In early February 2015, at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a middle-aged American man, Craig Stephen Hicks, murdered three young persons of Muslim background – Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Yusor’s sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Barakat was of Syrian descent, while the two women were Palestinian.
The three victims were shot, execution-style, in a car park near the Chapel Hill campus of North Carolina University. The Chapel Hill police were quick to announce that the killing was motivated by a dispute over a parking space – Hicks had a history of belligerent, aggressive behaviour, was quick to lose his temper, and had confronted many of his neighbours over similarly trivial reasons. The police, and Ripley Rand, U.S. district attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, were at pains to point out that this killing could not be construed as a hate crime, directed at a group of people because of their ethnic and religious background.
It is important to investigate every possible motive for a crime, in order to ascertain the identity of the perpetrator, and to take steps to ensure that such a crime does not happen again. With the Chapel Hill killings, it is difficult to take the official explanation seriously. As Ramzy Baroud stated in his article, “Parking Space Terrorism”, published in Counterpunch, the murder of three Muslims by Hicks is not just a random act of violence perpetrated by a lone individual, however mentally disturbed the killer may be. This killing is the latest in a long-simmering seam of hatred, Islamophobia, promoted and nurtured by the American corporate-military elite since the 2001 ‘war on terror’. The tide of Islamophobia, targeting the Muslim community as the eternal outsiders, potential terrorists and a fifth column eating away inside our tolerant society, has fuelled explosions of toxic hate such as Chapel Hill. The latter killings are not an exceptional occurrence.
After the Chapel Hill killings, the Quba Islamic Institute in Houston, Texas, was set on fire in an arson attack. In Dearborn, Michigan, an Arab-American family was attacked, leaving the father of the family needing hospitalisation. These attacks occurred in a wider social and political context of a cultural-political narrative that singles out Muslim communities as incapable of reasoning, predisposed to violence, and unable to adapt to the cultural norms and values of the society in which they live. If the Islamic community is targeted as being more prone to violence and intolerance than others, it makes more socially acceptable to ostracise and attack them.
Hicks himself attempted to rationalise his actions on the basis of being an anti-theist, a particular brand that has become popular due to so-called ‘New Atheism’. There is nothing particularly new about ‘New Atheism’, and its most identifiable spokespeople, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, have gained a wider platform for restating atheist and non-religious views. What is different about this narrative is that atheism has been distorted and blighted by the ‘war on terror’, providing a secular banner for the project of building a new American empire. As Luke Savage argued in Jacobin magazine:
At face value, and by its own understanding, New Atheism is a reinvigorated incarnation of the Enlightenment scientism found in the work of thinkers like Bacon and Descartes: a critical discourse that subjects religious texts and traditions to rational scrutiny by way of empirical inquiry and defends universal reason against the forces of provincialism.
In practice, it is a crude, reductive, and highly selective critique that owes its popular and commercial success almost entirely to the “war on terror” and its utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics.
Hicks has been able to position his hate crime within the context of ‘new atheism’ that posits Islam as a uniquely violent, messianic challenge to ‘our Western’ democratic and secular values. The assertion that Islamic people are somehow inherently non-rational and immune to reason can be easily dispensed with; the scientific and mathematical achievements of the Arab and Islamic worlds, hundreds of years prior to the European Renaissance, occurred during the golden age of the Islamic empire. What is not easily discarded is the toxic environment created by a climate of fear and hostility engendered by the relentless barrage of propaganda from the industrial-financial ruling class. Anti-Muslim bigotry also plays a useful functional role in manufacturing consent for US imperial wars in the Arab and Islamic countries.
The Centre for American Progress, a nonprofit progressive think tank and public policy research institute, published a scathing report entitled “Fear Inc. 2.0 – The Islamophobia Network’s Efforts to Manufacture Hate in America”. This report exposes the nationwide network of conservative and Religious Right groups, and the millions of dollars at their disposal, to disseminate anti-Islamic prejudice in communities across the United States. Their influence and connections reach into the political corridors of powers, into police and law enforcement departments, and media broadcasting networks. Every Muslim community is viewed as a potential terror threat, and every mosque the incubator of extremist suspects. Viewing the Islamic community through the prism of security, serves to dehumanise and demonise an entire people.
