Grad Student Charged With Murdering Cultural Anthropologist

Another bloody campus murder occurred last Friday. This time it was at Binghamton University in New York state, where anthropologist Richard T. Antoun, who specialized in Muslim cultures, allegedly was stabbed to death by an anthropology graduate student from Saudi Arabia. Abdulsalam Al-Zahrani, 46, was charged early Saturday morning with second-degree murder in the death of the 77-year-old Antoun in his Science I building office.

The alleged killer reportedly was "angry at the world for lack of financial support for his graduate studies," says Binghamton anthropologist H. Stephen Straight. Antoun was one of Al-Zahrani's advisers for his dissertation, the topic of which was "Sacred Voice, Profane Sight: The Senses, Cosmology, and Epistemology in Early Arabic Culture." Al-Zahrani wanted money to do field work in Detroit, which has a large Muslim community. Less than a half-hour before the murder he had asked for a transfer to another department where he thought he might get funded.

Straight says unlike some misfit murderers, "everybody felt very good about what he [Al-Zahrani] was doing. …The degree of [mental] imbalance reported recently is totally new to faculty and students who knew this person. A lot of people respected him [and] enjoyed his company."

Al-Zahrani shared an apartment with two other men who saw a very different side of him—one that was confrontational, felt he was persecuted for being a Muslim, and "acted like a terrorist." One of his roommates had reported his erratic behavior to the university counseling center.

Antoun was active in peace-related causes and concerned about dispelling negative perceptions about Muslims. On the Binghamton faculty since 1976, his specialties included comparative religion and Islamic law and ethics. His best known work was a book, Understanding Fundamentalism: Christian, Islamic and Jewish Movements, published in 2001.