A Lynching in Chapel Hill

In the age of Trayvon Martins, Michael Browns, Eric Garners, the right to move freely, to be treated with equal human rights, is not a tangible reality for people viewed as non-white. Movies like American Sniper, which promote the dehumanization of Muslims (especially Arabs), fan the flames of racial and religious hatred, extending beyond hateful epithets to admitted desires to murder Arabs. The killing of three Muslims in Chapel Hill is immediately related to the racial and religious aspects of white culture in the US, and the inability of the left to effectively respond.

Yusor Mohammad, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Deah Shaddy Barakat were three family members. Yusor was in school to be a dentist. Her newlywed husband, Deah, was also a dental student, and helped provide charitable care to Syrian refugees in Turkey. Razan, whose name means sensibility and respect in Arabic, and to whom they referred fondly as the “best third wheel ever,” was Yusor’s sister. Their murders are more than the result of an “extended parking dispute,” they are perhaps the most recent cases of acts of white vigilantism against people viewed as threatening to the standard white narrative.

Yusor Mohammad’s father recalled how, a week before her death, she had told him that her neighbor Craig Stephen Hicks was hateful: “Honest to God,’ she said, ‘He hates us for what we are and how we look.’” In a long Facebook rant, Hicks appears to give vent to his Islamophobia under the auspices of atheism, calling practitioners of an ambiguous faith “self-righteous,” arrogant and insulting. He claims to have “not only a right, but a duty, to insult [your religion], as does every rational, thinking person on this planet[.]”

The rage of the Islamophobe, given to the assumption of a right to insult another based on their presumed beliefs, creates a perfect Facebook troll, seeking with torch in hand the strawmen that prowl social media platforms. Judging people based on Facebook rants is as gauche as making them oneself. One imagines that a simple, perhaps mediated, conversation with the family next door would have assuaged Hix’s animus—something virtually impossible these days. On the most basic level, however, the claim to criticize equally the arrogance of all religions, as pretended to by Charlie Hebdo, Richard Dawkins, and Craig Stephen Hicks, alike, ultimately plays into the power dynamics that feed those who wish to prey on the most vulnerable among us. Hicks’s words on Facebook point to a real-world hatred, which can build to terrible consequences when offered the pseudo-rational framework of New Atheism—a hatred, in this case, that was felt by Yusor and relayed to her father a week before her murder.

Light Skin, Dark Masks

That Hicks is an “equal opportunity offender,” a New Atheist who enjoys posting quotes from Richard Dawkins, only further elucidates the problematic power relations tied up in the racial, political, and religious implications of Islamophobia. The notion of being an “equal opportunity hater” is as noxious as the notion that a misogynist is innocuous, because “he’s a jerk to everyone.” Actually, he is still a misogynist; actually, he is still an Islamophobe.

If the young family members were WASPs, would the parking dispute have ended in triple homicide? Light skin, as with Yusor Mohammad, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Deah Shaddy Barakat (which means blessings in Arabic), is not necessarily equivalent to whiteness in the eyes of a person like Craig Stephen Hicks, and after all, what does it mean to be viewed as a white person, but the automatic bestowal of a certain power, dignity, or right—a right, perhaps, not to be lynched over a parking dispute?

Another question: if they had been all men, would they have been murdered? The masculinist cult of New Atheism is driven by its self-righteousness, which extends to Dawkins’s own undeniable sexism. Ironically, the ire raised over the “Abrahamic” treatment of women feeds into a self-same animosity towards female critics of New Atheism.

Already an instrument of a cruel, adult version of schoolyard bullying, it is not enough to say that New Atheism in the hands of people like Hicks becomes a murderous weapon of hate. While it is not calling for violence on the level of incitement, per se, New Atheists makes worse an already existing kind of violence. If you take a piece of bread away from three people, one of whom only has one piece of bread, who will be starving? If you claim to hate three groups of people, one of whom already suffers extreme forms of everyday prejudice, who will receive the most unjust treatment?

It seems important to note is that Hicks appears to be a typical, white person. Just like George Zimmerman, who appeared to be an ordinary civilian, or the killers of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, both of whom were normal-looking white cops, Craig Stephen Hicks does not seem particularly outstanding in his opinions or his outlook.

Hicks’s photographs astride an ATV, of a loaded 9mm revolver, or of himself with his wife all appear normal fare for what passes as the conservative right wing these days. The fact that the killer was a normative white man, rather than the classic archetype of the “hood-wearing Klan member” or the “tattooed neo-Nazi,” makes the quotidian force of racism all the more important to note. This is the era of the everyday lynching, masked as vigilante justice or even a crime of passion, as with the Chapel Hill Shootings. These attacks loudly declare to the successful Muslim and non-white person whose stature threatens the white conservative: One step out of line, and your freedom-loving neighbor will cut you down.

