After the murders and the outpouring of grief and love from within our shared communities, we should heed the wisdom of Farris Barakat. "Fight ignorance," he told us. "Ignorance is what killed my brother."
He said it quietly, without anger, on a bitter cold night in the Brickyard at N.C. State University when we gathered to mourn the loss of Deah Barakat; his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha; and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha.
You've seen the iconic picture. The three together, each face bathed in a gorgeous smile that said life was a joy, that they were a joy.
- Photo from Facebook
- left to right Deah,Yusor, and Razan
I would venture that their image, reinforced by what we've learned about their humanitarian work and commitment to peace in the world, conveyed more about Muslim-American culture and the values of Islam than anything else that we—most North Carolinians, anyway—have ever experienced.
We can be proud of the response of their two universities, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State. Deah was a second-year dental student at UNC, Yusor an incoming dental student. Both graduated from N.C. State, where Razan was a sophomore in the design school. Both universities vowed to treasure the students' legacies.
I was proud, too, that Gov. Pat McCrory came to the Brickyard Thursday night to celebrate three people who lived with purpose. They were "fulfilled," McCrory said, though all "still had so much to give."
Farris Barakat spoke shortly after McCrory. I hope they shared a moment. The slain students do indeed have much to give us, still, including a mission to fight ignorance that the governor can lead.
The ceremonial role of the governor is as important as anything substantive he does. When he or she speaks, people listen and the impact is measured, not by bills alone, but by whether our minds and hearts are lifted.
I've been critical of McCrory on substance. Ceremonially, too, he's been shortsighted and uninspiring. Yet lately I sense a change. One small example: He named a worthy poet laureate, Shelby Stephenson, atoning for an earlier, unqualified nominee. McCrory admitted he'd made a mistake, saying, "It's been a learning process for me."
Perhaps he's learning, after two years in Raleigh, that what matters most to North Carolina isn't the ribbon-cuttings but rather having a soul and purpose—the kind of purpose that Deah, Yusor and Razan epitomized.
McCrory is known for criticizing the "frills" in higher education at UNC, N.C. State and the rest of the UNC system. By frills, he means courses in the liberal arts—philosophy, gender studies, "soft" subjects, as opposed to the solid pursuits in the sciences, engineering and business.
State funding, he says, should be based not on how many students enroll—"butts in seats"—but on the number of jobs these students can get when they graduate. Jobs are vital, certainly, though once on the job it helps to pair know-how with thinking skills that the liberal arts enhance.
But in times of trouble, we search first for the meaning of life and for ideas about how people can live in harmony. This is the work of philosophy, religious studies, literature, civics, and only then of biology and physics.
There's been a lot of speculation about the motives of the killer. The social sciences, soft as they are, warn us not to draw too many conclusions from a single example, an "n=1" case, however.
On the other hand, the evidence is abundant that we as a society are crippled by fears about people and cultures we know little or nothing about. It's an almost willful ignorance that allows most Americans to believe we should police the world, with unmatched military power, though few of us can find Iran on a map or care why ISIS—the so-called Islamic State—is gaining strength in Jordan, Yusor Abu-Salha's native country.
We conflate Muslims with terrorists because, until a week ago, that's all we ever heard—or listened to—on the news. In our homes, we're armed to the teeth, unaware that we're more likely to be killed by our own guns than by someone else's.
I have a simple proposition for Gov. McCrory. Fight ignorance. In honor of the slain students, lead North Carolina on a journey of understanding about how the different religions of the world developed and what their cultural traditions mean, good and bad. Study the different forms of government and their relationship with religion. Study the differing roles and treatment of women.
Philosophy. Religion. Gender. Be sure they are central to every North Carolinian's education, at every level. Don't devalue them.
Just as you've done with the poet laureate, help North Carolinians find their place in the world as caring, curious and knowledgeable citizens instead of as angry bystanders.
An article last month in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "The Day the Purpose of College Changed," located McCrory's criticism of the liberal arts in a long history of Republican anti-intellectualism that the writer traced to 1967 and then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan's complaints about student protests. Public universities, Reagan said, should be training people for jobs and quit "subsidizing intellectual curiosity." (My sister, Carol Geary Schneider, is quoted in the article, incidentally.)
Recently, aides to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, considered a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, sought to strike language about "the search for truth" and "improving the human condition" from the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin system. They've since backed away.
The episode reeked of the same anti-humanist spirit that motivated the Republican-controlled UNC Board of Governors when they fired President Tom Ross. (See my Jan. 21 column.)
Republicans want markets and money to rule the world, backed by weapons and wars. They'd rather we not think too hard about the consequences—for the world, for ourselves. But if ignorance brings the world down, and it will, then we'll fall with it.
Fight ignorance, Governor. With knowledge and purpose, we may find joy.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Soul and purpose."