By Charles Hack, Better Together @ UNF member
A lazy Friday began with sliding into a pair of jeans I had worn the night before and preparing a cup of hazelnut coffee in my dirty kitchenette; I would get ready once I had truly abandoned slumber. The mirror reflected light that was much too bright for nine in the morning, and I took notice of a collection of wax on my left thigh. Images of candlelight reflecting off the tears of those in mourning began to resurface in my mind. Sleep was not enough to separate me from the pain my community felt over the execution of three young Muslim individuals in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Another day had passed and I still felt alone as an ally.
On Tuesday, 2/10/15, an atheist by the name of Craig Stephen Hicks took the lives of his neighbors Deah Shadday Barakat, Yusor Mohammed and Razan Mohammed Abu-Salha. The hateful action has brought the issue of Islamophobia and prejudice towards Middle Eastern culture back to the forefront of conversation, both on social media and the nightly news. To provide a place for community grieving and discussion, the University of North Florida’s Interfaith Center, Better Together, and Muslim Student Association hosted a candlelight vigil and invited all members of the Jacksonville community to attend.
Having arrived early, I stood in the front row of the vigil and stared up towards the spectacles of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi. The champion of nonviolence seemed to look over the crowd of individuals towards something far superior to mourning. It was difficult to imagine, but I believed it was my duty to do the same. However, I was consumed by anxiety, as I am an atheist.
Throughout the days following the shootings in North Carolina I saw posts from individuals of all sorts of different identities criticizing and defaming secular world views. As a Humanist it is my obligation to support diversity and denounce violence, but this fundamental piece of my identity seemed to be lost as friends and colleagues wrote posts shaming white secular men (all of which describe me) for their inherent violence and mistreatment of minorities. I now understand what it feels like to be marginalized, especially in the aftermath of a hateful attack. I hoped that this experience, however tragic, would unite the secular and Muslim communities, as we have both been profiled. It seemed to me incongruous that Hicks represent an entire community, but this was the argument made by many individuals online.
Within the Interfaith movement I often feel like I do not belong. It takes such effort to explain that I can maintain an ethical life, that I am capable of loving and being loved, and that I am not an anti-theist. I feel so fatigued when I have to beg a community to allow me to be an ally to them, especially when it feels like there are no allies to me. However, it was necessary for both the secular community and the Muslim community for me to attend the vigil. The consistent tension between these two communities is so easily shattered when individuals interact, but that chance is not often granted. I feel like it is my obligation to take a beating, to be uncomfortable, and to be mocked if it means I can offer the opportunity for someone to change their perspective.
Before the vigil, I led a discussion on the Humanist Manifesto III at an event called Talk Better Together; multiple Muslim students and community members were involved in the event. Afterwards one Muslim individual spoke out and said “You are the first atheist I have met, and I will be honest I wanted to disagree with you, but I couldn’t. I have never had an atheist friend, you are the first.” I blushed, and turned my back to the audience to keep my composure. Making friends is difficult when you are fighting for tolerance and pluralism, but it is extremely rewarding.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, there is potential for coexistence and friendship between those who fundamentally disagree with one another. We have all been marginalized in some manner and it can be extremely lonely being an ally to a community to which you do not belong. I will always disagree with many cultural values and religious teachings of Islam, in fact I still hold grievances regarding the Charlie Hebdo shootings. However, I can still construct bridges that unite me with this community. A bridge of mourning was constructed at the vigil, it is time to construct bridges that have no toll for passage.