On Tuesday night, three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill –Deah Shaddy Bakarat, Yusor Mohammad and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha — were murdered, execution-style, at their condominium complex near campus.
Shortly thereafter, the police took Craig Hicks, a neighbor who was apparently involved in an ongoing parking dispute with the victims, into custody.
The victims had previously expressed concern about Mr. Hicks, and were clearly under the impression that his confrontations with them were largely due to their Muslim faith.
A police statement initially suggested that Hicks’s motivation for killing the three students was limited to the parking dispute, although they didn’t rule out anti-religious motivations.
The police may not have already found Hicks’ Facebook profile when they made that attribution of motive, but given Hicks’s background, and the nature of his relationship with the victims, it’s hard to argue that religion had nothing to do with their deaths.
Also, if the tables were turned, and three white atheists had been killed by an Arab Muslim man with a history of troubling comments on social media, North Carolina would have passed another anti-Sharia Law bill in response to the “obvious” hate crime before the week was out.
So I think we owe it to the victims, their families and the Muslim community — to say nothing of our own intellectual integrity — to operate under the assumption that this attack has religious bases unless proven otherwise. There may have been a parking dispute either way, but I have a hard time believing that those students would have been killed, especially in the manner in which their murders were carried out, had they not been Muslim.
Which leaves outspoken nonbelievers such as myself with a few thorny questions. After all if an atheist can derive violence from their unbelief, then who are we to criticize a religious person for deriving violence from their belief?
We can only do so if we are honest with ourselves about our own identities.
We can only continue to criticize bad religious ideas if we acknowledge the role Craig Hicks’s own anti-religious biases — be they conscious hatred or unconscious prejudice — may have played in his actions on Tuesday night. In other words, we have to do what we have previously only asked the religious to do: confront the consequences of an ideology we identify with, and work to understand and repudiate negative consequences of that ideology.
In the aftermath of the shooting, noted unbelievers Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have commented on the tragedy via various channels. Dawkins took to Twitter to remind the world that Islam is still an evil ideology — a point that was tone-deaf at best — while Harris emailed a quote to the Washington Post, which read in part:
There is a huge difference between legitimate criticism of bad ideas and bigotry against specific groups of people (which, in the worst case, can result in hate crimes). It is one thing to believe that specific doctrines within Islam (or any system of thought) are unfounded, harmful, and in need of public criticism; it is another thing entirely to hate Muslims (or Arabs, immigrants, etc.) as people…
…If a person considers his atheism (a lack of belief in God) or secularism (a commitment to keeping religion out of public policy) a basis for hating whole groups of people, he is either deeply confused about what it means to think critically or suffering from some psychological disorder.
I’m with him 100% on the first paragraph, but a neuroscientists such as Harris should know that there’s a massive amount of cognitive space between disorder, confusion and hatred.
He’s right in suggesting that you have to intentionally misread God is not Great to think that Christopher Hitchens would advocate killing Muslims. However, if an individual spends enough time thinking about how “bad” religion is, without any context, it’s pretty easy to develop implicit biases against particular groups of religious people — biases that can, left unchecked by the group at large, lead extreme believers (or non-believers) to do evil things.
So we don’t get to say that Craig Hicks isn’t a “true” unbeliever, as that would make no more sense than claiming the Charlie Hebdo shooters weren’t really Muslims. We do, however, get to say that Hicks’s actions were reprehensible, and that, regardless of our theological differences, #MuslimLivesMatter.