In the heightened tension of multiple shootings related to religion and free-speech there is sometimes a tendency to claim that vocal atheists can be just as “extreme” as the Islamists. In Craig Hicks, murderer of three innocent people who were Muslims, perhaps there is the proof?
The Guardian certainly thinks so. In an editorial published yesterday, The Guardian says that the Chapel Hill shooting was an “act of terrorism” and that Hicks’s target was “freedom itself”, in this case the freedom to be a Muslim.
We should and do unreservedly condemn the murders of Deah Barakat, of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and of Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, the youngest only 19. If the act was in any way related to the atheistic views of Craig Hicks then we unreservedly condemn it. If the motive was unrelated to religion we again condemn it.
The Guardian thinks it knows Craig Hicks’s motives, but does it? Hicks has been described as “an angry, confrontational man who constantly harangued residents about where they parked their car and the noise level at the condominium complex where they lived”. Hicks was also an advocate of the right to carry guns, which on occasion he brandished to neighbours.
The families of those murdered regard this as a hate crime, directed at the victims because they were Muslim. They may be right. Hicks’s wife, though, has denied that the motive was religious. Mental health issues have been suggested. Many people are gunned down in gun-toting America each year. The fact that the victims were religious is not sufficient for concluding that the motive was religious.
I don’t know the reasons for these murders, and I have insufficient information to arrive at a conclusion. I do, though, want to comment on the assumptions exemplified by The Guardian‘s editorial.
The evidence of Hicks’s atheism-inspired “hatred” is supposed to be his Facebook page. The Guardian says that the page “contained violent threats against all organised religion, including Islam …” (added emphasis).
But did it? The Facebook page has now been taken down, but an extensive analysis has been presented by Michael Nugent. Yes, the page presents anti-religious attitudes, but (if we trust Michael Nugent’s summary, which I do) nowhere are there “violent threats”. Indeed the page often stands up for religious freedom. Examples are (all taken from Nugent’s article):
While endorsing the right to build a Mosque near ground zero, Hicks commented: “I respect him [Obama, who supported the Mosque] in this matter. I just wish he’d support the rest of our great Constitution in the same way”.
About a Freedom From Religion Foundation billboard that had been vandalised by Christians, Hicks said: “I don’t believe in Christianity at all, but I would never vandalize anything of theirs”.
About a quote from Elton John saying “From my point of view, I would ban religion completely”, Hicks replied: “I don’t agree with the first part of Elton’s statement, with banning religion. Not that I care for religion, as I most definitely do not, but banning it would be taking away a persons rights and I oppose that”.
Yes he was anti religion, but even when saying that he explicitly supported people’s right to be religious, as, for example, when saying: “Of course I want religion to go away. I don’t deny you your right to believe what you’d like, but I have the right to point out it’s ignorant and dangerous …”.
Thus much of what was on Hicks’s Facebook page is very out of character with his subsequent murderous violence. With our currently limited information I don’t know how to explain that.
The Guardian‘s claim that Hick’s “Facebook page contained violent threats against all organised religion” is simply wrong. This matters because there is no equivalence between Islamist violence and peaceful opposition to religion, opposition that consists only of speaking and writing.
If Hicks has turned to violence from anti-religious motives then that is totally abhorrent and condemnable, but we should not leap to a conclusion about his motive out of a false notion of equivalency between violence and merely speaking out against religion.
The Guardian has done exactly that by noting the anti-religious sentiments and then presuming that such sentiments must have entailed “violent threats” and an opposition to freedom.
The Guardian claims that the “three young Muslim students were gunned down in their Chapel Hill flat, apparently by a neighbour, Craig Hicks, who claimed their faith was an affront to his atheistic principles”, as though Hicks had actually said that (which he hasn’t), as though The Guardian knows for sure what the motive was.
In leaping to that conclusion, on insufficient evidence, The Guardian is revealing its biases. It is presuming that merely speaking out against the role of religion in society is itself sufficiently “extreme” and akin to violence that the one naturally segues into the other.
That is to accept the Islamist narrative that merely speaking or drawing against religion is a form of “violence” that is so reprehensible that it cannot be allowed. To buy into that notion is to abandon free speech. The Guardian — like most of the UK media — has been too hesitant and half-hearted in standing up for free speech that criticises religion. It is revealing how readily it leaps to equating such speech with violence.
We need to defend free speech, especially the right to speak against religion. But while defending the right to promote our views by speaking and drawing we must deplore any promotion of any ideology by violence. The distinction ought to be obvious enough.