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Chapel Hill’s lessons on violence and morality

Falling down hard 

by Hamza Yusuf
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How do we make sense of the murder of three American Muslims?

Sudden and brutal murders are always troubling but never so much as when they seem inherently mad and senseless. When a young man strides into a school and annihilates little children without even wild and cruel vengeance as a motive, we are all the more confounded by the meaninglessness of the crime: bewildered and numb, as believers, we are forced to confront a nihilistic abyss that greatly challenges our theodicies. For some it even jeopardizes or results in loss of their faith, and for still others simply confirms reasons for their lack of belief altogether. To add insult to injury, we are then subjected to the maddeningly predictable media framings of the tragedies with their asinine questions, such as “How do you feel?” and “Did you ever think this would happen?” posed to survivors of the victims who awkwardly attempt to answer them, often with shell-shocked faces.

The recent murders of three college students at Chapel Hill in North Carolina have an added poignancy for American Muslims, for it is an unusual instance here in the U.S., though all too common abroad, when the victims, not the perpetrators, are Muslim. Stunned by the tragedy, some Muslims have condemned this as “terrorism” aimed at Muslims. A few cooler heads, including Congressman Keith Ellison, Duke University’s Abdullah Antepli, and CAIR’s Nihad Awad, have acknowledged that it may very well be a hate crime but have cautioned people not to rush to judgment. This is good advice because those who want it labeled as “an act of terrorism” are falling into the same trap, making the same mistake the media invariably makes whenever the perpetrator happens to be Muslim.

While hatred of Islam, if not the main motive, appears to be a factor in this crime, the gunman was nevertheless an equal-opportunity hater. Craig Stephen Hicks had loathing and disdain for all theistic religions with equal passion as evidenced by his posts online. At the same time, oddly enough, he advocated for tolerance and even posted that people have a right to practice the religion of their choice, and, in a largely red state, at the risk of losing some friends, he expressed support for the LGBT community. So was this a hate crime precipitated by a disputation over a parking space, or were there other factors at work?

His ex-wife has said that he was obsessed with the 1993 film “Falling Down” and that he “watched it incessantly.” I have not seen the film but, according to the extensive Wikipedia entry, in it Michael Douglas plays an unemployed and divorced man who, in his own mind, is deeply “moral” and finds himself an alienated white man in the midst of modern urban America awash in immigrants, minorities, and a culture lacking “American virtue.” He has a mental breakdown on the highway of life, triggered by his car breaking down on a hot day. That begins his descent into a violent rampage. He soon meets everyday people, such as checkout cashiers with blank bovine stares that mirror the vacuity of their jobs. As the film progresses, he encounters some minorities and reacts violently to affronts both real and imagined. In one scene, he informs a neo-Nazi, who disgusts him with his foulness and racist attitudes, that unlike him, he is an American. The Douglas character threatens, maims, and kills with guns, knives, and baseball bats people who have vexed him in one way or another on his way to his daughter’s birthday before he has a tragic end of his own.

The late film critic Roger Ebert said, “What is fascinating about the Douglas character, as written and played, is the core of sadness in his soul. Yes, by the time we meet him, he has gone over the edge. But there is no exhilaration in his rampage, no release. He seems weary and confused, and in his actions he unconsciously follows scripts that he may have learned from the movies, or on the news, where other frustrated misfits vent their rage on innocent bystanders.

This may very well be an accurate description of Hicks’ crime, in which he acts out, subconsciously or not, the Douglas character’s behavior through a scene of his own making. His victims were three decent, well-liked, successful, law-abiding Arab-Americans, with all the things apparently lacking in his own life: religious devotion, college degrees, friendliness, personability, and a positive outlook on life. In the case of Deah, unlike the antisocial Hicks with his grumpy-neighbor persona, friends and acquaintances described him as greeting everyone with hugs. Hicks, in my opinion, seems to be a violent version of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, envious and seething with Nietzschean resentiment, contemptuous of society, always on the verge of violence, waiting for a spark to set him on fire, perhaps even something as trivial as a parking dispute.

Some Muslims have seized the moral capital accrued by this event in which the victims were three bright young Muslims and started hashtags such as #MuslimLivesMatter. But tragic as this homicidal event is, it is not Ferguson, which was the tip of a 400-year-old iceberg of racial injustice in this country. The #BlackLivesMatter movement, which began in 2013 and gained momentum after Ferguson, is aimed at addressing a long history of police brutality, systemic racism, and the frighteningly high rates of murder among black youth. While the hashtag is appropriate given that the lives of Muslims do matter, as a community, we need to be more vigilant about bringing attention to other hate crimes in less fortunate communities, such as the one that resulted in the death of 15-year-old Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, a Somali boy who was brutally run over by a man driving an SUV with an anti-Muslim message in the back window. The victim was a devout Muslim boy who was memorizing the Qur’an and used to lead prayers for his community.

