On February 10, Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46 year old, gun toting white guy killed three of his neighbors – Deah Shaddy Barakat, age 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. He shot them execution style in their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The victims were American Muslim university students.
According to the police, his motive was a longtime dispute over parking spaces in the condo community where they all lived.
The police insist that they have uncovered no evidence of anti-Muslim animosity. Therefore, until demonstrated otherwise, the official line is that this was not a hate crime.
It is hard not to be skeptical, but even if what the police say is true, there is plainly a double standard at work here.
Had a Muslim murdered three upstanding white citizens, the presumption would be the opposite: the killings would be presumed to have been a hate crime, and the burden of proof would be on anyone claiming it was not.
The attack would be assumed to have been religiously motivated as well. Only blatant Islamophobes and clash of civilization theorists say it out loud, but the general view is that Islam fosters a culture of violence that accounts for the atrocities Muslims commit.
If you kill a bunch of people and you are white, the assumption is that you have a psychological problem; if you are Muslim, or if your ancestors were, Allah made you do it.
When atrocities happen, calls go out to fix the system. When the perpetrator is white and the victims are Muslim, this usually means fixing the mental health delivery system; not the causes of institutional and attitudinal Islamophobia. When the perpetrators are Muslim, there is nothing to do but beef up the police – or call in the army.
In Western public opinion, and in the practice of Western governments, Islam and double standards go hand in hand.
But not all double standards are created equal.
* * *
As everyone knows – especially now, in the aftermath of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office and the kosher supermarket in Paris — the French double standard is slightly different from ours.
By “everyone,” I mean everyone who has been paying attention and who has access to news that is honestly reported and properly contextualized; in other words, everyone who reads or listens to less tendentious news sources than the ones that manufacture uninformed consent in the United States.
In France, (small-r) “republicanism” implies universal equality (and liberty and fraternity) in the sense that anyone can in principle join the club, though the burden is on the outsider to fit in.
As a general rule, this seems fair, at least for outsiders who choose to come to a new country voluntarily.
But the French take the idea way too seriously. Everyone gets equal rights; but, within French society, even immigrants from similar cultures find that it can take generations to meet the standard for assimilation, and forever to be considered fully French.
Well-off and/or talented expatriates have always found France a welcoming haven, but “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” generally have a harder time.
Another distinctively French ideal is laïcité. This is not quite the same as our “separation of church and state.”
Laïcité is a radically anti-clerical doctrine, forged through a protracted struggle with the Catholic Church. The idea is to render the public sphere free from religion – in both substance and appearance.
Freedom of religion is protected, of course, along with other traditional liberties, but religion is excluded from public life.
The United States Constitution mandates religious freedom too, but except for proscribing the “establishment” of any particular religion, it is vague about the public role of religion itself. In practice, judges determine what is permissible; and, in practice if not in theory, the can do pretty much what they want.
There can be no American equivalent of the Church of England, but government officials usually are able to promote generic religiosity.
Thus we pledge allegiance to “one nation, under God,” and our coins are marked “in God we trust.” Our dollar bills, Lawrence Ferlinghetti observed, do not say this — “being gods unto themselves.”
Laïcité is a more demanding standard: not only can there be no established religion, but religion itself must be a matter of private conscience only. In this respect, the French are truer to liberal doctrine that we Americans are.
Liberalism emerged more than three centuries ago in Western Christian societies. It is easy to exaggerate the connection, but there plainly are conceptual affinities that join elements of Christian, especially Protestant, theology to liberal theory.
At the same time, there have also always been, and still are, profoundly illiberal strains of Christian thought. Even so, Christianity and liberalism have, by now, largely made peace with one another.
Although pre-modern Judaism has few, if any, identifiable affinities with liberal theory or practice, Jewish communities, hungering for emancipation and entry into mainstream European culture, embraced liberalism early on. Implicit conflicts between Judaism and liberalism have been marginal for centuries.
Islam and liberalism have a more contentious relationship; in part because liberalism was introduced into Muslim societies by Western colonizers – not to liberate Muslim peoples but to dominate them.
