It has been nearly a month since Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were shot and murdered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Deah was a dental student at the University of North Carolina, Yusor was to enter the same school next year, and Razan was an undergraduate at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. By all accounts three wonderful young people of great character and all the promise in the world ahead of them. Their murders are a terrible human tragedy, a great sorrow for their families and our community. Because such shootings, alas, are all too common in America, their stories rarely ripple beyond the reach of the local nightly news. This story, however, was different. Within hours news coverage exploded nationally and around the world. Not because of the poignancy of the personal tragedy, however, but because the three victims were Muslim.
News of the Chapel Hill shootings arrived a moment when stories of Islam were in the air, and Americans were grappling with the meaning ISIS and Charlie Hebdo and the threat posed by Iran. Most of the media coverage depicted the Chapel Hill murders as part of a pattern of growing hostility towards Muslims: controversies over American Sniper, Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly talking about a new “Holy War” with Islam, calls to declare the United States officially a Christian nation, demands that President Obama recognize the threat of Islamic terrorism (rather than just “terrorism”), and, most directly, reports of violence against Muslims.
In the Arab world, the Chapel Hill murders were terrorist acts against Islam, evidence of American hypocrisy in denouncing Islamic terrorism without recognizing terrorism against Islam. The government of Saudi Arabia called them terrorist acts and protesters marched in Qatar. But perhaps the real story is how our community has responded. Within hours spontaneous groups gathered on the campuses of UNC, NC State, and Duke. A vigil on the UNC campus brought thousands together. The memorial service was so large that it had to be held on a soccer field outside the mosque.
And because Deah’s last Facebook post was a photo of him handing out food and dental supplies to homeless people in Durham, today thousands donated to a massive food drive in Raleigh, part of the national launch of a Feed Their Legacy campaign. “It’s a reminder to many people (that) we’re all going to go at some point,” his brother, Farris Barakat said. “What are we doing to serve humanity? What are we doing to serve our community?”
So while the world focuses on the tragedy, the less told story is about the generosity and grace with which the victims’ families have responded, and about the way in which this community has come together in the wake of the tragedy. Far from tragic, it is a deeply hopeful American story, a story of the enduring American promise of diversity and unity, a story of e pluribus unum.