In Canada, young Somalis have been killed in alarming numbers for a nation with one of the lowest homicide rates in the world. Mustafa Mattan’s death is unknown to most, but he was a young man remembered for his acts of kindness, such as taking off his winter coat to give it to a homeless man. The day before the Chapel Hill murders, he was shot dead in his home. His death devastated his family. While no arrests have been made, some in the community believe it was a hate crime. His distraught family is struggling to raise $15,000 to cover his funeral expenses.

And while these deaths have occurred in the U.S. and Canada, we should also raise our voices to our government about wrongful drone strikes. For instance, just a few weeks ago, on January 26, a 13-year-old Yemeni boy, Mohammed Tuaiman, whose father and brother had been mistakenly killed by an American drone strike in 2011, was killed by another drone strike. What is particularly poignant about his death is that just months before he was interviewed by The Guardian; he told of the terror he felt living under the “death machines” that filled his sky on a regular basis. With the death of his father and 17 year-old-brother, he was left to tend a family of almost thirty people. He had said the drones made everyone there live in terror and that the children had frequent nightmares about them. Those of us privileged to live in relative comfort and security should remember, especially at times like these when our security is shaken, that others around the world live in constant terror due to misguided policies supported by our tax dollars.

Lives, whether Muslim or not – especially those of children – should matter everywhere. While this last case is emblematic of flawed policies in Muslim lands, those cases here at home are indicative of something deeper and harder to grasp in the soul of the American psyche: it is our fascination with violence. This culture of violence reflected so blatantly in our media and our popular entertainment is related to both the violence perpetrated here at home and that which is exercised abroad. While hate is a possible motive in these crimes and definitely was in the case of Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, mental illness exacerbated by unrelenting viewing of violent films and games or watching over and over again a movie like “Falling Down” may more likely be the culprit in many of the so-called “lone wolf” attacks, including the one in Chapel Hill. It can also be argued that the irrational hate that these people express is itself a mental-spiritual illness.

The second matter that I find troubling in relation to this incident is how the pervasive environment of anti-Muslim sentiment that has arisen in America is affecting all of us. It is the result of a highly orchestrated and well-funded campaign of hatred. The media glare has been unrelenting in showing predominantly negative images of Muslims for the last fifteen years. The constant rhetoric and relentless barrage in the media and the movies of how prone to violence the Muslims are fly in the face of vast evidence proving the opposite, albeit in stable societies. M. Steven Fish’s book, Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence, clearly demonstrates with rigorous social science that Muslim societies have considerably less violence than Western societies. Murder is a rare occurrence in places like Turkey, Malaysia, and Morocco, and almost unheard of in many traditional areas such as Senegal, Mauritania, and Gambia. But here in America, we have a highly violent culture where top-selling video games such as Grand Theft Auto and blockbuster movies like “American Sniper” both reflect and promote the murderous reality on the ground.

I wonder if Hicks had seen “American Sniper,” a film that Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent, author, and activist Chris Hedges says is an invitation to kill Muslims. I wonder what type of books, if any, Hicks read, what Internet sites he frequented, what movies besides “Falling Down” he watched, and what video games he played that may have contributed to setting him on a path that ended in a murderous rage last week in the home of innocent neighbors just starting their own paths.

After 9/11, the American people, by and large, displayed extraordinary and exemplary outreach to Muslims in America. Mosques were flooded with flowers. My own mosque received countless calls in the immediate aftermath, and for each expression of animosity, well nigh a hundred voiced sincere concerns as to the safety and well-being of Muslims in our community. However, as time has passed, a virulent and viciously hateful campaign has succeeded in defining Muslims to the greater public as extreme, violent, not to be trusted fifth columnists who need to be watched constantly by our intelligence community. Some, like the arsonist in Houston, have chosen to take the law into their own hands, given, from their perspective, the “pussyfooting” of government about the matter. On a daily basis, pundits and politicians express with impunity vitriolic statements about Muslims, and we can easily imagine the moral outrage that would ensue if the word “Muslims” were replaced with “Christians” or “Jews.” But the campaign has been profoundly successful, and a pervasive hatred towards all things Muslim has now infected many segments of American society. This is no doubt aided and abetted by the barrage of beheadings at the hands of those practicing perversions of Islam that are graphically highlighted on the news and social media. Never mind the fact that beheadings go on all the time just south of our borders at the hands of monsters empowered by the immense wealth that comes from our own country’s insatiable appetite for drugs. The brutally violent drug wars are a relatively minor story rarely highlighted in the news. Moreover, the Muslim children killed by drones in places such as Northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen are never shown to the American public, but any perusal of mainstream Arab media let alone alternative Islamist media will result in a sickening feeling overcoming anyone with a heart who can stomach the graphic images of American collateral damage.

