Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Was atheist anti-Islamism a factor in three murders?

No one will ever know what was going through the mind of Craig Stephen Hicks as he allegedly stormed into his neighbor’s apartment and gunned down Deah Shaddy Barakat, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha and Yusor Mohammad. What is known as I write this is that Hicks is an atheist, according to his Facebook page, and that the three victims were all Muslims.

Police are determining if Hicks’ actions rise to the level of a hate crime, but in truth, even if these murders don’t reach that level, we can be reasonably sure that hate played a role. Further, those of us who identify as atheists should do some deep soul searching about atheism’s poor relationship with the religion and culture of Islam, checking ourselves to make sure that our critiques of religion don’t drag us into mires of prejudice and islamophobia.

I’ve written about this before, stating that, “To avoid the charges of racism and prejudice we must construct our critiques [of religion] through the lens of human rights.” I reiterate this point now because I think it’s impossible to see the crime Hicks is accused of as being divorced from his views on religion.

Atheism is plagued by a nasty undercurrent of real, reactionary, neo-liberal anti-Islamism. This is undeniably true, yet the atheist movement, which prides itself on rational thought and clear eyed thinking, can't seem to come to grips with this fact. But when a person in the movement of the stature and renown of Sam Harris says, “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death,” the door is opened ever so slightly to seeing all believers of Islam as death cultists or monsters. 

Something less than human.

When Richard Dawkins says, “…the difference between moderate religious people and extremist fundamentalists is that although of course it's only a tiny minority of any sect which is ever going to get violent or horrible, there is a sense in which the moderate, nice religious people – nice Christians, nice Muslims – make the world safe for extremists" he's erasing the difference between killers and ordinary believers.

When faced with murderous death cultists, who wouldn't feel justified in shooting first?

And it’s not fair to counter with the fact that Dawkins also said, “It's very important that we should not demonise ordinary, law-abiding, very decent Muslims which of course is the vast majority in this country,” or that Sam Harris is ready and willing to fight for the context of every troubling thing he’s said, because when it comes to the texts of religious believers, atheists are unforgiving in pointing out the contractions. We can't have it both ways.

Non-believers need to come to grips with the fact that Christopher Hitchens, however eloquent his words, however passionate his defense of reason against faith might be, was also a great supporter of the wars in the Middle East, wars that have destabilized governments, cost trillions of dollars and perhaps millions of lives, and given rise to exactly the kind of religious extremism the wars were putatively fought to put down. To call Christopher Hitchens a warmonger and neo-liberal apologist is no insult. It's a simple fact.

Sam Harris plays into a neo-liberal or even neo-fascist ideology when he makes such incautious statements as, “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.” Again, Harris can twist and turn this sentence any way he wants, but the core of his statement is that atheism has common ground with fascism when it comes to dealing with Islam. To the extent any of our views have common ground with fascism, they must be scrutinized with ever more care.

So did any of this anti-Islamism go through Hicks’ head as he, according to police, shot his three victims over an argument about a parking space? No one will ever know. But is it possible that the kind of views prevalent in modern atheism primed Hicks, whose purported actions demonstrate a relentless fear and driving anger, into seeing the victims as less than fully human? Is it possible that Hicks’ beliefs about Muslims contributed to the crime?

Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha’s father thinks so:
…the women’s father, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, who has a psychiatry practice in Clayton, said regardless of the precise trigger Tuesday night, Hicks’ underlying animosity toward Barakat and Abu-Salha was based on their religion and culture. Abu-Salha said police told him Hicks shot the three inside their apartment.

“It was execution style, a bullet in every head,” Abu-Salha said Wednesday morning. “This was not a dispute over a parking space; this was a hate crime. This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt. And they were uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far.

Abu-Salha said his daughter who lived next door to Hicks wore a Muslim head scarf and told her family a week ago that she had “a hateful neighbor.”

“Honest to God, she said, ‘He hates us for what we are and how we look,’” he said.
The dispute over the parking space did not suddenly flair up out of nowhere, it seems. This was an ongoing dispute. At some point, Hicks decided to start carrying a gun. On January 20, he posted about his gun on Facebook. Hicks had five rounds in his revolver and a “speedloader” with five more rounds. The News Observer, ran this description of the shhoting:
“I heard about eight shots go off in an apartment – I don’t know the number – about three girls, more than one girl, screaming, and then there was nothing,” the unidentified caller said. “And then I heard about three more shots go off.”
That’s “about” 11 shots. Let’s call it 10. Seems like Hicks may have emptied his gun twice. Maybe Hicks’ intelligence and rationality wouldn’t let him believe in God, but his rationality didn’t save him from the irrationality of gun ownership. Both Sam Harris and David Silverman, president of the American Atheists, are proud gun owners. Was Hicks following their lead? 

Or is that a stretch?

