Some People Don't Want to 'Coexist'

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Last week, a French graffiti artist named “Combo” was beaten on the streets of Paris, left with a black eye, a dislocated shoulder, and massive bruising. His offense?  Painting a giant “Coexist” mural in a largely Muslim neighborhood, integrating the letters with a Muslim crescent, a Star of David, and a Christian cross.

You’ve likely seen similar bumper stickers, which, in America, usually also integrate a peace sign, male and female symbols, pagan images, and a yin-yang symbol. They seem to thrive in certain specialized habitats, most commonly the backs of Priuses, Subarus, or rusty Plymouths sporting approximately 5,000 other fascinating half-peeled-off, multi-layered stickers. “Coexist” stickers share an admirable and hopeful sentiment — similar, perhaps, to the “Visualize World Peace” stickers that dominated the 1980s.  Unfortunately, they are also, as Combo’s experience might indicate, a bit naïve.

The course of human history, in fact, has made it quite clear that some people, no matter how “enlightened” the era, simply do not want to coexist. On Tuesday night, Craig Stephen Hicks, a militant atheist in Chapel Hill, N.C., gunned down his three Muslim neighbors. The victims were students; two were recently married. In the wake of the murders, many commentators suspected Islamophobia was to blame. Local police, meanwhile, suggested a trigger that was far more banal, but equally frightening: “An ongoing neighbor dispute about parking,” they announced on Wednesday, may have inspired the brutal, execution-style murders.

Whatever the motivations of Mr. Hicks, one sad fact remains: People often kill each other for really ridiculous and terrible reasons. Over the past few months, faced with a radical Islamic group tearing up the Middle East, much of America’s political dialogue has revolved around why this is so. Most of that dialogue, somewhat uneasily, has centered on religion. Most of it is also, unfortunately, pretty wacky.

One instinct, at least when it comes to certain groups, is to downplay religion altogether. In a recent interview, when President Obama described the January murders at a Paris kosher store as “random,” the Internet exploded with criticism—the radical Islamist killer, after all, had called a TV station, crowing that he had targeted Jews. But, strangely, in the days that followed Obama’s “random” comment—and despite the fact that, earlier in January, Obama himself had called the attacks anti-Semitic—high-level spokespeople from both the White House and the State Department refused, over and over again, to admit that the attack was religiously based. After a relentless, thorough, and painful grilling from the press, they finally buckled.

This pales in comparison to the administration’s more common—and more troubling—approach to religion: The suggestion that violent religious “zealots” don’t really believe what they say. “Whatever ideology they’re operating under, it’s bankrupt,” Obama declared in response to ISIS’s live burning of a caged Jordanian pilot. This is a weird thing to say, isn’t it? We all know what ideology ISIS is “operating under,” because they’ve told us so. Repeatedly. It’s radical Islam, a highly militant interpretation of things that you can actually find in the Koran.

When that rather awkward point comes up, of course, we—and by “we,” I mean President Obama—change the subject, quite naturally, to the Crusades. “Lest we get on our high horse and think that this is unique to some other place,” Obama told attendees at the February 5 National Prayer Breakfast, “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Obama has been widely pilloried for his ISIS/Crusades comparison, and for good reason. On both historical and religious grounds, it is ludicrous, murky, and unhelpful. On the other hand, it might not be such a bad thing for Christians to take a look back at the history of Jim Crow, as well as the decidedly un-Christian behavior of certain so-called followers of Christ during that era. This would demonstrate the important ability to look certain uncomfortable realities in the face—an ability that the Obama administration, at least when it comes to faiths other than Christianity, seems to lack.

At its basest level, the president’s rhetoric suggests that all religions are the same; no one really believes in all that silliness, do they? This is the faith of the secularist: If we could just stop clinging to our religion, which is all rather dated and meaningless, we’d be a lot better off. When shed of all that God baggage, after all, people might be free to make a better, more progressive world. The recent killing spree by Chapel Hill atheist Craig Hicks, unfortunately, seems to suggest otherwise.

This week, a particularly telling 1922 New York Times clip made the Internet rounds. Reporting on Hitler’s rise in Germany, the article cited “several reliable, well-informed sources” who “confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers.”

In other words, he couldn’t really believe all that, could he? You bet he could. Some people, it turns out, just don’t want to coexist. Pretending they do, regardless of their religious stripe, is a dangerous game.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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