There were, and are, plenty of liberals in the Muslim world; most of them, however, are westernized, highly educated and secular.
In both theory and practice, Islam has always been the most tolerant of the Abrahamic faiths; Christianity and Judaism and other monotheistic religions have always been accorded certain protections.
But, with only a few exceptions, liberal notions of political equality, of equal membership in political communities irrespective of doctrinal commitments or communal ties, have yet to strike deep roots.
This is one reason why demanding untempered laïcité of immigrant Muslim populations would have been difficult enough even if France had not had a long and tortured – and, in some respects, continuing – colonial history with North Africa and with Muslim regions of sub-Saharan Africa and the Near East.
Add to this, bitter memories of the colonial era culminating in, though hardly ending with, the Algerian War. That especially brutal war remains a living memory for the parties involved.
Then there is the always relevant fact that in France, as in other developed countries, there is, and long has been, a need for low wage labor that the local population is unable or unwilling to satisfy.
Immigrants from Muslim countries, French-speaking ones especially, were therefore encouraged to come to France to work. There they found themselves bogged down in menial occupations and living in de facto ghettoes with few, if any, opportunities for advancement.
Thus the usual vexations of immigrant life were generally more onerous for French Muslims than for immigrant groups in the United States.
In recent decades, the neoliberal turn in global capitalism has made their situation worse still. As low-wage jobs are exported overseas, people in developed countries who do low wage work become increasingly redundant. Life prospects for their children become especially bleak.
So much, then, for the laudable universalism inherent in the republican ideals France espouses. They ring hollow in a world in which Muslim immigrants are as free as anyone else to be French, but only in the sense that, as Anatole France famously put it: “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”
In France and in other parts of Europe too, relations between Muslim and Jewish communities also shape the double standard Muslims confront.
In North Africa, Jews and Muslims coexisted peacefully for centuries. This began to change with the establishment of the state of Israel, and then, as the struggle for independence throughout the region took shape. In Algeria especially, most Jews sided with the colonizers against the colonized.
Memories of those times still affect relations between North African Jews and North African, especially Algerian, Muslims living in France today.
Then there are memories of the long period in which anti-Semitism flourished in France; and, of course, of French collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War. Because of this history, French governments have been vigilant in suppressing any and all whiffs of anti-Jewish expression.
These days, nearly all expressed animosity towards Jews comes from disaffected Muslim youth; the old anti-Semitism having become nearly extinct.
Their antipathy comes from the special protections accorded Jews while Islamophobia rages. It also reflects feelings about Israel and the Palestinians.
The Israeli government and its supporters conflate the problems disaffected Muslims living in Europe have with their Jewish neighbors with the old anti-Semitism, notwithstanding the obvious differences.
Their aim is to encourage French and other European Jews to emigrate to Israel – supposedly, for their safety (as if Israel were not the least safe place on earth to be a Jew), but actually to counter Palestinian fertility, the “demographic bomb” that Zionists perceive as an “existential threat.”
Zionists want Jewish bodies, ideally “white” ones from Europe and North America, to counter the high birth rates of Palestinians living in Israel and the Occupied Territories. They fear, reasonably, that, before long, Benjamin Netanyahu’s “nation state of the Jewish people” will find itself without a Jewish majority. Israel could address this “problem,” or at least postpone its onset, by reducing its territorial ambitions. But Zionists who want it all – from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River — are now calling the shots, so the need for Jewish immigrants is acute.
This is why the move is on to heighten fears of a new anti-Semitic moment in Europe. How ironic this is! A cause of the anxiousness Jewish communities in France — and Denmark and elsewhere — feel is presented as its remedy.
These factors combine to make it the case that in France and elsewhere, “Jewish lives matter” –not just in “republican” theory, where all lives matter equally, but in the real world as well.
Muslim lives matter too, of course; but in theory only.
* * *
With the one very partial exception of the Philippines – an American colony between 1898 and 1946, with a 10% Muslim population — the United States has no colonial history with Muslim peoples.
