Last Thursday, US president Barack Obama said at the White House National Prayer Breakfast that Americans ought not to get on their “high horse” about Muslims who commit terrible deeds in the name of their religion. He reminded them that Christians justified many actions in the name of Christ, including the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery and racial segregation in the US.
But it is not only religious communities that can harbour people who justify violent extremism. Irreligious ones, including atheists, can do so as well. The world saw that in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where three young Americans were shot dead in their home in a quiet neighbourhood. The victims were Muslim, the alleged shooter is not. Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, all died, execution-style. They were a visibly Muslim family – the ladies wore the Muslim headscarf.
Craig Hicks, The man who turned himself in after shooting them was, as a cursory look on his Facebook page will indicate, someone who loathed all religion, including Christianity and Islam. He frequently railed against believers.
It is too early to tell precisely why the attacker carried out this heinous crime. Before too long, it will be clearer. He is in custody, will be tried and his motivation will be explained. He is being charged with first-degree murder, which would suggest premeditated intent to kill.
However, there are some uncomfortable questions that must be raised about the response to the attack, particularly by the mainstream media. For now, the approach has broadly been the appropriate one, in the sense that it has been cautious and non-sensationalist. It has not jumped to conclusions. One would hope this would be the situation regardless of the perpetrator’s ethnic or religious background. But it isn’t.
What if the alleged perpetrator’s name was not Craig Hicks, but Kamal Abdul Haqq, with Facebook posts attacking atheism and atheists? What if Shaddy was Simon Brando, Yusor was Jenny and Razan was Rachel? Would the mainstream media have approached the case with similar caution?
Or would a variety of channels be suggesting that this was some sort of jihadist operation and that Muslims worldwide should apologise and that Islam must undergo some sort of reformation?
One can argue that acts of violence by non-Muslims are unlike those by Muslims. For non-Muslims, they are not justified by a deep-rooted ideology, or so the argument would go. But this would be wrong. Leaving aside the fact that most violence against civilians all over the world has occurred at the hands of states that are run by human beings with different ideological beliefs, there has been vigilante violence by non-Muslim groups and individuals.
Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik was deeply ideologically driven. His motivation, which was revealed in a diatribe against Islam, made reference to a number of anti-Muslim figures in the US.
As Mr Obama pointed out in his prayer breakfast speech, violent extremism “is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith”. Extremism is a broad church indeed.
Whatever the motivation in the Chapel Hill case, it is clear that it is easier than before to express anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States today. One hopes that this was not the reason that the three young Americans were killed but it is important to recognise the backdrop of increased anti-Muslim sentiment as expressed in the media, as well as proposed anti-Sharia legislation in different American states.
The day after the Chapel Hill killings, an important research study was released, titled Fear Inc 2.0. Published by the Center for American Progress, it details the networks that make bigotry against Muslims not only easy to express, but finance its promotion. It makes for stark reading.
It remains to be seen if there is any link between the promotion of such discourse and the tragedy in Chapel Hill. But the study makes it clear that the discourse is having a very real impact on the lives of Muslim Americans. Americans need to be vividly aware of that.
February 11, when that research study was released, was the 25th anniversary of the day that Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in Apartheid South Africa. As with South Africans then, Americans now have a choice. To commit to fulfilling the promise of what America can be – a place that is welcoming to all and inclusive – or not.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC
On Twitter: @hahellyer