Comment: Chapel Hill shooting exposes the bigotry of New Atheism

The victims of the Chapel Hill attack: (r-l) Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.
The victims of the Chapel Hill attack: (r-l) Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.

The assailant who killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, in October of last year, was widely reported to have been inspired by Islamic State, as was the hostage-taker in Sydney Australia, in December. Although neither of them committed the heinous acts with any planning from ISIL, it was obvious from their behaviour (in person and on social media) that the propaganda from Islamic State had inspired them to do so.

This is certainly not a wild assumption; after all, it would be absurd to claim that the underlying motivation was, say, a parking dispute. However, when Muslims happen to be victims of hateful violence, absurdity takes centre stage. Craig Hicks fatally shot three young Muslim students in a Chapel Hill apartment in a premeditated execution-style attack, but the media coverage quickly emphasized a parking dispute between Hicks and the three slain students as the underlying reason.

In short, an anecdote about something as mundane as a parking dispute is portrayed as the main motivation for following three people into their home and murdering them. If arguments over parking space could inspire triple homicides so easily, society would surely collapse in a maelstrom of violence. No, the murders that Hicks committed were obviously about something else.

Hicks’ wife stated to the press that he “believed in equality, in same sex marriage”, which is supposed to preclude the possibility that he committed a hate crime. His blatant support for writers and pundits who spread anti-Muslim bigotry under the pretext of “New Atheism”, is suddenly relegated to periphery. Hicks’ Facebook page was inundated with pages and photos depicting any religious belief as primitive, volatile, and morally unconscionable, with a particular emphasis on Islam. This is the central tenet of so-called New Atheism: all societal problems will disappear if all religious faith is somehow eliminated.

Many celebrities of the “New Atheist” movement, such as comedian Bill Maher, spew intellectually shallow arguments about Islam and blame it for making its adherents violent, dangerous, and barbaric. They frequently retort that they are only mocking Islam as an ideology and not denigrating or threatening Muslims as a populace. But by and large, they are not simply critics of Islam, such as Salman Rushdie, and several of them make no distinction between the belief and the believers. This goes deeper than garden variety stereotypes or facile arguments.

Sam Harris, neuroscientist and guru of New Atheism, is a firm proponent of racial profiling, torture, and invading Middle Eastern nations in order to “civilize” them. He adheres to the conspiracy theory that Muslims are planning to overpopulate and subjugate Europe, and at one point promoted the idea of preemptively firing a nuclear bomb at an Islamic nation if the nation had successfully developed a nuclear device of its own (unbeknownst to Harris, Pakistan has nuclear weapons). Men like Harris do not need to resort to brutal violence against Islamic polities or people, as state military power does the work for them, but inevitably, some people take a pragmatic approach to the undercurrent of violence within these Islamophobic rants.

Over three and half years ago, a man in Norway also immersed himself in xenophobic, anti-Muslim media before deciding to act upon his beliefs. His name was Anders Breivik, perpetrator of the deadliest terrorist attack in Norwegian history. In the popular press, there was next to no in-depth analysis or criticism of the growing far-right, anti-immigrant ideology which Breivik followed faithfully, nor was the influence of Muslim-hating demagogues like Geert Wilders or Pamela Geller even alluded to.

Western media and 24-hour cable news paid a paltry amount of attention to the Oslo-Utoya massacre, and it seems as though this new hate crime (along with daily arson attacks on mosques) will again fly under the radar. By diverting attention to the outrageous excuse of a “parking space argument” and systematically downplaying anti-Muslim hate crimes, we are ignoring the growing bigotry pervading our society, and putting lives at risk as a result. The aforementioned antitheist writer Sam Harris once claimed that “some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them”; in North Carolina, it looks like someone put those words into action.

Addendum: I am an atheist, and people like Harris and Maher will never speak for my beliefs or lack thereof.