A Cracked Façade

The treatment of Arabs, Kurds, or rather Muslims in general, in places like France expose further racialized class structures. French Muslims, often from North Africa (sometimes considered part of the Middle East or, more progressively, together with the Middle East, as the MENA acronym would suggest), are a distinct minority prohibited from practicing various aspects of their faith, but they make up a vast majority of those incarcerated in French prisons. In the US, facile claims to multiculturalism invisiblize Islamophobia on a liminal level.

Some of the official surveys used in US workplaces today that ask about race group together as white “Any of the original peoples of Europe or the Middle East.” When most US Americans discuss or debate the Middle East, they talk about a vast space ranging from the Iranian border with Afghanistan all the way to the Egypt-Libya border. A long-range historical view of the idea of the Middle East, in general, as well as the European concept of itself, let alone the peoples of West Asia, seems to complicate this inquest. Surely the category of whiteness here is not based on skin color, since I know people who identify as Chicano who are lighter skinned than some of my Turkish friends, for instance, and still have the option of checking the box for either Hispanic or White (Hispanic).

The pervasive presence of Islamophobia as an existential reality—the hatred and fear of Muslims—adds to the difference felt by Arabs in the West, yet the elision of that difference through inclusion in the category of whiteness creates a blurred line that denies a particular group’s struggle against white supremacism. Perforce, all arguments upholding white supremacism, itself, become untenable when the notion of “white” and its configuration of power relations are revealed as palimpsests of varying identities, practices, attitudes, beliefs, performances, languages, and discourses, all layered on top of a cracked façade of skin color. These are the more-subtle racial implications tied to Islamophobia within day-to-day discourse, which expand the phenomenon beyond a Samuel Huntington-type religio-cultural “Clash of Civilizations.” Islamophobia is, rather, a neo-colonial power discourse that mobilizes every possible prejudice to oppress the target group.

A Way Forward

In the early 1900s, the question over whether Jews could be considered part of “the free white race” had tangible implications as to the results of various naturalization processes. Anti-Semitism was a very real threat to Jews’ sense of belonging in the US, creating ties of sympathy and solidarity between Jewish people and people of color.

As Franz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks, “Colonial racism is no different from any other racism. Anti-Semitism hits me head-on: I am enraged, I am bled white by an appalling battle, I am deprived of the possibility of being a man.” He quotes Césaire: “When I turn on my radio, when I hear that Negroes have been lynched in America, I say that we have been lied to: Hitler is not dead; when I turn on my radio, when I learn that Jews have been insulted, mistreated, persecuted, I say that we have been lied to: Hitler is not dead; when, finally, I turn on my radio and hear that in Africa forced labor has been inaugurated and legalized, I say that we have certainly been lied to: Hitler is not dead.” Indeed, throughout the 1930s and the early ’40s, among the most celebrated radio hosts were openly fascist, anti-Semitic preachers like Father Charles Coughlin and Gerald LK Smith. The congregations of those preachers and America Firsters went on to fill the ranks of the Christian National Crusade and the anti-Civil Rights John Birch Society, sowing the seeds of the Moral Majority and the Tea Party.1

There is a common struggle of racialized and religious minorities against right-wing hatred that is systematically obscured and undermined by today’s multicultural, atheist perspective, making that perspective perhaps as intellectually problematic as what Chris Hedges calls “Christo-fascism.” Hence, those calling for a level of outrage today on par with the #jesuischarlie movement are absolutely justified in joining in common struggle against all forms of fascistic extremism. Although Dawkins, himself, has denounced the Chapel Hill Shootings, we shall see if he changes the attitude that he, along with Bill Maher and others like him, have carried, which continues to incite hatred against the oppressed.

If there is a place where the Black Lives Matter protests and the #jesuischarlie protests meet, it is at the point where the right of all people to live their lives in peace is challenged at the barrel of a gun by those who hate their race, color, or creed. It is especially incumbent on white people with access to male privilege to support this movement by standing with women and communities of color against both the oppression of all people and that particularly asinine brand of patriarchy exuding from the New Atheist discourse. Those of us who are not Muslim cannot pretend #jesuisbarakat, because there is no way to understand the oppression of the Other. But we must overcome the tacit racism and Islamophobia of New Atheism in order to understand its connections to everyday oppression, and stand in solidarity with those struggling for liberty everywhere.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.


[1] While Hitler, himself, would have been surprised to find that he was descended not from Scandinavians whom he idealized, but from North African Berbers and Ashkenazi Jews, this recent revelation helps expose the problems with the narrative of whiteness, and what it means to be European, let alone from a singular nation-state.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.