By Catie Byrne, Staff Writer
Last Thursday, following the fatal shootings of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, N.C., UNCG’s Chancellor Advisory Committee for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the Division of Student Affairs and Dr. Omar Ali of the African American and African Diaspora Studies program partnered together to host a forum in the School of Education auditorium for students and faculty to discuss building community in the face of tragedy.
The atmosphere was solemn as a little under 100 audience members assembled to grieve the deaths of Deah Barkat, 23, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21 and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19.
Barakat was a second-year student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Dentistry, Yusor Abu-Salha planned to study dentistry next fall and Razan Abu-Salha was a sophomore design major at N.C. State University.
All three held academic honors, and Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha were activists raising money for Syrian refugees, intending to take their dentistry skills to help students in Rihaniya, Turkey.
When news of their murders surfaced, the Muslim community was collectively outraged, with many Muslims fearing for their lives, safety and personal agency.
These fears, concerns and consequent community action plans were among the forum’s topics of discussion.
Ali opened the discussion with a personal story about his experience as a Muslim who lived in New York during the 9/11 terror attacks.
“I lost one of my best friends,” Ali said, “I shaved off my beard because my mom thought it looked too ‘Muslim-y’.”
Ali described feeling the visible presence of Muslims in America yet again in media at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency when Colin Powell, the former secretary of state under President George W. Bush, asked, “‘What’s wrong with Obama if he was a Muslim?’”
After hearing those words, Ali said he felt a renewed pride in his identity and wanted to create every opportunity he could to educate and create conversation.
Nada Alnajjar responded she felt it was difficult to be a visible Muslim, citing discrimination in a story about a Hijab-wearing friend.
“When she came to her class— late, running— they [other students] said that she looked like a terrorist and deserved to die,” Alnajjar said. Her friend was too upset to join the discussion, Alnajjar explained.
UNCG student, Dhruv Pathak, sympathized, saying, “I want to challenge people to have conversations to break down violence on black and brown bodies, to break the white supremacist paradigm that embeds the idea in peoples’ minds that brown bodies are synonymous with terrorism. We are at war with terror, but who are the terrorists?”
George Steele, an older commenter, said that these murders were the result of dividing people by their differences to create violence, something which was historically detrimental to black people.
“Did yesterday surprise me,” Steele asked, “It didn’t surprise black people.” Steele explained that certain language connotes racial prejudice and that more than conversation must transpire to end violence.
“We need to get rid of these divisions to unite against evil,” Steele argued.
Mark Perew, an atheist, agreed that ideas of division are ultimately harmful.
“There are a lot of generalizations being made about atheists because the shooter [Craig Hicks], was an atheist. There is no justification, no excuse for what he did, but atheists should not be lumped together either,” Perew said.
Ahmet Tanhan noted that bridging the understanding gap between Muslims and those who practice other religions should not be a one-sided effort.
“I wanted to learn about Christians, so I spent 400 hours learning at churches and more than 200 Christian bible study groups. I had a lot of deep conversation; Christians are afraid to do the same,” Tanhan said.
“The issue is,” Tanhan continued, “do you feel secure to go to a Mosque on a Friday night? No.”
A Catholic woman responded to Tanhan’s sentiments about Christian-Muslim communication. At a convent, she said, “Three Muslims stayed with nuns, the dialogue that ensued was incredible. Connection creates a powerful atmosphere.”
Many commenters reinforced the importance of an open dialogue between all peoples to generate change and lessen violence against minority groups.
Ali said, “We have to generate it [conversation] ourselves— get to know each other. It’s a personal, an intimate thing. There’s nothing like the power of saying hello.”
A UNCG faculty member added that the classroom was a place to start integrating conversations about diversity and to impart knowledge of other cultures, races and religions to break down prejudice.
A representative from the National Conference of Community and Justice (NCCJ), described the importance of different groups coming together to stand up for justice and break down stereotypes.
The NCCJ representative talked about the organization’s campaign, “More Than A Stereotype.” She expressed interest in working together with UNCG’s Muslim Student Association to create hashtags raising awareness that Muslims are not their stereotype.
“People are surprised,” Ali said, “Muslims actually do revere Jesus, Muslims feel he was a prophet, but not the son of God. People express being a Muslim a million different ways; some use it to justify things like ISIS, and some use it to create a better world.”
Musab Akbay, a friend of Barakat’s who spoke at Wednesday’s vigil, agreed with Ali, describing the impact Barakat left on his life.
“He was personable, charismatic, humble, active in the community and a motivating factor for me to become a better Muslim,” Akbay
“Spiritually, I feel like he’s in peace,” Akbay later said. “Obviously, I’m sad for the reason he was taken away from us; but this [dialogue] is what they did. This is what they would want.”