Gestures Matter

I wrote this while I was out of the country away from internet, away from television, away from radio, away from news of any kind—while I was somewhat ill-informed about what was currently happening in the world. The news of the murder of three Muslim students by an atheist managed to cross my radar when I periodically was able to check in with the world. Even my superficial understanding of these deaths pulled at my heartstrings.

Obviously, the untimely death of anyone is tragic. The fact that these victims were young and committed means that they not only lost their lives. The world lost three lifetimes of contributions. The tragedy is magnified.

At the time—just before I went into radio silence—there was an assumption that the killing was, at least in part, a misguided attempt to rid the world of religion. Much has been said and written about Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha and the circumstances surrounding their deaths. Why summarize the voices that claim that these deaths somehow prove that atheism is amoral and that atheists are bad people? Why repeat the cheers that those “terrorists” got what they deserved? Why join the merry-go-round argument over whether or not religion—or lack thereof—has anything to do with this case?

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to repeat an unfortunately controversial truth: neither atheism nor Islam makes anyone a good or a bad person. Both good and bad people exist in different religious and non-theistic traditions. Both good and evil are found throughout humanity. That message still—clearly—cannot be said enough. If this tragedy illustrates anything, it is how inadequately that message has penetrated our culture.

Instead of repeating what many others have already said I am going to recount a small, but important, interaction I had in the wake of the UNC shooting. I heard about the shooting just before boarding a sailboat. Before sailing away from internet, I had just enough time to get the sketchiest details about what had happened—and to see my Facebook feed turn into a minefield. Most of my friends were categorically lamenting the tragedy. But some were calling for the heads of all atheists while others were calling for the heads of all Muslims. Both sides of this heated battle seemed equally committed to painting all members of certain groups with the sins and crimes of individuals within those groups.

But one post stood out. A Muslim friend of mine who I, unfortunately, seldomly talk to, screen-captured several posts that had made it to her wall—hate filled posts about how the atheists had the right idea. The final posting on my friend’s wall was a story about a hijabi woman who had been followed and threatened by a man at the grocery store that very day—explicitly because of her religion. My friend commented on the story explaining that she had not felt so afraid since the immediate wake of September 11, 2001. At that time a series of retaliatory Muslim killings and attacks made something perfectly clear: it was dangerous just to be an American Muslim.

My heart was broken by her comment and by the truth that it told. But I was not sure how to respond or even if I should respond. So I said nothing.

Later, however, I learned that a humanist charitable organization was raising member funds to donate to the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation—an organization that Deah Shaddy Baraka was planning on volunteering with—in honor of the UNC victims. This, I thought, was a perfect response to such a tragedy. Granted, it’s mostly a gesture, but it is a gesture that speaks volumes. A secular humanist organization is choosing to raise money for a Muslim organization in honor of Muslim victims of a hate-fueled attack. Nothing can change the past, but at least Deah Shaddy Baraka’s favored organization will be able to do some good in his name. I harbor no delusion that such a gesture will change the minds of the vast majority of people who have written off atheists as evil. Yet I believe that it is a way of illustrating that atheists and Muslims are not all good and not all evil. But all of them and all of us are human beings with both good and evil within us and around us.

Therefore, I posted a link to the atheist-organization-supporting-a-Muslim-organization fundraiser. My Muslim friend—the one I hesitated to respond to before—responded to me. Publicly she thanked me for raising awareness. Privately she thanked me for spreading a loved filled response rather than another of the myriad of hate filled posts she’d seen. She told me I was one of her few non-Muslim friends who said anything at all that wasn’t negative. (She didn’t tell me so, but I imagine many of her Facebook friends saw the “unfriend” button that day.)

An atheist madman and his Muslim victims have provoked firestorms of human hatred. But there are some guiding lamps of human compassion mixed in there. And those are the fires we need to fuel.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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2 thoughts on “Gestures Matter

  1. Wendy, thank you for your thoughtful message. I like how you offered a option for people who so often feel like “what can I do to help?”

    I remember being in college after 9/11 and one of my classmates who “looked of middle eastern descent” felt obligated to wear a American flag so people would not question his loyalty. It is sad that 14 years later the hate and fear of the “other” from 9/11 still vibrates through our society.


    1. Thank you Tina. The paralyzing feeling of “what can I do?” in the face of such big issues is common and I think that we forget that “small” things are part of the solution too.

      I saddens me more than I can express that the hate and fear you speak of is still reverberating like you said 14 years later. Just today my social media is filled with unfounded speculation that the co-pilot for Germanwings must be Muslim because only a Muslim could do such a thing. It’s appalling.

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