Honor slain students by standing up for civil rights

Nadia Tonova

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salah and Razan Abu-Salah were college students seeking to live the American dream. They worked hard to make a better future for themselves — like so many young people do every day.

But they also worked hard to make the world a better place for others. Deah was working to ensure proper dental care for Syrian refugees, and had spent his own money buying dental supplies for the homeless. These students were exactly the type of young people our society celebrates. They were also Arab- and Muslim Americans.

One year ago, Deah, Yusor and Razan were murdered by Craig Stephen Hicks, a man who harbored both anti-Muslim and anti-theist views. All three were shot in the head, in their home, the bullets violently ending their lives. The deaths are a personal tragedy for their family and loved ones and an example of the hate and violence that Arab- and Muslim Americans face.

The first anniversary of the death of these three young scholars this past week is a date filled with sadness and difficult memories.

These three Americans were attempting to live a better life and to practice their religion in a free society. Yet, because of their faith, they were targeted.

We, as Americans, should honor the memory of Deah, Yusor and Razan by working together for a better, more understanding America. We must remember that human rights are an American ideal that should be defended in every instance. We must take on the hate that led to their deaths.

Since November, there have been 68 reported hate crimes against Arab- and Muslim Americans, as well as those perceived to be Muslim. These crimes have happened across the country in both red states and blue states. These hate crimes are an American problem.

A few examples point to the breadth of the problem. An Uber driver in North Carolina was beaten by his passenger because the passenger thought the driver was a practicing Muslim. There have been no charges in this case as of this writing; however, the driver’s Uber account has been suspended. In Connecticut, multiple shots were fired at a mosque, penetrating the walls and striking prayer areas.

While incidents of anti-Muslim violence are not new, the current rise is troubling because it comes on the heels of the negative political rhetoric that has been a part of the presidential campaign. With candidates using hateful words to gain the favor of the fringes of their party, innocent people are paying the price.

All candidates and elected officials need to stop using this type of language that serves to only divide us as a nation. Candidates should understand that often their hateful words become more than fodder for a campaign. Some supporters hear these words as a call to action and that puts many Arab-Americans and Muslims at risk of physical harm or even death.

Instead of a politics that seeks to demonize and divide, we need our representatives in government to develop policies that prioritize dealing with hate crimes against our community.

America was founded on the idea that we are all created equal. We, as a nation, are at our best when we strive to live up to this ideal. We are at our best when we stand up for each other’s rights.

American Muslims are an essential part of what makes America great, yet our rights are denied when we are unable to live safely and practice our religion freely. Bobby Kennedy once stated, “If one man’s rights are denied, the rights of all of us are in danger.” We can avoid the danger of all of our rights being denied by working together to end the violence and take on hate.

Nadia Tonova is the director of the National Network for Arab American Communities.