SUV Attack Prompts Debate Over ‘Terrorism’ and Islam

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Times Staff Writer

University of North Carolina student Stephen Mann has a simple definition for the attack that occurred on his campus last week: terrorism.

He and other UNC students were disturbed to learn this weekend that former UNC student Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar allegedly plowed a sport utility vehicle into nine pedestrians on the busy campus square to “avenge the deaths of Muslims” around the world, according to campus officials.

So Mann, a member of the College Republicans, attended a rally organized by that group and student members of two others Monday morning at the scene of the SUV incident. He and a few dozen students handed out American flags and made off-the-cuff pleas for UNC students to stand united.


But because they also denounced the act as terrorism, the rally emerged as the latest controversy on this multicultural campus over the way language and image are deployed in conversations about Islam.

Mann’s group was met at lunchtime by a boisterous, impromptu group of counter-demonstrators who argued that the rally wasn’t helping to heal wounds. Especially insensitive, they said, was the insistence on calling the incident terrorism.

“This isn’t community building!” a man shouted.

Jonathan Pourzal, an Iranian American, said: “You’re strengthening the prejudices people have against Muslim people.”

Sara Aghajanian added: “I am an Iranian American, and [the suspect] does not represent me at all, OK?”

Mann, surrounded by about 100 people and a number of news cameras, stood his ground firmly and politely. But in the end, he seemed exasperated:

“OK,” he said to the opposing group. “If we don’t call it terrorism, what do we call it?”

Such sparring over the semantics of identity politics has long been a staple of life on U.S. college campuses, including UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the nation’s top public universities.


But this year, Arab and Muslim issues have been particularly thorny here: In September, a columnist for the Daily Tar Heel, the student paper, wrote an article calling on all Arabs to be “stripped and cavity searched if they get within 100 yards of a newspaper.”

Last month, angry students staged two sit-ins at the newspaper after it printed a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad. The cartoon by a UNC student was a commentary on the worldwide debate and violent protests that followed a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad.

The SUV incident in the pedestrian zone known as The Pit brought new waves of worry over the timbre of the debate at UNC. For many, Taheri-azar -- a former philosophy and psychology major -- had made a disquieting transition from the world of ideas to the world of violence.

The alleged attack, freshman Mark Godfrey said, was “very surprising in a place where ideas are usually described in letters to the editor.”

Some students Monday were wondering what might have made Taheri-azar act as he did.

A number of students said he was a serious student, shy but friendly. Brian Copeland took a history of philosophy class with Taheri-azar and was impressed with his knowledge of classical Western thought -- but didn’t remember him speaking about Islam. They also worked together at a sandwich shop.

“He was kind and gentle, rather than aggressive and violent,” Copeland said.

Just before noon Friday, campus officials said, Taheri-azar pointed a rented Jeep Grand Cherokee at students on the crowded pit and gunned the engine, striking nine. Six were hospitalized for minor injuries and released.


Afterward, Taheri-azar drove the car a short distance, called police and turned himself in, said Capt. Joel Booker of the nearby Carrboro Police Department. Law enforcement officials sent a bomb squad to Taheri-azar’s apartment in Carrboro when he insinuated that they might find clues about his actions there. Booker said officials seized a number of items, but he would not identify them.

Taheri-azar was charged with nine counts of attempted first-degree murder and nine counts of felonious assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury with intent to kill. The Orange County Magistrate set bond at $5.5 million. Taheri-azar could face a sentence of more than 100 years in prison.

University officials said Taheri-azar had acted alone.

Ken Lucas, an FBI spokesman, said the bureau had opened an investigation of Taheri-azar, but declined to comment further.

As the rally took place Monday, Taheri-azar appeared at a hearing in a county courtroom, saying he was “thankful for the opportunity to spread the will of Allah,” the Associated Press reported.

UNC Chancellor James Moeser condemned the attack in a prepared statement Sunday, calling it a “contemptible act of violence.”

“In times like this, it is so important for our community to pull together, remain calm and offer comfort and assistance to one another,” Moeser said.


Rally organizer Kris Wampler said he felt vindicated in calling the attack terrorism when he heard of Taheri-azar’s “will of Allah” comment.

Counter-protester Khurram Bilal Tariq, 22, said UNC remained an “exemplary” campus for Muslim students. But he was concerned that the cartoon, column and protest showed a “lack of wisdom.”