So three people are dead, and like it or not, hardline “new atheism” may be a contributing factor. What kind of people were the victims? What kind of people have we lost? Were the victims moderate Muslims, of the kind that makes “the world safe for extremists”? The News Observer gives the barest sketch, but it’s enough:
Barakat and Abu-Salha were married Dec. 27. Abu-Salha’s Facebook photo – posted two days ago – shows her smiling as her father twirls her around the wedding dance floor.

Barakat was a doctoral student in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Dentistry, where his wife was to enroll in the fall. Students and mourners left flowers outside the dental school Wednesday.

Barakat graduated with a bachelors degree in business, magna cum laude, in 2013. Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha graduated last fall – a semester early – cum laude with a degree in biological sciences. And Razan Abu-Salah was on the dean’s list last fall, her first semester at NCSU. She was studying design and because of transfer credits was a sophomore.

Barakat, a Syrian-American, enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2013 to pursue his doctorate in dental surgery.

Both he and Abu-Salha advocated for global dental health, providing care and supplies to people in the United States and the Middle East. On Jan. 29, Barakat posted a Facebook photo of a Durham project that gave dental supplies and food to more than 75 homeless people this year.

Barakat was scheduled to travel with 10 other dentists this summer to Reyhanli, Turkey. There, they planned to treat Syrian refugee children for urgent dental needs, pass out toothbrushes and toothpaste, and support Turkish dentists and clinics.

In a video, he made an urgent plea for donations: “These kids don’t have access to the same health care as us, and their prolonged pain can easily be taken of with the work that we do, but we need the proper funding,” he said, wearing a “Carolina Dentistry” T-shirt. “So let’s relieve their pain. If you want to make a difference in the life of a child most in need, then I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity.”

I urge everyone reading this make a contribution for this effort at the Foundation Beyond Belief.

Deah Shaddy Barakat, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha and Yusor Mohammad were good people. They were trying to make the world a better place. The world is worse for their absence.

And in their absence we are left with a duty to do better and to hold ourselves as atheists, Humanists or nonbelievers to a higher standard.


  1. " it’s impossible to see the crime Hicks is accused of as being divorced from his views on religion."

    It really isn't. As Friendly Atheist blog points out, it's not exactly rare for people to be murdered in a dispute over a parking space, and police have said that they believe this was about parking. And this phenomenon isn't limited to the US, happening also in the UK (but with stabbing instead of shooting).

    1. I think the father, quoted extensively above, puts the argument over the parking space into a different perspective. I'm not saying that his views on religion were the only reason for his violence, only that they were a contributing factor.

    2. Steve I am an anti-theist. I am against religion and I speak out about Islam regularly(i will not be shamed by your white guilt into not doing so )I am not racist. I am not Islamophobic. Having read the Koran and studied the subject matter I choose to comment on, I have no unjustified fear of Islam. It is completely justified. I have absolutely no respect for this religion. Does this mean I want to murder muslims? Does this mean I hate people from the middle east/asia/ africa? Does this mean i am 'plagued by a nasty undercurrent of real, reactionary, neo-liberal anti-Islamism'...No it absolutely does not. and I am incredibly offended you would dredge up this old chestnut. I thought we were allowed freedom of speech even if it concerned criticising something which came from a race other than our own??.... You harm our society with pieces like this. There are atheist racists. They know who they are. The rest of us know we arent racist. Islam is a big big problem and it doesnt need trivializing like this. Read the Koran. Speak to some ex-muslims....Even listen to some Europeans. We know way more about muslim culture than you Americans. They live among us. They are our doctors, nurses,neighbours, colleagues, friends....We dont wish them any harm. We know ex-muslims who fear for their lives in our secular countries because they are atheist. Your piece basically says: An atheist shot some muslims....therefore all atheists are closet racists...I cant think of much more prejudiced thinking than that...

  2. Regarding so-called "moderate" believers, I reject the concept. Unless a believer is willing to edit their most holy text to remove the parts of it that advocate genocide, slavery, racism, homophobia, sexism, mutilation, and so forth, they are not moderate. They simply lack the courage and integrity to follow their holy text. In that regard, I have far more respect for fundamentalists.

    In any case, Islam is not a race, and it's not a country. It's exactly what it claims to be -- a religion: a history, a set of rules, and a deity. All of these are fair to criticize and mock.

    1. In rejecting the "concept" of religious moderates, you are lumping all religious people into one category that makes no differentiation between extreme and moderate views. That is wrong on its face. You are rejecting reality.

    2. No, you don't. Your painting your opposition black and white is itself way too black and white. I'm sure there is a fallacy for that.

  3. "When faced with murderous death cultists, who wouldn't feel justified in shooting first?"

    George W Bush.

    I stopped reading here.

    1. Erk. I mean "anyone but George W Bush"

    2. In stopping where you did, you missed the rest of the argument. Glad you commented without fully understanding my points though.