Rising in Death

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One of my most favorite film dialogues is from Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium:

Mr. Edward Magorium: [to Molly, about dying] When King Lear dies in Act V, do you know what Shakespeare has written? He’s written “He dies.” That’s all, nothing more. No fanfare, no metaphor, no brilliant final words. The culmination of the most influential work of dramatic literature is “He dies.” It takes Shakespeare, a genius, to come up with “He dies.” And yet every time I read those two words, I find myself overwhelmed with dysphoria. And I know it’s only natural to be sad, but not because of the words “He dies.” but because of the life we saw prior to the words.

A sign underneath a tree that reads 'Love Prevails.'

Deah’s brother, Farris has explained that whether this tragedy is classified as a hate crime or not, “so much good has come out of it” and it may help people understand that “hate can kill.” Credit: mcwooten 92 / Instagram


I have quoted this several times but never has it made more sense than now with the triple homicide in North Carolina on February 10, 2015. 23-year old Deah Barakat, his new wife 21-year old Yusor Abu-Salha and Yusor’s 19-year old sister Razan Abu-Salha were unarmed and gunned down (execution style) inside their apartment by their neighbor Craig Hicks. Police claim the murder of all three took place in response to a parking dispute with the neighbor. Hicks is a self-identified anti-theist and the dead were all Muslim.
Most of us didn’t know the victims personally. We will probably never meet their families. Yet there is more than simple empathy that makes their death so real to so many of us, and some have come to realize that it was not their death or how they died, but because of the lives we saw prior to their death that makes their loss so painful to accept. Social media has that power. Within hours their Facebook pictures, messages, evidence of active social work, and even wedding photos were all over the Internet. In less than 24 hours the world knew the lives the young man and the two young women had lead.
In their death, they had risen.
Muslims have tirelessly raised their voices against Muslim-initiated terrorism. American Muslims have said again and again that they are law-abiding citizens who love the American way of life and the freedom the melting-pot offers. Yet all Muslims have been painted as vile and violent caricatures living under the nefarious shadows of the post 9/11 era. In such a world, the death of these three innocent people has given voice to modern, educated Muslims – a voice that was hardly heard by the international media before. This voice tells us that American Muslims are conscientious and grateful citizens who sincerely believe that in America “we’re all one”; they are kind and giving; they believe in social work; they believe in charity and looking after the less fortunate; they are into normal modern activities – in short, they are just as useful being citizens of the modern world as anyone else. These were the lives we saw prior to the death of Deah, Yusor, and Razan.
Deah’s mother urged Muslims not to “fight fire with fire” or respond with hate. Deah’s brother, Farris has explained that whether this tragedy is classified as a hate crime or not, “so much good has come out of it” and it may help people understand that “hate can kill.” Farris has said that he is happy that his brother, sister-in-law, and her sister are with God, in a much better place. It is something the family is ‘celebrating’ and are not grieving. “So much good has come out of it” because it has allowed the international world to see how Muslims live and what they believe in and how they behave in the face of adversity. It is in their death that the three have allowed us to see all of this.
Atheists, on the other hand, don’t believe in an afterlife. In a 2011 interview with Piers Morgan, atheist Ricky Gervais was asked “when you die, what do you think happens?” Gervais said, “I’d be rewarded now. Mm, (by) people who liked me or remembered me.” So even from the point of view of atheists, like Hicks, the three innocent people he killed are being rewarded now with over 5000 people attending their funeral. What makes it more difficult to explain is why a militant atheist who claims hatred for religions because “religion are harmful to society and people” (but who is described as a threat with ‘equal opportunity anger’) would show his new gun three weeks before he’d kill his neighbors who weren’t even parked anywhere near him.  The Facebook profile of Hicks stands in stark contrast to the profile of those he killed: Deah, Yusor, and Razan.
