Islamophobia Grows Louder and More Deadly in North Carolina
Tom Jones, a soft-spoken man with white hair and wearing a slate-gray jacket, held up a copy of The Terrorist Next Door by the conservative author Erick Stakelbeck in the private dining room of a seafood restaurant in Kernersville, North Carolina, on a recent Thursday evening.
The presentation marked a coming-out of sorts for Jones, who had announced the event a month earlier at a regular weekly luncheon in nearby Winston-Salem that features different conservative speakers and Republican elected officials. About 20 people attended, representing professional conservative activists, GOP volunteers and militia types.
Reading from the text, Jones recited to about 20 of his fellow hard-right activists: “Brotherhood-linked organizations are establishing networks throughout the Bible belt.” Turning his head from right to left, he paused for dramatic effect and remarked: “I think that’s where we live.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, a culturally conservative organization founded in 1928 that briefly took power in Egypt after the Arab Spring, is the focal point of paranoid rightwing fears about a supposed Islamic plot to infiltrate and subvert American institutions from within and impose sharia law.
“A tactic that the Brotherhood has established over the years is establishing the presence of Islamic centers or mosques, which for them means a recruitment center for jihad, and forming a permanent foundation wherever they’re allowed to exist,” Jones said, continuing to read from Stakelbeck’s book.
Jones’s presentation was repeatedly interrupted by comments about killing Muslims from Frank del Valle, a staunchly anticommunist Cuban immigrant, with little or no pushback from the others in the room.
“Can we not kill them all?” Del Valle asked, about 15 minutes into the presentation, during a discussion about the differences between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam.
As a Winston-Salem resident, Del Valle is more part of the progressive cultural milieu of the Triad, the urban region that includes Kernersville, than his suburban and rural counterparts. A percussionist, he helped found a popular local Latin jazz band in the late 1990s, and has befriended musicians, artists, restaurateurs and other creative types. His conservatism and irascible nature were no secret, however, and in late January he was blocked from a local reporter’s Facebook page for writing to another commenter: “I didn’t insult you or called [sic] you names, and so help me, if you continue with your stupidity and insults I will track you down and beat the fucking shit out of you.”
Revelations about the violent talk spread rapidly through North Carolina’s Muslim community when the news broke on 18 February.
“The community is completely traumatized,” Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University, said. “When they hear someone talk about killing Muslims, they know that could happen to any of their loved ones. When they hear about that meeting, it just brings up the maximum level of fear.”
Antepli said Muslims in North Carolina were talking about looking for employment in other states so they could move to areas, such as the north-east, that are perceived as more hospitable.
For many of the hard-right activists in Kernersville, who shared preoccupations about a “big government” replacement for Obamacare, impending financial collapse and the prospect of undocumented immigrants benefiting from a recent local school bond during a round of personal introductions, Jones’s dark vision of Islam was hardly a stretch.
Beverly Lung, a feisty Republican party regular who helped the Trump campaign as a voter registrar, made the leap from a supposed Islamic takeover of the United States to the Latino advocacy organization the National Council of La Raza.
“What you’re basically telling us is it’s like La Raza,” Lung said. “You are going to take neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community. You are going to get your people in elected positions, and you will take over town by town by town. And you are going to take back what was supposedly taken from you, like the south-western states. But they’re taking over our whole country.”
Jones, who said he had been afraid to speak publicly about his views when Barack Obama was in the White House, acknowledged his audience might be a step or two ahead of him.
“By the way, there’s enough people in this room that know enough stuff about what I’m talking about, if I say something that you’re in disagreement with, that you think is incorrect, stop me and correct me,” he said.
Those present laid out a scenario based on false representations of Islam and tangled conspiracy theories suggesting mainstream Muslims were stealthily plotting to kill non-believers.
Jones told the audience that the Muslim Brotherhood required every Muslim to participate in jihad, and that “any Muslim – that means Muslims right here in this area, all over this country – any Muslim who opposes these goals or these methods is called a kafir, which is a nonbeliever, apostate, Muslim who has given up on Islam. That’s a sin punishable by death.”
Robert Goodwill, who identified himself as a member of the group Act for America – described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America” – added for good measure: “By the way, you’re all kafirs.”
Near the end of the presentation, Del Valle asked Jones: “Do you have any recommendations as to how we could stop this? Because my only recommendation is to start killing the hell out of them.”
Goodwill attempted to steer the discussion away from violence, noting that the election of Donald Trump was a positive development for their cause.
“There’s a huge pushback coming,” Goodwill said. “Political correctness is being thrown away. A lot of people are meeting like this. We’re making progress in the positive direction.”
“I am beyond that point,” Del Valle replied. “I’m ready to start taking people out.”
Goodwill responded, “I can understand that. We’re not there yet.”
Throughout the presentation, guests excitedly discussed two area mosques, along with the chairman of the local Democratic party, who is the brother of the US congressman Keith Ellison – the first Muslim member of Congress and a leading candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee.
News about a person casually discussing the indiscriminate killing of Muslims in an open meeting was particularly chilling, Antepli said, considering that mosques across the state recently observed the second anniversary of the murders of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill. Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were murdered in their home on 10 February 2015 by a neighbor who lived in their condominium. The murders are widely perceived among Muslims in North Carolina as being motivated by religious hatred, but the wife of the accused man has said that the incident arose from a parking dispute. The case has yet to go to trial.
Antepli planned to meet with members of the Muslim community in the Triangle – the urban region that encompasses Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill – on Sunday evening.
“I don’t know what I will tell them,” he said. “I don’t know what the comforting message is. This needs to be taken absolutely seriously. The response from law enforcement has been very disappointing, to say the least.”
In response to the violent talk, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent US civil liberties and advocacy organization, requested a federal and state investigation.
“Calls to violence against members of any minority group warrant a criminal investigation by state law enforcement authorities and the FBI,” the national communications director, Ibrahim Hooper, said. “We call on President Trump to repudiate the growing bigotry in our nation targeting Muslims, Hispanics, refugees and other minority groups.”
The FBI responded: “We are working with our local law enforcement partners to determine if a federal violation involving threats of violence that is not speech protected under the first amendment has occurred. The safety and security of our citizens is a priority for the FBI and we have been in touch with local community leaders to assure them we take potential threats of violence very seriously.”
That extremists are entertaining the idea of violence in the absence of any provocation is terrifying to Muslims, Antepli said.
“There is a real fear, there is a real anxiety – it’s a different level of desperation and hopelessness – that things are getting worse,” he said. “The real fear – what keeps people up at night – is that this is happening in the absence of any major terrorist attack by a Muslim person. Thank God since 9/11 the numbers of attacks in the United States are down. God forbid something like that will trigger a spark. What would they do then?”
Del Valle’s statements horrified many residents of the Triad. As North Carolina’s third-largest urban region, the Triad is a microcosm of the state’s closely divided politics, with community leaders in the cities expressing pride in their role in refugee resettlement while the suburbs seethe with anti-immigrant resentments.
Greensboro’s mayor, Nancy Vaughan, who is of Syrian descent, posted on her Facebook page in response to the Kernersville meeting: “Words matter. Hold them accountable. Expose hate where you find it.”