There was justifiable and understandable outrage at the attack on the offices of the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in January 2015. Twelve people were killed, and the French state, media and political establishment provided virtually 24-hour round-the-clock coverage of the details of this heinous crime. A campaign of solidarity went viral on social media networks, with the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie being picked up and circulated in the millions. Numerous heads of state gathered in Paris soon after the shootings to demonstrate their solidarity with the victims, and promote the ostensibly prized values of free speech and a free press. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was portrayed as yet another demonstration of the utterly irreconcilable differences that separate the Muslim ‘them’ from the democratic ‘us’.
Leaving aside this orgy of hypocrisy, given that the politicians who marched in Paris are responsible for the suppression of free speech and lethal attacks on journalists, the outpouring of solidarity and compassion raises questions about the current social climate. Where is the equivalent hashtag campaign, the similar outrage and viral social media outpouring regarding the killings at Chapel Hill? The political leaders of the imperial states are responsible for unleashing wars of aggression in the Middle East, where the majority of the world’s Muslim population lives. These wars, on Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, the drone warfare on Yemen, have not only radicalised the populations in these countries, but constitute an imperialist onslaught against the Islamic countries. In 2003, in the opening stages of the American war on Iraq, the Baghdad offices of al Jazeera were bombed, leaving three journalists dead. Israeli forces have murdered numerous journalists during its successive wars on the Palestinians in Gaza – eliciting no such campaigns for free speech.
There is a deeper dishonesty in the reporting about the Charlie Hebdo murders, a dishonesty that is directly relevant for our purposes. This is the representation of the slain journalists at the newspaper as martyrs for free speech. French republicanism has a long tradition of satire, and much of that fire is directed at organised religion. Subjecting the official powers, including religious authority, to ridicule and scorn is a mainstay of French republican free-thinking. Caricatures and satirical portrayals are an inevitable and welcome development in a democracy. Charlie Hebdo has long since abandoned this tradition when it decided to recycle outdated, crude and frankly racist caricatures of an ethnic minority. As Hana Shafi explains in her column for the Huffington Post, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were racist, not satirical:
Yes, there is such a thing as respect. We can have respect for the family and friends affected by this horrible attack. But, we can also call out the elephant in the room: Charlie Hebdo was a notoriously racist publication, one that made its fame and capital through Islamophobia, among forms of bigotry.
We tote free speech and solidarity with Charlie Hebdo without questioning the limitations of free speech. Is racism a part of free speech? Can hate speech be excused? People scream in unison “it’s just satire!” But to me, and others, satire is something like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, not racist caricatures of minorities with elongated noises and frightening eyes reminiscent of early Nazi propaganda with anti-Semitic illustrations of Jewish people.
Satire directed at the powers-that-be, mocking the powerful and privileged, serves as an outlet for the disenfranchised and marginalised to express their dissent at an unfair system. Satire directed at ethnic minorities, already suffering from widespread discrimination, only serves to further alienate already-ostracised communities. The Islamophobic cartoons in Charlie Hebdo belong in the same category as the similarly stereotypical (and satirical) cartoons of Japanese that were ubiquitous in the United States during World War Two. The crude and sinister caricatures of the Muslim deployed in Charlie Hebdo are highly reminiscent of the Orientalist tropes in the propaganda used by the American authorities during the 1930s and 1940s to incite a climate of hostility and fear against the Japanese people.
It is not entirely correct to state that there has been no outpouring of grief and community solidarity over the latest killings at Chapel Hill, and the associated escalation of violence against Muslims. Vigils, rallies, and demonstrations organised by various activist and human rights group have been held under the banner Muslim Lives Matter. Similar to the BlackLivesMatter campaign, the purpose of this endeavour is to regain our common humanity, to find meaning and purpose in the face of seemingly senseless violence, and to remember that human lives matter, regardless of ethnic origin or religious affiliation. Multiracial and multiethnic unity is necessary to construct a society that is free from hate crimes.