As recently as fifty years ago, there were very few Muslims living in the United States; and as recently as thirty years ago, most Americans considered Islam, if they thought of it at all, as an exotic faith practiced by peoples “of whom we know little” (as Neville Chamberlain said of the Czechs) in far off lands.
Christianity led the larger intellectual culture to regard Islam as an inferior faith, but there was little, if any, animosity towards Muslims themselves.
There was awareness, from the fifties on, of Black nationalist organizations that identified with Islam. Because they promoted black independence, and because their rhetoric was perceived (correctly) as hostile to whites, their existence struck fear in the hearts of many white Americans.
This phenomenon had everything to do with racial politics in urban America in the civil rights era and beyond. It had almost nothing to do with immigrants to America from the Muslim world.
After the 1973 oil embargo – imposed by Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur (or Ramadan) War — anti-Arab sentiment flourished. But the general perception then was that Arabs were the problem, not Muslims generally, and certainly not Islam itself.
Back then too, Zionists were fine with non-Arab Muslims and with Islam; some of Israel’s best friends, after all, were “of the Islamic persuasion” – in Iran and Turkey and in the East African nations that Israel courted.
Zionists therefore steered clear of Islamophobia, even as Palestinian resistance mounted. Their enemy was secular nationalism, the Palestinian variety especially. For this reason, not long ago, many Zionists were, for all intents and purposes, outright Islamophiles.
Along with Zbigniew Brzezinski and his co-thinkers in the Carter administration, Israeli governments considered politicized Islam a benign antidote to the secular nationalism they feared.
Thus the Israelis, at first, promoted Hamas as an alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organization. And, in order to draw the Soviet Union into a quagmire similar to America’s in Vietnam, Brzezinski, working with the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, sent arms and money to Islamist fighters in Afghanistan.
It was his way of joining theory to practice. Everybody knows what came of his ill-considered machinations. The horrors continue to mount. Nearly four decades on, the world has yet to see the worst of them.
It was the Iranian Revolution that made ordinary Americans aware of militant Islam. Before it got underway, hardly anyone in America had even heard of Shias or Sunnis. But as news of the takeover of the American embassy sunk in, and then as the revolution unfolded in ways that attracted the attention of Western media, Shia Islam became a problem for the West.
Sunni Islam was still deemed apolitical and peaceable. To elite circles in the West, it made sense to inculcate this idea. The Saudi royal family is Sunni – indeed, Wahabi, a hard-core Sunni offshoot — and their importance to American banks and to the (dirty) energy industry is incalculable.
No matter, therefore, that, they bankroll Sunni fundamentalists more vicious than anything imagined in Teheran, or that other oil-rich Saudis do the same.
As their efforts bore fruit with the emergence of Al Qaeda, and as Al Qaeda became a force to be reckoned with, the idea that Shia Islam is the only problem the West has with the Muslim world waned. After 9/11, it is has become increasingly convenient to demonize Muslims generally, and to blame Islamic culture for Muslim malevolence.
It could hardly be otherwise. With the United States and other Western powers embroiled in wars against and alongside Shias and Sunnis alike, it would hardly make sense to demonize one branch of Islam and not the other.
Therefore the conventional wisdom now is that Islam generally is a problem, and that people of Muslim origin are a problem as well. Even were the premise right, it is plain that the conclusion does not follow. But there are powerful forces at work making it seem that it does.
Those who benefit from America’s perpetual war regime realize that a war on terror (read: the Muslim world) need never end. And now that Israel has become estranged from its former non-Arab but Muslim best-friends-forever, its most vile defenders have taken up the Islamophobic cause as well.
Muslims in America can therefore no longer quietly set about their business, making lives for themselves and their families. As in Europe, they are now both hated and feared. It is a heavy burden to overcome.
The root cause, in the French case, is colonialism; slavery is the root cause in ours.
Blacks are no longer property and white supremacy is no longer maintained through lynchings and legal segregation. But black lives still don’t matter; witness Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland and countless other venues.
