Let's be real. People don't die over parking spots.
Craig Stephen Hicks was arrested on Tuesday over the deaths of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, Yusor Mohammad, 21, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. Chapel Hill police have said that an ongoing dispute over a parking place may have been a contributing factor. But while that may be true, the evidence suggests that Hicks had an underlying animosity towards the victims because of their beliefs.
On his Facebook page, Hicks reportedly showed his support for "anti-theism,"
the active opposition of religious belief. As Reza Aslan explained in a recent essay
, anti-theists often view "religion as an insidious force that must be rooted from society -- forcibly if necessary." The lead photo on Hicks' page talked about how he wanted "religion to go away," and in a 2012 post, he quoted heavily from biologist and so-called "New Atheist" Richard Dawkins
Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of two of the victims, said his daughter -- who wore the Muslim headscarf and lived next door to Hicks -- had reportedly told her family
a week earlier "that she had a hateful neighbor." The News and Observer reported that he also said that in the past, she had told her family
that Hicks picked on her and her husband and would talk to them while carrying his gun in his belt, making them feel extremely uncomfortable. " 'Honest to God,' she said, 'He hates us for what we are and how we look," he recalled.
Hicks' postings on social media suggest that he is not only anti-religion, but like many prominent New Atheists, likely has a particular contempt for Islam. Although Dawkins condemned the murders on Twitter
, it is hard not to recall the comments he and other New Atheists like Sam Harris and Bill Maher have made about Islam in the past.
Dawkins himself said he considers this religion of some 1.6 billion people "as one of the great evils in the world
." For his part, Hicks allegedly wrote
, "When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I."
Following the shootings, the attorney of Hicks' wife said that her husband "had a problem with many of his neighbors," and that the "victims were at the wrong time and the wrong place
." But when we consider Hicks' own comments and postings on social media in the context of much of the anti-Muslim rhetoric we see in the media and elsewhere, it is hard to see Tuesday's tragedy as a genuinely random incident.
Anti-Muslim hate crimes are five times more common today than they were before 9/11. And just a couple weeks ago, a Texas state senator effectively questioned the loyalties of Muslim-Americans, reportedly posting on her Facebook page
that she had left instructions with her office that Muslim visitors "publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws."
Neighbors have said that Hicks was prone to outbursts and that he made everyone feel unsafe, Muslim or otherwise. But that in and of itself doesn't make Hicks an equal opportunist when it comes to his choice of alleged victims. Being mentally unstable or a generally angry person and being motivated by religious hate are not mutually exclusive.
In a move familiar to many Muslim organizations that are called upon to denounce the actions of a violent co-religionist, the American Atheists organization issued a statement condemning the murders of the three Muslim students. But we shouldn't expect them or any organization to apologize for the murderous actions of an individual.
If Hicks is found guilty, there is no doubt that he alone should bear the responsibility for his actions and be punished accordingly. Even if he self-identifies as atheist, atheists and atheism are not to blame for his heinous actions.
Still, although the killings of these three young Muslims should not be attributed to a lack of belief in God, they were allegedly committed by a man with an active contempt for belief in God. Regardless of whether law enforcement deems these killings officially a hate crime, we as a society need to acknowledge that violent extremists come in all creeds -- and they can be inspired and their anger nourished by any religion, or animosity towards one.
With this in mind, the mainstream majority -- hailing from whatever faith or ideology -- needs to stand united against these kinds of acts of violence, regardless of the source. In practical terms, this means going beyond condemnation, by following the examples of people like Deah, Yusor, and Razan who lived out their faith values through service to others. We should also follow the example of organizations like Found Beyond Belief, which launched an atheist and humanist community drive to honor the victims.
Ultimately, our nation's diversity is its strength. As citizens, we must do whatever we can to protect it.