INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, HOST:
Outrage over the murder of three young Muslim-Americans in North Carolina last week was global. Fifty seven nations are members of The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and yesterday the group said the killings reflected Islamophobia and bear the symptoms of a hate crime. Officials in North Carolina say they don't know yet what motivated the murders. The man held responsible has called himself an atheist and an anti-religionist. It's not clear whether that's relevant in this case, but the event has drawn attention to anti-theism, a vehement opposition to any religion, among some atheists. NPR's Tom Gjelten explains.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The North Carolina killings have unnerved U.S. Muslims in large part because the victims, Deah Barakat, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha and her sister, Razan, were model Muslim-Americans devoted to public service with friends throughout their community. A guest worship leader this past Friday at Dar al Noor mosque in northern Virginia was Dr. Esam Omeish, a prominent lay Muslim leader in the D.C. area.
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DR. ESAM OMEISH: And so if it's about patriotism, then I know who the real patriot is. And if it's about loving America and embodying its ideals, then I know for sure.
GJELTEN: The Abu-Salha sisters and Deah Barakat, Omeish said, were the real Americans, honoring everything we believe is good about this land. On his Facebook page, Craig Hicks, the alleged gunman, criticized all religions. His wife said he had nothing against Muslims in particular. But Hicks described himself as a gun-toting atheist. Religion scholar Reza Aslan says ordinary atheists just don't believe in God. Hicks, Aslan says, was an anti-theist.
REZA ASLAN: And anti-theist is a relatively new identity. And it's more than just sort of a refusal to believe in gods or spirituality. It's a sometimes virulent opposition to the very concept of belief.
GJELTEN: The anti-theists have their own heroes - people like the outspoken writer Richard Dawkins, who appears often on Bill Maher's TV show, condemning religion generally and Islam in particular.
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RICHARD DAWKINS: Why don't you just say it's religion? It's so obvious. I mean, what - I mean, these people have a holy book that tells them to kill infidels.
GJELTEN: Reza Aslan says the anti-theists are few in number. But just as mainstream Muslims must confront the extremists in their communities, Aslan says it's time for mainstream atheists to do the same.
ASLAN: To recognize that there is a small fringe element that has a belief system predicated on the inherent nature of religion as insidious, as needing to be removed from society.
GJELTEN: So can anti-religion extremists be motivated to kill just as religious extremists sometimes are? Writer Asra Nomani, herself a Muslim woman, says the North Carolina case doesn't yet answer that question. And she thinks concern about anti-theism or Islamophobia, generally, is going too far when Muslim leaders start feeding a culture of fear.
ASRA NOMANI: The safety campaign has been started to escort Muslim women in headscarves around college campuses, making it seem as if their lives are in danger -that Muslims are just sitting ducks, that we have targets on our backs.
GJELTEN: When Muslim-Americans see themselves as victims, Nomani argues, they are less likely to take charge of their own lives and communities. But right now the feeling among Muslim-Americans seems to be that the North Carolina killings were clearly a hate crime. President Obama, on Friday, released a statement saying no one in America should be targeted because of who they are or how they worship. That statement followed a decision by the FBI to launch its own hate crime investigation in North Carolina. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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