A murmur spreads, then details start to emerge. A black flag with white writing is placed in the window, or a grainy video surfaces. An armed man, maybe two. They’re not white.
Panic sets in.
When a lone gunman took over the Martin Place Lindt café in Sydney in December, white Australians started making demands of Muslims long before it was known what was going on, who Mon Haron Monis was, or why he might want to take control of a chocolate shop in the CBD.
The incident was a reminder of a point that has been made thousands of times but remains just as true: when an event becomes codified in the imagination of a western public as an instance of terrorism, local Muslims will be immediately hounded to come out in droves and apologise for the actions of a person who has not even the slightest thing to do with them.
Monis was a pariah, an outcast to Sydney’s various Muslim communities, but it didn’t matter.
With two men set to face court over allegations they planned an ISIS style attack in Sydney, Australia will once again echo with the exhausted cries of pundits and conservative leaders who want every last Muslim to decry radicalism, praise ‘western culture’, and get ‘fuck ISIS’ tattooed on a prominent part of their body.
It will be as boring as it will be predictable.
But it will also come at a time of particular irony.
Overnight, details started to emerge of another attack, one that was not foiled before it could claim a victim.
American man Craig Stephen Hicks, a white atheist, has been charged with the murder of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
According to the Guardian, police responded to reports of gunshots, but arrived on the scene to find Deah Barakat and his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha dead. They were aged 23 and 21.
Also murdered was Abu-Salha’s sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. She was 19.
As journalists scrolled down Barakat’s twitter feed, trying to build a profile of him, they found this.
It's so freaking sad to hear people saying we should "kill Jews" or "Kill Palestinians". As if that's going to solve anything SMH
— Deah Barakat (@arabprodigy30) January 28, 2015
The response to the triple murder has not been panic. In other words, no ‘special 2pm editions’ of the Daily Telegraph were issued.
Even though Hicks was a gun-totting atheist whose social media presence indicates a strong disdain for those of faith, including Muslims, reports have generally been measured, reflecting the fact there are conflicting motives being connected to the attack.
Police told media they would examine the hate-crime angle, but that the incident may have been sparked by an ongoing parking dispute.
No-one called the killing barbaric, a word that it’s hard to imagine would have been avoided if the religious statuses of the killer and the victims had been reversed.
And even though Muslims began to express alarm at the incident, and #MuslimLivesMatter started to trend, the Washington Post and New York Times felt no compulsion to pull a white atheist off the street and have them denounce the killing for the sake of social cohesion.
But someone somewhere must have made the link because this guy ended up in a little bit of a stink.
How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill? http://t.co/pdtwnKqYG3
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) February 11, 2015
Sure, Dawkins is an atheist whose material is read by those with views like Hicks’, but how is that the British biologist’s fault?
Dawkins retweeted this from a follower:
Can these imbeciles not understand the difference between arguing against religious belief and hating believers? @RichardDawkins
— NohWeh (@GodlessRobin) February 11, 2015
The problem for the prominent writer and biologist, though, was that his self-concern brought to mind another tweet of his, fired off a few days after the Charlie Hebdo shooting.
Clearly wrong to blame Muslims for what was done in the name of Islam. But jihadists might be deterred by massive vocal Muslim condemnation
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) January 11, 2015
You can see where this is going.
The people who bay for near universal condemnation of extremism by Muslims are aggrieved when they believe the same standard is being enforced upon them.
It’s particularly interesting that in this case the self-pitying party is a member of the New Atheist movement, a movement that has delivered an aggressive critique of contemporary Islam, claiming the religion is trapped in the pre-Enlightenment age.
In a well-shared article for Jacobin last year, Luke Savage argued Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and co may fancy themselves as anti-totalitarianists, but that their criticism of Islam amounts to little more than: “a crude, reductive, and highly selective critique that owes its popular and commercial success almost entirely to the “war on terror” and its utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics.”
At which point he reminds us of another Dawkins tweet.
@ToddKincannon Haven't read Koran so couldn't quote chapter & verse like I can for Bible. But often say Islam greatest force for evil today
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) March 1, 2013
The new atheists not only tend to reduce Islam to a singular and threatening entity – boiling down its many histories, followers and contexts to a mushy-threat-soup in the process – they also use that analysis, Savage writes, to justify very real acts of mass violence.
Careful not to commit the folly he is trying to critique, Savage notes that the New Atheists were not all equally bloodthirsty when it came to the bombing of Muslim countries and invasion of Iraq, but that Hitchens and Harris did find a zeal for that slaughter, a level of killing far beyond the capabilities of ISIS.
So what does this have to do with Sydney, or Paris, or Chapel Hill?
It’s a reminder that ideologies that justify and even encourage violence are not judged equally. If an atheist commits a triple homicide no one will blame the New Atheists, despite the fact senior leaders in this group have actively cheered mass murder. If two Muslim men in Sydney plan to kill a police officer – well, senior members of the community will have to offer apologies thick and fast.
It may turn out the two men charged in Sydney did not intend to commit violence at all, or at least not violence with a religious tone – as it may also be with Craig Stephen Hicks.
But if the Sydney plot is found to have been inspired by religious disdain, let’s not let the echoes ring once more, lest we leave ourselves compromised Dawkins-style.
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