CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — With backpacks as physical shields, University of North Carolina students are now called to defend themselves against alleged religious terrorism while they walk the halls of their school.
Earlier today, just before high noon, Mohammed Reza Taheriazar, 22, bulldozed the center of UNC’s main campus with a silver Jeep Grand Cherokee — the biggest SUV he could find — in order to retaliate against treatment of Muslims around the world, he said. Taheriazar, a recent graduate, sent six to the hospital with injuries and hit three others in what is not only a tragedy for the Chapel Hill community but an sad example of an ideological difference digressing into violent conflict.
Hundreds of students gathered to see what happened in what was first deemed a freak accident. Then, reports came in that a bomb squad, state and federal Bureaus of Investigation, and local Carrboro police were surrounding what is believed to be Taheriazar’s apartment.
A bomb threat had been made to his residence in the University Commons complex Friday afternoon, a popular apartment complex for students. Forces entered the Building D at approximately 5:28 p.m., and a booming noise was heard in the surrounding area. No explosion was observed.
Though his connection to the bomb threat remained uncertain as of this writing, Taheriazar’s intentions with his Jeep Grand Cherokee were made chillingly clear after authorities questioned him. He said his goals were to inflict maximum damage to the students of UNC in order to seek retribution for the treatment of Muslims around the world.
This claim is sickeningly fitting given recent events on the UNC campus.
In the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy, UNC’s school newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, ran a knockoff cartoon picturing the prophet Muhammad wrestling with the question of what Islam truly stands for and how it is represented in the media. The cartoon, printed on February 9, elicited wide criticism from the Muslim Student Association and the group Student Action with Workers, which staged a sit-in on the Daily Tar Heel’s offices demanding an apology from the paper. Opinion Editor Chris Cameron and Editor in Chief Ryan Tuck refused to submit to their demands.
Months prior, I was dismissed from my position as weekly columnist after writing in support of racial profiling of Arabs in airports around the anniversary of 9/11. National media descended on the school and letters to the editor papered the walls of the Daily Tar Heel’s offices twice over, and the local Muslim community was outraged. Despite my denials, the Daily Tar Heel leadership maintains I was dismissed for quoting Arab students out of context.
In an official statement, the Muslim Student Association called the decision to print the Daily Tar Heel cartoon a misuse of freedom of the press to "offend and further only intolerance and disrespect," and that "such actions undermine the environment of diversity and multiculturalism" otherwise promoted at UNC’s liberal campus.
Sarah Shields, associate professor of history and one of UNC’s most prominent scholars on the Middle East, described the situation as this over the Progressive Faculty List serve: "In the past, I have reassured Muslim parents and applicants that the climate at UNC is very supportive. I can’t do that any more."
Friday, it can only be guessed that Taheriazar took matters into his own hands.
"I heard the engine rev as he came through the Pit," said junior Tyler Daluz. "He didn’t stop at all."
This horrific event has come in the wake of another tragedy in which two UNC students fell from the third story of a campus dormitory after rough playing. Keith Shawn Smith, 20, died from the fall while 19-year-old freshman Tyler Downey remains in the hospital in fair condition.
"We are still in the grieving process for our fallen student," wrote Chancellor James Moeser, and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Peggy Jablonski over the campus-wide list serve.
This is a tragedy of a distinctly different tune, however. Rare is it that an independent actor creates such a tragedy based on religious or ethnic grounds inside the U.S., not to mention on a campus full of young people.
Protests by College Republicans and others are planned for classes on Monday.
"I think what happened today shows the need for us all to unite and combat the ugly face of extremism," said Kris Wampler, a representative for UNC’s Student Congress. "It especially has an effect on us because it’s so close to him. It’s where we live, where we go to school, where we are every single day."
Below are the cartoons published in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. Click each image to enlarge.