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What is American Society’s Role in the Chapel Hill Shooting?

As a growing chorus insists the murder of three Muslims be treated as a hate crime, the U.S. should do some soul-searching

What is American Society’s Role in the Chapel Hill Shooting?

Craig Stephen Hicks

There are two narratives surfacing on the Chapel Hill shooting. One frames the gruesome incident as “a lethal escalation of a neighborhood parking dispute” devoid of any social context in which the murders occurred; mainstream media organizations like CNN are still uncertain whether the execution-styled triple homicide of three young Muslim students was indeed a hate crime conducted by Craig Stephen Hicks. The other, called for by Muslims around the world as well as the father of the two sisters who were murdered, insists that Hicks’ actions be acknowledged as stemming from hate. The latter, thus-far alternative narrative—that we understand the incident as a norm, not an exception—demands far more reckoning from Western, non-Muslim readers. With the vicious rise in Islamophobia after 9/11, but also America’s deeply entrenched racism that predates 2001 by centuries, racially motivated paranoia of Muslims is firmly embedded in the psychological composition of American society. And it has a lot more to do with the subliminal messages surrounding us than overt declarations of hatred.


The dominant narrative on the Chapel Hill shooting provides us with a generous glimpse into the social attitude many Americans maintain toward Muslims in this country, regardless of their assimilated or immigrant status. Time and again, scholars have pointed out the bigotry in the chronological discourses on Islam in the West. In such a xenophobic milieu, one cannot expect Western media to categorize Craig Hicks as a terrorist as they would instantly term a Muslim attacker or depict his supposedly-progressive role model like Richard Dawkins (wherein he quotes him) and like-minded ideologues like Sam Harris and Bill Maher as his proselytizing atheist leaders who indoctrinated him to a perilous extent where he viewed all religions, but particularly Islam, as a cancer in his environment. This fixation on Islam became apparent when one of the victims, 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, had previously stated, “He hates us for what we are and how we look.” In such a narrative, men like Craig Hicks are granted abundant social space to navigate because they are members of the white American majority. It becomes more than conspicuous to see that, when you are white, your hatred of the Other is not only too ambiguous to be called a hate crime—let alone terrorism—but that it is almost justified given the fear-mongering in conventional media.

But where does such hatred emanate from? A recurring and flawed pattern in understanding these incidents— specifically when it is a white perpetuator enacting violence on a non-white person—is to view them as social aberrations, a lone wolf acting on his own ill-conceived intentions while the rest of American society has little to nothing to do with his murderous behavior. This separation of context from the event allows the dominant society to evade any kind of accountability and reflection on racism or xenophobia within their own group. Unlike Muslims who are expected to apologize for the heinous deeds of other Muslims simply because they share a faith, non-Muslims rarely find themselves ensnared in a civilizational discourse that views them as a divine scourge upon earth. There will be no gigantic billboards demanding atheists to stand with the Civilized against the Savage. There will be no lengthy, duplicitous opinion pieces and talk show segments giving atheists ultimatums on denouncing the Chapel Hill shooting or else to expect retribution. There will be no offense taken on the dearth of condemnations from New Atheist thinkers.

It is now more than vital to see where people like Craig Hicks receive their logic. The status quo against Muslims is not limited to right-wing Western publications and soapboxes; examples of leftists endorsing similar stances are rampant in France, Germany, and Italy. A cursory glance at the murderer’s social media shows us a peculiar mix of progressive and regressive ideas on law and justice in America, and it is apparent that he did not prescribe to Tea Party logic but to Harris and Maher’s diatribes on Islam. It also gives us an opportunity to see New Atheism’s dangerous liaison with Islamophobia.

Bigotry originates in the normalized. Scholars like Raimond Gaita describe the American reflex reaction to difference as one rooted in abhorrence instead of celebration. Movies like American Sniper, TV personalities like Jeanine Pirro (who openly incites the killing of Muslims) and Bill Maher (who relies on essentialist depictions of Islam as a monolith), NSA state surveillance policies that pathologize Muslims as a constant threat to American democratic values, media organizations that deliberately obfuscate the reality of Islamophobia—these are some of the many sources of insidious propaganda against one of America’s minorities on a daily basis. Such misinformation implants itself into the social makeup of a population and provides the hateful with the intemperate rationale that those different than us are a menace to us. It teaches the powerful to view itself as powerless while simultaneously encouraging violence against the demonized. Such an amnesia and myopia is lethal and looming.

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