In the aftermath of the Chapel Hill shooting in February 2015—when Deah Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, were killed by their 44-year-old neighbor—police hesitated to call the shooting a hate crime. After Craig Hicks’s arrest, Chapel Hill police announced that the ruthless killings were “motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.” But for many in the Muslim community, the Chapel Hill shooting wasn’t an isolated event. It was just one of many instances of Islamophobia that Muslims in America experience on a regular basis.
“After the shooting, I remember going on YikYak, and the hate speech was just blowing my mind,” said Ayesha Faisal, current president of the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill’s Muslim Student Association. “It was hours after the shooting. Out of nowhere there were people saying…‘It was justified because Muslims are terrorists.’”
For students and residents of Chapel Hill, though, Islamophobia is more diffuse than a single violent shooting. Take UNC Chapel Hill alumna Aisha Anwar, who was walking to her bus stop when she was startled by a car’s honk from across the street. Turning to face the noise, she locked eyes with a man behind the wheel of a car outfitted with a Trump/Pence bumper sticker. “It seemed like an innocent mistake. He didn’t look angry or yell anything,” she said, so she kept walking. But once at the bus stop, she heard honking again. The same car sped past her. “As far as harassment goes, this is fairly tame,” Anwar said. “But I was very shaken not only to have been caught off guard twice…but to realize that he had followed me on my way to the bus—a path I took every day,” she said. “There was no knowing if he would come back a third time, or if I would run into him again some other day.”
Anxious, Anwar immediately texted Hamza Butler, the then–vice president of UNC Chapel Hill’s Muslim Student Association. “Hamza was very quick to check that I was safe,” she said. “He asked if the person had seen where I lived or if I thought he was coming back. He stayed on the phone with me until I was on campus and in class. His response and support helped me feel safer.”
This was the kind of network of support and safety Butler envisioned when he created Project Mawla, an open-source, Web-based app released last December that allows students and residents of Chapel Hill to document anti-Muslim incidents. Inspired by the work of figures like Ida B. Wells, whose documentation of lynchings helped expose rampant racial violence in America at the turn of the century, Project Mawla was created as a “counterpoint to the systemically supported notion that Islamophobia neither exists nor affects the livelihood of American Muslims,” according to its website. The app is currently run by UNC Chapel Hill’s Muslim Student Association, one of the largest student groups on campus with over 300 members.
“Hate doesn’t just come out of nowhere,” said Fatema Ahmad, a member of the North Carolina–based advocacy group Muslims for Social Justice and a 2009 Duke University graduate. “Individual racist action does not just naturally happen without a system of cultural and institutional racism that surrounds people and allows someone to feel emboldened enough to commit a brutal murder like that.”