”