US President Barack Obama finally issued a condemnation and condolences regarding the brutal execution-style murders on Tuesday of three young American Muslims in their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The killings have caused shock around the world.
Obama’s statement on Friday came after days of mounting anger at his silence, an appeal from the father of two of the victims and a stinging rebuke from Turkey’s president.
“Yesterday, the FBI opened an inquiry into the brutal and outrageous murders of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Deah Shaddy Barakat and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha” Obama’s statement reads. “In addition to the ongoing investigation by local authorities, the FBI is taking steps to determine whether federal laws were violated.”
Craig Hicks, a 46-year-old neighbor of the victims with a history of gun-toting harassment, violent threats and anti-religious statements, has been charged with first degree murder for the killings.
“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship,” Obama said. “Michelle and I offer our condolences to the victims’ loved ones.”
With those words Obama indirectly acknowledged the victims’ families belief that their loved ones had been targeted because they are Muslim, amid a growing and unchecked atmosphere of anti-Muslim incitement by politicians and media.
Obama’s statement also came after a blaze badly damaged the Quba Islamic Institute in Houston, Texas, early on Friday morning. Houston fire officials suspect arson.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strongly condemned the silence of Obama and other top US officials over the Chapel Hill murders.
“If you stay silent when faced with an incident like this and don’t make a statement, the world will stay silent toward you,” Erdogan said during a state visit to Mexico on Thursday. “I ask Mr. Obama, where are you, Mr. President?”
It was a question many others were asking, too.
The outrage over Obama’s long silence was compounded by the White House’s initial statement that the president had “no specific reaction” to the killings.
This contrasted with his swift condemnation and condolences in other cases of mass, religiously or politically motivated violence. Many people considered it especially important for the president to push back quickly and forcefully against a rising tide of Islamophobia.
But the president’s belated statement, which fails to specifically name the hate that incited the murder of three young Muslims, does little to instil confidence that he intends to be any more proactive in fighting against bigotry and racism.
Indeed given that Obama is escalating his drone campaign of killing Muslims, including children such as the Yemeni thirteen-year-old Mohammed Tuaiman, the president appears to be very much part of the problem.
Police claims, echoed by the media, that the killings had been the result of a “parking dispute,” also fueled consternation and anger.
The father of Yusor, 21, and Razan, 19, had also appealed to Obama to break his silence.
“This is our country. We’re here to stay. We want to make it safer for all the children of different religions and colors,” Dr. Mohammed Abu-Salha, said shortly before the Thursday funeral for the three youths in Chapel Hill which was attended by thousands of people and livestreamed by the local NBC affiliate.
“The president needs to pay attention,” Abu-Salha said. “They need to have an elaborate investigation. This is not a parking dispute. These children were executed.”
Dr. Suzanne Barakat, the elder sister of Deah Barakat, 23, also denounced the way media and officials had downplayed possible hate-related motives for the murders.
“I think it’s absolutely insulting, insensitive and outrageous that the first thing they come out and say and issue a statement that this is a parking dispute,” Barakat told MSNBC:
Promising lives cut short
Deah, Yusor and Razan are being remembered in vigils and protests against Islamophobia being held around the country.
Deah Barakat had been involved along with Yusor in providing relief and support to Syria refugees. He was a second-year doctoral student in dentistry and Yusor had just been accepted into a dental program at the University of North Carolina.
An online fundraiser Barakat had launched to support that relief work had raised $345,000 by today, as donations poured in in tribute.
The medical charity, the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, also revealed that Deah had taken part in a dental care mission to the occupied West Bank in 2012.
Razan Abu-Salha studied architecture and environmental design at North Carolina State University, and was an avid photographer.
“We’re all one.”
The impact of the murders on the broader US Muslim and Arab American communities has been felt deeply.
“The overwhelming sense of grief many Muslim Americans felt following the cold-blooded murder[s] … hit us directly in our hearts,” wrote Chicago-area independent journalist and teacher Deanna Othman in the Chicago Tribune.
“We are them. They represent us, everything we grew up with – our lifestyles, our identities, our faith,” Othman writes. “They embody what our communities tried to instill, and continue to struggle to instill, in young Muslims growing up in this country – a sense of pride in their faith and a sense of devotion to their fellow man.”
The murders, Othman wrote, generated a sense of despair that nothing Muslims could do would ever allow them to accepted.
It has also been revealed that in May 2014, Yusor Abu-Salha recorded a conversation with her third-grade teacher Mussarut Jabeen for the public radio project Story Corps.
In his statement, Obama quoted Yusor’s painfully resonant words from that conversation: “Growing up in America has been such a blessing. It doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions – but here, we’re all one.”
The America Yusor loved is the one her murderer, and so many others inciting racial and religious hatred, fear and want to see destroyed.