CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (Reuters) - In post-9/11 America, Aya Zouhri and her fellow Muslim female friends who cover their heads with scarves say they are used to getting occasional dirty looks or ugly comments from strangers.
But when Zouhri, 22, left home for school on Wednesday, a day after three of her Muslim friends were gunned down near the University of North Carolina in a shooting authorities are investigating as a hate crime, her father's warning for her to be careful took on a sobering new reality, she said.
"The way he said it was very much like, 'I'm actually worried something could happen to you,'" the senior global studies major recalled outside a room at the university where Muslim students gathered for afternoon prayers.
Several Muslim students who attend the university said they have always felt safe and accepted in Chapel Hill, a college town about 30 miles (48 km) from Raleigh that is known for basketball and affordable higher education.
But the triple slaying at a condominium complex about two miles (3 km) from campus Tuesday evening fractured their sense of security, Zouhri said, describing it as "a punch in the gut when you didn't step into a boxing ring".
The three victims, a newlywed couple and an undergraduate student with close ties to two universities in the vicinity, came from two of the most prominent Muslim families in the Raleigh area, friends said.
Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, was a University of North Carolina dental student, his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, was preparing to start at the dentistry school in the fall, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, was a sophomore at nearby North Carolina State University, where the couple were both alumni.
Friends grappled not only with the loss of three people known for their kindness, vigour and charity work, but with how their deaths might affect everyday life for local Muslims in the future.
"It's not actually as safe and progressive a community as we thought it was," said Sofia Dard, a 21-year-old senior majoring in psychology. "It's just that extra edge of caution that we're going to have to incorporate in our lives now."
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, a full-time paralegal student who posted anti-religious messages on Facebook, has been charged with three counts of murder. Authorities said the killing, sparked perhaps by a parking dispute, did not appear to be part of a targeted campaign against Muslims in North Carolina.
Manzoor Cheema, co-founder of the Raleigh-based Muslims for Social Justice, linked the shootings to what he called a “rising tide of Islamophobia” in the state and region.
Last month, Duke University in Durham scrapped a plan to have the Muslim call to prayer emanate from its chapel after fierce opposition from Christian critics, including evangelist Franklin Graham, who said on Facebook that “followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn't submit to their Sharia Islamic law.”
“We are seeing multiple cases of attacks against Muslims in North Carolina that are very troubling,” Cheema said. “I hope this terrible tragedy will be a turning point that brings the reality home that if we keep demonizing Muslims and equating their religion to terrorism, it will lead to more attacks.”
Additional reporting by Marti Maguire in Raleigh; Editing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Ken Wills