Many atheists have now spoken against Hicks’ crime acknowledging that “We often hear atheists demand that all Muslims speak out against violence done in the name in Islam…Regardless of the motives, one thing that atheists should be thinking about is the way the vocal representatives of atheism talk about Islam and Muslims [and] how that contributes to a culture of fear, suspicions and hostility towards Muslims.” The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, condemned the murder stating that “for an atheist to use anything besides words to argue against faith is an indication that that person really didn’t understand what prominent atheists have been saying.” Deah’s brother Farris gracefully reacted to the condemnation from the atheist community and said, “for atheists to feel that they need to condemn this act, it’s kind of, would be hypocritical of me to expect because as a Muslim I know that one act of violence does not represent all Muslims and this act does not represent all atheists. And to me, I’d tell the community that this does not represent any sane and loving human being as atheists can be.” The victims’ families say repeatedly that their gracious reactions are based on the teachings of Islam.
I wish there is vigorous discussion on how it is not belief in God but fear and hate that kill. That fear and hate can exist within religious communities (even in religious ideologies, sadly) as well as in non-religious communities. To claim that “the world is better off without religion” is immature and a false claim as we have seen that even organized atheism can harm, kill and persecute endlessly. Hicks’ lack of religion did not essentially make him a moral person who would contribute to society in meaningful ways. On the contrary, his victims and their brave families had/have far superior moral values than him.
The bottom-line is that like Farris said in his interview, it doesn’t matter whether this case is seen as a ‘hate crime’ or not. What matters is that we acknowledge that hate was involved at some level for this to happen. It may not have been hate especially because the three were Muslim, and Hicks may have killed anyone else with “equal opportunity anger” if he had any inclination that his neighbors were observant theists belonging to any religion. In the case of the three victims, their religion was visible.
But would Hicks have senselessly murdered fellow atheists whom he considers “rational” beings? I’m not sure about that. This is why it is important to address “the way the vocal representatives of atheism talk about” religion and religious people. A superb article, titled ‘The psychology of hate: How we deny human beings their humanity’, discusses how othering (for example by believing people you disagree with to be inferior/savages/of lesser intelligence/ irrational/delusional, etc.) removes empathy and when that happens the one we oppose eventually becomes a “lesser human.” One can argue that systematic and prolonged opposition like this in an aggressive manner leads one to treat the ‘Other’ as a lesser human being, a “savage”, and hence easier to kill. Thus, systematic and aggressive militant atheism can become just as dangerous as religiously-motivated aggression (which also starts off by ‘othering’ the non-religious or theists belonging to another religion). In one Facebook post, Hicks claims that his morals are dictated by empathy (even though he negates that by agreeing earlier that he “hates the ignorance of certain individuals who claim to know the truth without any knowledge” but several of his other posts refer to atheists as “civilized” human beings with “common sense” while theists are called “ignorant and useless” and “fucking morons” illustrating sustained othering of religious people which includes observant Muslims like his victims. The dispute between the neighbors may have started over parking but it does not necessarily mean that Hicks didn’t ‘hate’ his victims whom he saw as ‘Others.’ Why else would Hicks routinely carry a gun to his neighbor’s house if he ‘loved’ them or ‘empathized’ with them?! We need to address the fact that being an atheist does not make a person moral and/or a law-abiding, kind and empathetic citizen by default even if we don’t agree that “ideology can lead to violence. Even atheist ideology.”
We also need to talk about America’s growing gun culture and how more and more “angry, armed, and white” men are killing Americans after spending “many years on the radical right, absorbing extremist ideology, before finally acting out violently.”
But more importantly, we need to recognize that the great majority of American Muslims are very much like the three victims of Hicks. They are observant Muslims, and they are contributing citizens of the American society. A visible symbol of their religion does not make them any less American. In fact, their religion gives them great strength and the wisdom to accept fate as it is written for them by God.
As for some of the Muslims who are showing extreme agitation and anger, I urge them to seek wisdom from the victim’s families’ poise, abundant strength, bravery and grace. They have constantly urged not to fight fire with fire and said that Alhamdulliah (Praise be to Allah) “everything has been great.” In the words of Mr. Magorium, I am not asking Muslims to be happy that Deah, Yusor and Razan had to go… “I’m only asking that you turn the page, continue reading… and let the next story begin. And if anyone asks what became of them, you relate their life in all its wonder, and end it with a simple and modest “They died.”

Metis is a wife, mother, academic, and a writer on topics related to Religion and Feminism.