African Americans are not safe from the police, they are not safe in or around white neighborhoods, and they are not even safe when minding their own business in the neighborhoods where they live.
Worse still: when the time comes to round up the usual suspects, blacks are, as always, highest on the list.
The black-white template has shaped American life since even before the founding of the United States.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it emerged that non-Anglo immigrants –Germans and Scandinavians even, then the Irish, later southern and eastern Europeans and Jews — took a while to become fully white. But, for all the problems immigrants faced, the United States does have a long tradition of incorporating immigrants, white ones anyway, into the fold.
Nowadays, America is full of immigrants from all the four corners of the earth. Indeed, there are now so many immigrants from so many “non-traditional” places that a new category – brown, meaning not fully white – has become a fixed point on the social and political landscape. In the United States today, this is how most immigrants from traditionally Muslim regions are viewed.
In some respects, Muslims have, all of a sudden, become even blacker than black. They can be derogated and disrespected in public in ways that bona fide blacks used to be, but that no one who is not an out-and-out white supremacist would even think of doing now.
This is all the more striking because, for the most part, American Muslims are not economically marginalized in the way that Muslims are in France and other European countries.
But there it is: let there be any atrocity and the first thought that comes to mind is that Muslims did it; and when Muslims are victims, as they were in Chapel Hill, it doesn’t strike horror the way it does when the victims are white.
In the days immediately following the Chapel Hill killings, President Obama – a black President, no less – waited days before calling in the FBI and before issuing a condemnation and condolences. His delay speaks volumes.
Moreover, it took mounting pressure from around the world, including a very public rebuke from the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on a state visit to Mexico, to get even that much out of Obama.
His reaction to the murders in Chapel Hill contrasted conspicuously with his swift condemnation of other cases of religiously or politically motivated violence – notably, to cite a still timely example, his response to the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher supermarket killings in Paris.
It was significant too that Obama chose not to name the hatred that led to the killings, suggesting, not just to Muslims but to anyone with common sense, that the bigotry and racism Muslims confront, and the violence that is perpetrated against them, is different from, and less illegitimate than, the derision and violence directed against worthier victims.
Had the victims’ families and friends not spoken out as vociferously as they did, the killings would have gotten even less attention at home than they so far have. Unless new developments in the case suddenly emerge, the Chapel Hill events will probably be forgotten entirely in a few weeks time. Meanwhile, “Je suis Charlie” still resonates.
Obama’s tardy response came immediately after reports of a fire, probably set deliberately, that damaged the Quba Islamic Institute in Houston. Anti-Muslim violence is on the rise in the United States, just as it is in Europe, but we seldom hear much about it. The reason is obvious: Muslim lives don’t matter – not in Europe and not in America either, not these days.
* * *
According to the Chapel Hill police, Hicks, the Chapel Hill killer, had shown animosity towards religion in general – just not to Islam in particular. He is, they say, a “new atheist.”
New atheism is sometimes said to be a social movement, but it started out, more than a decade ago, as a marketing category used by major publishers to promote the work of, among others, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris.
There is nothing new about the atheism new atheists defend except that their arguments are addressed to contemporary readers and rely in part on contemporary examples. Also, they write bestsellers. This too is new.
Philosophically, however, new atheism is of a piece with those strains of eighteenth century, mainly French, materialist philosophy that, from a logical point of view, dispatched theism definitively.
Their arguments were compelling enough that it is fair to say that the religions atheists still inveigh against would have expired long ago were there not powerful psychological, historical, political and sociological factors keeping them alive.
What is left to discuss is not whether atheism is sounder than theism or agnosticism — of course, it is – but why rationally untenable theistic convictions persist, and what this shows about the human condition in general and about particular social, political and intellectual cultures in our time.
Were reason in control, atheism, though true, would long ago have become superseded — in much the way that paganism has been for centuries. Scholars and others would, of course, study pagan beliefs and practices for any of a variety of reasons. But no one would either endorse or oppose paganism itself. There is no point in engaging with it that way and no interest in doing so; as anything more than a historical artifact, paganism is and long has been kaput.
