Murder often functions as a cultural Rorschach test: the narratives we tell about why people kill often reveal more about ourselves than the killers.
Thus begins the best article I have read about religious prejudice all year. The Religion Dispatches piece, titled “In OK, a ‘Christian’ and a ‘Muslim’ decapitation challenge ‘religious’ violence narrative,” compares the reactions to two decapitation cases that occurred within a few weeks of each other in Oklahoma.
First there is the September case of Alton Nolen, a Muslim:
Alton Nolen, a convert to Islam, decapitated a co-worker in Moore, Oklahoma. Before converting to Islam, Nolan was already a convicted felon with a history of assault and drug use. He had also just been fired from Vaughan foods where the attack took place. The event was framed as an “Islamic” crime and many speculated on a connection to ISIS.
Then there’s the October case of Isaiah Marin, a Christian:
21-year-old Isaiah Marin of Stillwater, Oklahoma, murdered his 19-year-old friend, Jacob Crockett—nearly decapitating him with a machete. He turned himself in, rambling to the dispatcher about “magic and sacrifice.” The narrative that eventually formed was that Marin had been motivated by “strong Christian beliefs” and that he had attacked his friend for practicing witchcraft.
Marin’s attempt to decapitate his friend did not lead to a discussion about whether Christianity is inherently violent, despite the fact that unlike Nolen, Marin himself tied the murder to his religious beliefs. Indeed, whenever Marin’s religious beliefs are brought up at all, they are put in quotes. And while articles about him do not explicitly say that he is mentally unstable, the aspects of Marin’s life and personality that are brought forward are carefully crafted to convey that picture.
Compare that to the coverage of Nolen, which puts a great deal of emphasis on his religion. The usually responsible BBC even goes so far as to insinuate that Nolen’s religion is what made the pieces in the case fall together:
What first appeared to be a horrific example of an angry employee “going postal” took an unexpected turn when police said Nolen had been trying to convert his workmates to Islam in the weeks before the crime.
Joseph Laycock, who authored the RD piece is hopeful that seeing these two cases happen so closely together may cause Americans to reassess their prejudices:
If there is any silver lining to this story, it may be that the bizarre coincidence of a Muslim and Christian decapitation occurring in the same state in the course of a month may cause us to reassess our inventories and think more carefully about the causes of (and the relationship of religion to) violence.
Maybe. The 2011 Norway attacks, which were initially wrongfully attributed to Muslim extremists but were actually carried out by a Christian anti-Muslim terrorist, led to a serious public conversation about prejudice. In that year’s election, the Progress Party, which was known for its hardline anti-Islam views, fell 6 percent from the 17 percent result they had only 4 years earlier. People woke up to the harm their bigoted rhetoric was causing.
But I’m less optimistic. Islamophobic rhetoric is more accepted in America than it ever was in Norway, and attitudes towards Muslims in the U.S. are bad and getting worse. According to a poll released by the Arab American Institute, favorable ratings for Muslims have declined from 35% in 2010 to 27% in 2014. I think this will continue, so long as violence committed by Muslims is given disproportionate attention and generalized to their religion in ways other faiths don’t have to deal with.