After the shocking hate-murders last week in Chapel Hill, Muslims and progressives across the United States stood up to racism in a wave of vigils and demonstrations. In Washington, D.C., the Muslim community called a vigil last Thursday in Dupont Circle to commemorate the victims.

As the crowd grew to over 200, speakers described the tragedy that had befallen their community in Chapel Hill. Several attendees, who have spent years in D.C., referred to the extreme hate speech and threats they face in the United States. Despite strong winds and bitter cold, attendees stayed for over an hour to honor the victims.

If the so-called “New Atheist” movement was a smoke screen for Islamophobia, the Chapel Hill murders cleared the smoke like a gale-force wind. As major news outlets across the United States cynically clung to murderer, Craig Hicks’ explanation that he committed triple-homicide over a dispute over parking, members of D.C.’s Muslim community had no illusions.

“I think they were certainly hate crimes. [Hicks] had been harassing them [victims, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad and Razan Abu-Salha] for quite a period of time. He was part of militant atheist groups on Facebook. He had established a pattern of hatred and animosity towards Deah, Razan and Yusor, and so I don’t think the claims that it being a parking violation make any sense,” said Azza Altiraifi.

The killings reveal not just the bigoted character of the “New Atheist” movement, but the deeply-seated hatred of Muslim people in the United States in general. As Altiraifi put it, “the media has established this habit of vilifying Islam and Muslims, and whenever there’s an opportunity, the Muslim community is thrown under the bus. It’s that type of environment that’s come to permeate the society that has allowed for [New Atheist] groups to arise and to take advantage of the Islamophobic rhetoric.”

Students stand up to racism

Around 8 p.m. last Feb. 12, students gathered outside of the Kay Spiritual Life Center at American University to hold a vigil honoring the three young Muslim lives lost. The vigil was hosted by the Muslim Students Association. Candles were donated by the AU Methodists and flowers were donated by the AU Humanists.

“As the Muslim Students Association and the Muslim family at American University is important for us to come out, show support for one another,” said Nisreen, a member of the MSA at the beginning of the vigil. “…For the family of the students who lost their lives, it is their precious son or daughter, brother or sister. We know that for these indviduals, nothing will ever be as it was. This loss is too profound. We signify our understanding of the magnitude of that grief by gathering as we do here tonight.”

A professor at AU who spoke argued that it didn’t matter whether the individuals were killed over a parking dispute or over a hate crime, because their lives were still lost due to the violent culture we live in.

Speakers from the Muslim Students Association read letters that were sent to them via Facebook message in solidarity over the events that transpired in the past few days and talked about how scary it was to be a Muslim in the U.S.

Students cried, held hands and joined in both Muslim and Christian prayer.

One young student empowered the others to not leave the vigil in anguish or grief but instead feeling inspired to make a change.

The attacks in context

Last week, President Obama released a proposal for another endless war in the Middle East under the guise of fighting the Islamic State. Seemingly blind to the fact that the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2004 laid the groundwork for the Islamic State to grow, Obama’s plan repeated the same tired rhetoric of “democracy” and bleeding-heart references to the United States’ “responsibilities.”

The Chapel Hill massacre is part and parcel of the Islamophobia which major media outlets whipped up in the days following the September 11 attacks,  claiming that “All Muslims are responsible for the attacks”—charges repeated constantly in the transparent build-up to war.

Vigils and demonstrations like the ones last week are as important in mourning the tragic losses at Chapel Hill as they are in cutting Islamophobia out at the root. In opposing the killings and proclaiming that Muslim Lives Matter, demonstrators and conscientious people stand for the construction of a peaceful society free from vicious hate crimes like those committed in Chapel Hill.