Were reason more in control, promoting atheism nowadays would be like promoting disbelief in Greek or Roman mythology. There is much that can be gained from studying religions based on belief in the Christian or Jewish or Islamic God. But since there is nothing “living” in the foundational doctrines of those religions, there is nothing worth debunking – at least from a philosophical point of view.
But in the real world, it is a different story. There, it is important – more important than anyone would have believed just a few decades ago – because, in the right conditions, those religions kill.
Evidently, atheism kills too; not the atheism implicit in rationally justifiable indifference, but the militant atheism that new atheist writers invoke.
In principle, their atheism is hostile to all (theistic) religions equally, but, in practice, some are more equal than others. Islam is first among equals, and hostility towards it spills over into outright Islamophobia. Among the new atheist writers, Hitchens and Harris are the clearest cases in point; they have many epigones however – the comedian Bill Maher is a well-known example.
It is no accident that, by a somewhat different route, defenders of laïcité now find themselves in much the same place. The doctrine they espouse is anti-clerical, not necessarily anti-religious. But its conceptual and historical underpinnings are the same as those that underlie militant atheism in all its forms.
It did all start in France, after all.
And there are many there too who, while professing laïcité have effectively crossed the line from laudable secularism to indefensible Islamophobia.
In the right conditions, laïcité is an admirable principle, even if, in a more rational universe, it would be essentially moot.
But as the case of Craig Stephen Hicks shows, the thinking that undergirds it, though sound as can be (on its own terms), can take a dangerous, even lethal, turn.
This would not be as evident as it now is were circumstances not conspiring to foster Islamophobia throughout the Western world, and especially in countries like France that have yet fully to come to terms with their colonial pasts or, as in the United States, where slavery and its legacy still afflict efforts to treat everyone as if “all men” (and women too) were indeed “created equal.”
The double standards that result work very much to the detriment of the estimable values that the heirs of the French and American Revolutions hypocritically proclaim.
They benefit only those who gain from perpetual war or who want to scare citizens into relinquishing long standing rights and liberties, or who want to persuade European Jews to leave the West altogether – for an ethnocratic colonial outpost in the heart of the Middle East.
The first and most immediate consequence of those double standards, though, is to make conditions of life onerous for Muslims in Western countries. We now know that what is onerous for all can be tragically fatal for some.
There are forces in the Muslim world – the Islamic State is the latest and most extreme example – that welcome these consequences, and that are determined to bring them on.
Notwithstanding what his administration’s advisors and functionaries – and perhaps the Commander-in-Chief himself – may imagine, there is no way to deal with them militarily or diplomatically, and certainly no way to reason with them. Their zealotry is not just pre-Enlightened; it is medieval.
But it was clueless American machinations – in Iraq and also in Syria — that brought the Islamic State into being in the first place, and it is American machinations now that sustain them and keep them going. The more America fights them, the stronger they become.
The solution, then, is to stop giving them what they want. Surely, this is not beyond the ken of the Obama administration. They can turn back the monster they created by no longer nourishing its growth.
That they are not doing this already suggests that they too – or the plutocrats they serve –want perpetual war as much as the Islamic State does. It is either that or, as I am inclined to believe, Obama and his minions stand condemned for irrationality and incompetence.
In any case, what they are doing is just not good enough for the victims in Chapel Hill or for the countless others whose lives have ended or been made worse in the nonsensically counterproductive war George Bush unleashed after 9/11.
To their everlasting shame, almost the entire American political class has been keen on keeping Bush’s war on terror going, making an already dreadful situation worse.
As it drags on, Western Muslims and the peoples of the Middle East bear the main brunt, but they will not be the only ones harmed. We all are.
If, as pundits tell us, Obama’s main concern now is his “legacy,” not the pecuniary interests of America’s death merchants and financiers or the fortunes of his bought-and-paid-for fellow Democrats, he would be well advised to give this obvious truth serious thought.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).