The reaction to the Tuesday night shootings of three Muslim college students near Chapel Hill continued to grow in Charlotte – among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
At UNC Charlotte, about 500 students and community residents gathered on a campus lawn to memorialize the victims and talk about the need for more tolerance and understanding.
The diverse crowd clenched lit candles, held moments of silence for several minutes and wiped away tears during the half hour ceremony.
“This is something that everyone with a beating heart should feel pain about,” said Atif Chaudhry, a local Imam who works with UNCC students. “Whether it was over religion or a parking spot, this was a tragedy. And it wasn’t just a Muslim tragedy; it was an American tragedy.”
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While law enforcement authorities in Chapel Hill said the shooting deaths stemmed from a long-standing parking dispute among neighbors, the father of two of the victims described the shootings as an execution-style “hate crime.”
Several Muslim leaders in Charlotte saw it as a crime motivated by hate, and they urged authorities to respond accordingly.
“What if the reverse happened and a Muslim killed three students at UNC-Chapel Hill?” said Osama Idlibi, president of the Muslim American Society of Charlotte.
“Can you imagine the reaction? Can you imagine the media response? Clearly this is a hate crime. Look at this man’s posts on Facebook, and you can see the hate in his heart toward Islam and religion in general.”
Jibril Hough, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, described the killings as domestic terrorism and called on authorities to prosecute suspect Craig Stephen Hicks fully. He predicted that area Muslims will devote their Friday prayer services to the victims and their families while continuing “to monitor this case to see that justice is served.”
Charlotte author and activist Sam Wazan said he has predicted violent reprisals since the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon by a pair of Muslim brothers. His concerns have grown during the spate of televised executions of hostages in the Middle East by the extremist Islamic group ISIS.
Wazan says opinions and rhetoric have been hardening in this country and in the Middle East for years, increasing the likelihood of more incidents.
“We’re confusing justice with vengeance,” he said. “Who’s us? Whites? Christians? Who’s them? We’re all Americans here.”
Idlibi called on the Muslim community not to pull in but to make concerted efforts in the coming days “to get to know your neighbors, your co-workers.”
“Be part of society. Serve others. Let people see who you are so you can answer the question, ‘Who are these Muslims?’ ” he said.
Wazan, though, said he plans to remove an Arabic sign he has by his front door, not because he’s afraid of the general Charlotte community but “out of fear of the anomaly.”
Wazan did not travel out to UNCC.
“I don’t want to attend vigils anymore. I want activism,” he said. “To derail ... the public figures who speak out and don’t understand the consequences of their words ... to help mobilize Muslims to speak out against rogue Muslims.
“I don’t want to light candles. I want to keep going after the root cause.”