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Motive Sought in Horrendous Killings of Muslim Students

02/11/2015 05:06 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

Shocking Killings of Young Muslim Students

The horrendous killings of three young Muslim-American university students near the University of North Carolina by an atheist man Tuesday evening has prompted authorities there to look at the incident as a possible hate crime. Initial police statements citing a dispute over a parking space as a potential motive were subsequently expanded to include a possible bias motive as well. Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, of Chapel Hill, was charged with three counts of first-degree murder, punishable by life in prison or death under North Carolina law. Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue stated, "We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case."

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt stated, "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." On social-media sites like Twitter, the hashtags #MuslimLivesMatter and #ChapelHillShooting have been trending.

Hicks' wife denied that the crime was religiously motivated: "[T]his incident had nothing to do with religion or victims faith, but in fact was related to the long-standing parking disputes that my husband had with the neighbors." The father of two of the slain women, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, stated otherwise, quoting one of his daughters: "Honest to God, he hates us for what we are and how we look."

The three accomplished students killed included a married couple -- Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, who was studying dentistry, and Yusor Mohammad, 21, who was to begin dental school next term, both of Chapel Hill -- and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, from Raleigh, who was the wife's sister.

Motive Key to Hate-Crime Designation

Under Federal Bureau of Investigation data-collection guidelines, a bias motive need not be the sole reason for an attack to be classified as a hate crime:

The FBI collects hate crime data regarding criminal offenses motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity. Due to the difficulty of ascertaining the offender's subjective motivation, bias is to be reported only if investigation reveals sufficient objective facts to lead a reasonable and prudent person to conclude that the offender's actions were motivated, in whole or in part, by bias.

The FBI instructs that various factors be considered as part of a hate-crime determination. They include:

1. The offender and the victim were of a different race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, and/or gender identity. For example, the victim was African American and the offender was white.

2. Bias-related oral comments, written statements, or gestures were made by the offender which indicates the offender's bias. For example, the offender shouted a racial epithet at the victim.

3. Bias-related drawings, markings, symbols, or graffiti were left at the crime scene. For example, a swastika was painted on the door of a synagogue, mosque, or LGBT Center.

4. Certain objects, items, or things which indicate bias were used. For example, the offenders wore white sheets with hoods covering their faces or a burning cross was left in front of the victim's residence.

5. The victim is a member of a specific group which is overwhelmingly outnumbered by other residents in the neighborhood where the victim lives and the incident took place.

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8. A substantial portion of the community where the crime occurred perceived that the incident was motivated by bias.

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13. A historically-established animosity existed between the victim's and the offender's groups.

The killings come at a time when Muslims in the United State have been the focus of efforts to stop mosque construction, enact targeted anti-Sharia state laws (which are already redundant under the First Amendment), and negatively stereotype Muslims in social discourse. Last week a Muslim-American civic ceremony at the Texas Capitol in Austin was disrupted by protestors. A 2014 Pew survey showed that Muslims are the most negatively regarded religious group in the nation. Prominent atheists, along with advocacy groups, have condemned the killings.

North Carolina has a hate-crime statute that, like its federal counterpart, covers religion as a protected category. The FBI collects hate-crime data from state crime-reporting agencies pursuant to the Hate Crime Statistic Act, but that designation is not dependent on whether the incident ends up being charged as such. Some prominent hate-motivated murders, like that of James Byrd by Texas white supremacists, have not been prosecuted under hate-crime laws because the additional burden of establishing a specific motive was not necessary for the men to face the death penalty there. The same is true for North Carolina.

Murder, Gun Violence and Hate Crimes

Still, the hate-crime designation carries profound importance for communities, whether informally, in a crime report, or in a criminal charge. Estimates of the Muslim population in the United States range from 2 to 6 million, out of a general population of over 316 million residents. For 2013, the latest available year, there were 5,933 hate-crime incidents and five hate-crime homicides in the United States, though reporting varies widely by jurisdiction. Of the 1,163 religious hate-crime incidents in the United States, Jews targeted 59 percent of the time, followed by Muslims at 14.2 percent, or 167 incidents -- a multi-year high. In 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks, anti-Islamic hate crimes jumped to 481, up from 28 in 2000. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, relying on household surveys rather than official crime reports, estimates a far higher number of hate crimes in the United States: 293,800 in 2012. Of the almost 12,800 homicides overall in the United States, almost 8,900 are committed with firearms.

The Southern Poverty Law Center counts almost three dozen anti-Muslim hate groups in the United Stated, with two in North Carolina. While Hicks posted negative views about "radical Christians and radical Muslims" on his Facebook page, nothing initially connected him to any hate groups, although most hate crimes are not committed by members of organized hate groups. He also posted a photograph of a gun.

While acknowledging that the exact motives are not known, the Muslim Public Affairs Council urged vigilance:

MPAC urges the FBI and the Department of Justice to open an immediate investigation and consider this a terrorist attack if the motives of the shooter are confirmed based on his previous social media posts. There is an intentional effort on the case of federal authorities to understand the issue of violent extremism and this case illustrates that violent extremism is not the product of only one community.

As authorities look toward possible motives, including a neighborhood dispute and religious bias, the Muslim-American community, like the nation overall, awaits more answers.