Muslims and others have every right to protest the embarrassingly evident double standards in the media. When a white male who had lost his wealth to the IRS and flew his plane into an IRS building leaving behind a political screed that countless “anti-tax patriots” could relate to, he was simply labeled a demented man. Even Bill Maher admitted that if his name were Muhammad it would have been labeled terrorism. But we must also question the double standards within our own community.

The danger in immediately labeling violent acts as terrorism is the politicizing of what often may be an act that resulted from mental illness, whether clothed in political rhetoric or not. In September 2014, 30-year-old Alton Nolen, an African American, was fired from his job at a food processing plant in Oklahoma; he immediately went home, grabbed a knife, went to the company’s office, and beheaded a white woman who worked there. Nolen was clearly mentally unstable, having a record of cocaine convictions, a prison sentence, and anger management issues. Yet that murder was presented in the media as an act of terrorism because Nolen was a convert to Islam. His violent crime was linked to his being Muslim even though local mosques had asked him to leave their premises due to his bizarre behavior.

Mental illness knows no boundaries, but America has an especially serious mental illness problem. As mentioned earlier, this wasteland of violent entertainment goes largely unaddressed, and that it is clearly contributing to mental illness or exacerbating already existing pathology is, in my estimation, undisputable. The philosopher, Karl Popper, the doyen of defenders of a free and open society, advocated in one of his last interviews the increasing need for censorship of the levels of violence on television and in films – video games were not yet on the radar during his time. This is the man who wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies. He stated,

Some years ago, I was asked by the Social Democratic Party in the House of Lords to give them a lecture on the problem. My thesis was that we are educating our children to violence by way of television and other such means. And I said that, very unfortunately, we do need censorship….The rule of law demands non-violence, and if we forget about this then the law will have to interfere more in areas like publication and television. It is a very simple principle which is always the same: to maximize the freedom of each within the limits imposed by the freedom of others. But if we go on as we do now, we shall soon be living in a society where murder is our daily bread.

It is now projected that a school shooting will occur about every two months. In their important book,Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie & Video Game Violence, authors Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano show cogently that people who grow up watching violence in films, television, and video games become desensitized to real violence, and thresholds of graphic violence rise as people become accustomed to it. One would hope that like the Hays Code of the 1930s, which established self-imposed moral guidelines for motion picture producers, censorship today would be self-imposed based upon violence on the screen and its clear correlation to violent behavior in real life – despite the cries of statisticians to the contrary. One needs only to observe 10-year-old boys after they have just watched a kung fu movie kicking each other for the next hour to know the truth of this statement. Mirror neurons and the effects of violence on them are well known.

Muslims have increasingly been the targets of much violence across the world. In India, they’ve been targeted by Hindu fanatics, in Burma by Buddhist bigots, in Central Africa by Christian militias, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’ve suffered the consequences of an American invasion that led to countless deaths but numbered in the hundreds of thousands and clearly led to the rise of the insane conditions that have bred the worse forms of extremism. In the ongoing crisis in Palestine, they have borne the brunt of a decades-long occupation. When they choose to resist subjugation and state violence, they are labeled as terrorists as more violence against them ensues. Witness the killing of Muslims with impunity by Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper,” who repeatedly referred to the Muslims in Iraq as “savages” and boasted the highest number of kills without any guilt or remorse. This attitude of his I find particularly ironic considering that if the Iraqis had invaded America, he would have surely used his sniper skills to fight them tooth and nail. Yet, he, who was part of an invading army, seemed unaware that international law gives people the right to defend their lands from foreign invasion. But this simple principle seems to be lost on so many Americans who believe that when they invade a country people must welcome them with flowers because Americans always have good intentions and want only to help them, of course. Hence, if those invaded don’t welcome them, they must be terrorists.

Three young people with hopes, aspirations, and immense talents were mercilessly slaughtered by a deranged man who, according to his ex-wife, was not only obsessed with the film “Falling Down,” but more to the point, “had no compassion at all.” Hicks was a misfit in the midst of a divorce, stuck in junior college at the age of 46 trying to acquire skills to enable him to work for lawyers. Years of exposure to violence on the screen and in real life combined with failure, frustration, and the seductive pull of atheism – all of this exploded in a violent rampage targeting his American Muslim neighbors. His young victims were just beginning lives on the path to success, service, and gratitude to a country that provided them opportunities so desperately lacking in Palestine, Syria, and Jordan, their respective lands of origin. They met a darker America: the America that plays Grand Theft Auto, that mocks religion, and that lines up to see films like “American Sniper.”

Let us hope and pray that the tragic loss of these three innocent Muslims as well as other Muslim victims of violence, whether by drones, SUVs, or otherwise, can inspire us all to help this nation better understand what the world religion of Islam that comprises one fourth of humanity actually is and how it instills in countless Muslims, like the Chapel Hill victims, a desire to dedicate their lives to public service and charity. Let us also help this nation to address the current culture of media-generated animus towards our faith that increasingly erupts in scourges of ignorance and violence.

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