One of the leading advocates for Arab-Americans has hit out at the lack of coverage received by the killing of three young Muslims in North Carolina, describing it as symptomatic of an American Sniper-inspired rise in Islamophobia.
Abed Ayoub, the legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said the film industry, US government and right-wing political commentators all had a role to play in the recent surge in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment.
On Tuesday night, Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were shot dead in their home in Chapel Hill near the University of North Carolina (UDC). A 46-year-old man who handed himself in shortly after the attack, Craig Stephen Hicks, has been charged with three counts of murder.
When asked if the reaction would have been different if the victims had not been Muslims, Mr Ayoub told The Independent: “Absolutely 100 per cent this would have been covered differently if the roles were reversed.
“This country needs to realise that acts of terrorism are not confined to a single religion or ethnicity,” he said. “This [Islamophobia] is something that needs to stop and we would like the media to pay more attention and cover this more to show the impact of hate crime and hate speech.”
In pictures: the Chapel Hill shooting
In pictures: the Chapel Hill shooting
1/8 Chapel Hill shooting
Deah Barakat (centre)
2/8 Chapel Hill shooting
Deah Barakat posted this image to Facebook writing: 'Tonight we provided free dental supplies and food to over 75 homeless people in downtown Durham'
3/8 Chapel Hill shooting
A 46-year-old man, named by police as Craig Stephen Hicks, has been arrested on suspicion of three counts of first-degree murder
Chapel Hill Police
4/8 Chapel Hill shooting
Deah Barakat, pictured here with his wife Yusor, was a keen basketball player
5/8 Chapel Hill shooting
The victims of the shooting, from left to right: Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19
6/8 Chapel Hill shooting
Deah Barakat was a dental student at UNC who worked for a charity giving dental care to Palestinian children and refugees
7/8 Chapel Hill shooting
Deah Barakat and his wife Yusor at an American football match
8/8 Chapel Hill shooting
One of the victims, Razan Abu-Salha, pictured in a post by Deah Barakat describing her as 'the best third wheel ever'
Speaking about the rise of anti-Arab sentiment in the US since the controversy surrounding the Ground Zero mosque in 2010, Mr Ayoub called the release of American Sniper “the turning point”.
“It may not be directly linked to the film, but the overall way that Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment are moving in this country is portrayed in the words of those who watched American Sniper.
“The film gave us a look into how these individuals were feeling and for the first time we were getting raw, real messages – and they were frightening.”
The ADC was founded in 1980 by the first US Senator of Arab origin, James Abourezk, and is the largest organisation representing the civil rights of Arab-Americans in the US.
And Mr Ayoub called on President Barack Obama to offer his condolences to the families involved, and said the government’s policy of only inviting Muslims to its Combatting Violent Extremism forums as an example of where it “needs to change”.
“There are key individuals who could tone down the Islamophobic rhetoric,” he said. “You have people on the extreme right that just push that Islam is an evil religion and Muslims and Arabs are these evil people.
“They could take action and tone that down a little bit - you are entitled to your opinion but don’t attack the community and don’t paint us with a broad brush,” Mr Ayoub said.
The killings have prompted a resurgence in the use of the #MuslimLivesMatter social media campaign – and that’s a phrase that was used by the mayor of Chapel Hill in the aftermath of the shooting.
Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said: “I share strong feelings of outrage and shock with my fellow citizens and University students – as well as concerned people everywhere. We do not know whether anti-Muslim bias played a role in this crime, but I do recognize the fear that members of our community may feel. Chapel Hill is a place for everyone, a place where Muslim lives matter.”