The circumstances were horrific, but Zahra Billoo was greatly encouraged by the vigil marking the slayings of three young Muslims near the University of North Carolina.
More than 150 people — Muslims and non-Muslims — attended the candlelit gathering at a busy intersection in Fremont, California. Similar events were popping up across the country — "glimmers of hope," said the Muslim activist, that in the wake of this tragedy her people were finding a stronger voice in American civic life.
"I don't know that I've ever seen this many vigils come together this quickly and be so well attended," said Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' San Francisco Bay Area chapter. "It gives me relief that the three young people in Chapel Hill inspired so much mobilization and love and activism."
Being Muslim in America has always posed challenges — now more than ever. Scrutiny and suspicion of Islam and its followers spiked after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and persist more than a dozen years later with backlash from subsequent attacks and ongoing wars, chaos and instability throughout the Middle East and South Asia.
Yet experts and advocates say Muslims are more organized and vocal in the wake of last week's triple shootings, which have spurred scores of vigils and generated messages of support from many quarters, including the White House. They credit the life stories of the victims and a connection with movements that grew out of racially charged incidents of police force in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and elsewhere.
That's evident on social media, where widely used hashtags include #ChapelHillShooting, #OurThreeWinners and #MuslimLivesMatter — the last inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter tag common in tweets about of unarmed black men at the hands of police.
"There's a galvanizing over Ferguson — the civil rights issues have really kind of laid a roadmap for American Muslims to follow," said Dr. Muzammil Ahmed, a Detroit-area physician who chairs the Michigan Muslim Community Council. The organization held a vigil last week for the North Carolina victims — Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — as well as Christian aid worker Kayla Mueller, who died in Syria.
The Abu-Salhas met while helping to run a university Muslim group and planned to travel to Turkey this summer to provide free dental care for Syrian refugee schoolchildren. In an interview broadcast last week by North Carolina Public Radio, Yusor Abu-Salha called growing up in the United States "such a blessing."
"Although in some ways I do stand out, such as the hijab I wear on my head, the head covering, there's still so many ways I feel so embedded in the fabric that is our culture," she said.
The fact that the victims were easy to relate to has amplified the reaction to their deaths, Billoo said.
Zeinab Chami, a high school teacher in the heavily Arab-Muslim Detroit suburb of Dearborn, first learned of the slayings from one of her students, who shared a tweet about it before the story received widespread media attention. The news, she said, provided a "teachable moment" and a time of shared grief for victims they didn't know but could nonetheless recognize.
"They look like the kids I went to college with at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the kids I teach — not just because they're Muslim but they have that bright, shiny innocence kids that age have," Chami said. "This was a moment for (my students) to pause and try to comprehend the reality they're going to be stepping into."
A grand jury this week indicted Craig Hicks on three counts of murder in what authorities have said was a dispute over parking spaces. Police say they haven't uncovered evidence Hicks acted out of hatred for his neighbors' faith, but the investigation continues. The FBI also is investigating.
Evelyn Alsultany, a University of Michigan assistant professor who teaches about racism and representations of Arabs and Muslims, said to describe it only a hate crime or a parking dispute ignores what's happening in society.
"Culturally speaking, we need to reassess our understanding of a hate crime — that it only happens by someone that has these explicit racist views," she said. "I think they work in much more complicated ways today. A perpetrator might be unintentionally perpetuating hate."
A Pew Research Center survey conducted last year found Americans view Islam less favorably than other major religions and atheism. Another 2014 Pew survey found 38 percent of Americans think the religion is more likely than others to encourage violence among its followers, while 50 percent think it does not.
Billoo is comforted by her experience at the California vigil last Friday night, where a plaintive recitation from the Quran rose over the whir of traffic, and attendees held signs featuring messages and images of the young victims. Fremont's mayor pressed for civil rights and others pledged to help feed the homeless in the victims' memory.
It helps, Billoo says, that "we're not protesting war, we're celebrating life."
For Chami, it's a hard yet hopeful time for U.S. Muslims.
"The nation's perception of Muslims is at a low point right now," she said. "On the flipside, there's a great equalizer with social media: We have more of a voice than ever. It's all a matter of harnessing that voice."
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