In OK, a “Christian” And a “Muslim” Decapitation Challenge “Religious” Violence Narrative

Murder often functions as a cultural Rorschach test: the narratives we tell about why people kill often reveal more about ourselves than the killers.

The day before Halloween, 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. The situation in Oklahoma demonstrates how media and the public select which factors are important in the aftermath of violence and raises important questions about what constitutes “religious” violence.

Oklahoma has been a very strange place lately and it’s understandable that Oklahomans have been struggling to make sense of it all. On September 21, a Satanic “black mass” was held in the Oklahoma civic center—drawing demonstrations from some 1600 Catholics and even an exorcism by Archbishop Paul S. Coakley.

Oklahoma City has also been the site of an ongoing controversy as The Satanic Temple (a different Satanic group) has campaigned to erect a monument to Satan on the grounds of the state capital to complement the current monument of the Ten Commandments. After Michael Tate Reed II rammed his car into the Ten Commandments monument on October 24, shattering it, the Satanic Temple released a statement condemning the destruction. Headlines initially described Reed as a Satanist, but he has now been identified as someone who suffers from severe mental illness. He’d actually declared his intention to go to Bible college in a recent Facebook post.

The October 30 decapitation also occurred one month after 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. In the days that followed, the Oklahoma chapter of the Council of American Islam Relations (CAIR) began receiving death threats, with one message threatening to behead the chapter’s director.

On Patheos, Oklahoma representative Rebecca Hamilton posted “eight points” about Nolen’s crime, in which she condemned apologists who, she claimed rushed to the defense of “Muslim extremists.” A conservative Catholic, Hamilton also implied that the murder might somehow be “an effect” of the black mass held in Oklahoma City.

Some have claimed that the responses to these crimes demonstrate a double-standard that excuses Christians while holding Muslims accountable. Humanist Michael Stone called the Marin decapitation an example of “Christian extremism.” Dan Savage sarcastically commented that Marin was merely acting out his “sincerely held religious beliefs”: He murdered his friend for practicing witchcraft in keeping with Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Although insensitive, Savage’s commentary parodies anti-Islamic discourse that cherry-picks violent passages from the Quran and then asserts that the entire Muslim experience can be understood simply by sampling English translations of its texts.

Both cases demonstrate why violent crimes cannot be reduced to the religious affiliation of the perpetrator. As with Nolen, there were multiple factors that likely contributed to Marin’s situation, including the fact that he was described as a “heavy drug user.” Furthermore, in 1998, Marin’s father was murdered by a man dating his mother. His mother received a 12-year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder, though her conviction was overturned in 2008.

Conversely, police captain Randy Dickerson asserted that Marin’s religious beliefs were “not pertinent,” but this too seems overstated. Marin’s initial call to the police described sacrifice and magic. His Facebook posts also allude to having battles with demons. As with Nolen, Marin’s religion did not seem to cause him to behave violently, but it did seem to color how he understood his own violent impulses.

I admit that I am somewhat fascinated by stories of senseless crimes committed by adolescents. (See here and here). I find these cases all the more tragic because the motivations seem unknown, even to the perpetrators themselves. Without a motive, the media is free to construct whatever narrative it wants. In some cases, the perpetrators themselves will support these narratives, either in hopes of gaining leniency or because they too are in shock and susceptible to suggestion.

In his classic work Folk Devils and Moral Panic, sociologist Stanley Cohen described how, in the aftermath of a disaster, our natural psychological response is to create an “inventory” of associated factors. Unfortunately, because we do this instinctively rather than methodically, we tend to confuse correlation with causation. Instead of forming critical theories of why violence occurs, we rush to reduce complex events to facile narratives.

It’s hard to accept that we may never have a satisfactory explanation of why people suddenly decapitate their friends and coworkers. Instead, we subscribe to the logic of conspiracy theories. We attempt to construct a grand unified theory of evil, searching for connections to ISIS, black masses, and other dark forces. 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.


  •' Jim Reed says:

    Christianity is stressing the nation. This is going to cause a few breakdowns. One breakdown mode would be to become what Christianity hates the most, Islam. Christianity causes the split, then uses the damage that results as evidence that they are good and the other guys are bad, and the problems grow. That seems simple.

  •' apotropoxy says:

    – Jews had their violent period while under Roman occupation and have recently begun another one in Palestine.
    – Christians have had a sustained tendency toward violence for almost two millennia. Some of it has been explicitly religious and some not.
    – Muslims had a cycle of violence in their early days as they sorted out who was the apostate and who was not. Their violence has made a comeback as they interacted with Christian nations during the Great Wars of the Twentieth Century.

    The carnage wrought in the West dwarfs that of the East and most of that blood has been drained by the Christians.
    Blessed are the Cheese makers.

  •' Whiskyjack says:

    Like the young Muslim man who recently attacked the Canadian parliament, the OK decapitation seems to be a young man with serious mental issues who just happened to be religious. I doubt that his motive was religious. Where the religious connection can be criticized is their role in validating a belief in the supernatural.
    I think these mentally disturbed people have enough difficulties staying connected with reality without religions legitimating the existence of demons and witches.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    “Savage’s commentary parodies anti-Islamic discourse that cherry-picks violent passages from the Quran and then asserts that the entire Muslim experience can be understood simply by sampling English translations of its texts.” – Not sure if we are talking about Sam Harris or other “new atheists” – but I believe this is a misrepresentation if it is.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    What is interesting here is that we are talking about one-off instances of violence that are attributed (usually) after the fact to religious devotion (and a modicum of mental illness). That is entirely different than an organized movement or religious zealots that is perpetrating horrific crimes and has some text from their book to back them up. Just so I can’t be misrepresented later – I am not talking about all Muslims or even the majority.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    That sounds like something that might be scientifically testable if we weren’t afraid of the results.

  •' Whiskyjack says:

    Agreed. I don’t have the expertise to even start to design a test for such a hypothesis, however.

  •' Rmj says:

    How do you invalidate a belief in a mind ill enough to commit a crime like this?

    Demons are a cultural artifact. You could, at one time, find them in comic books (I still have one, from my youth; a “demon” connected to “Merlin,” as the hero of the story. Nothing vaguely Christian about it, and supernatural only in the sense Superman is supernatural.).

    At some point we can draw all such ideas back to religion, I suppose. But the idea that religion alone is responsible for “a belief in the supernatural,” especially when we are discussing a person suffering from some severe mental illness (I presume, in the absence of a competent diagnosis), is a reductio ad absurdum argument, at best.

  •' Rmj says:

    Speaking as a lifelong Christian, I didn’t realize that all these years I had hated Islam.

    Yes, this explanation seems simple; although simplistic is probably the better description.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Do societies based on religions that believe in demons or witches lead to more insanity among the population? If a society is looking for those who are demon possessed, will some people be more likely to become the crazy people they are looking for? Does society create a certain level of insanity so that their religion will be more justified in the techniques they use to root out insanity? Nobody ever said curing religion was going to be easy.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The current hate of Islam is relatively new, since 9/11. I think it is kind of a reaction to the Bush years. Christianity went so far off the deep end when the social conservatives became wedded to the Republican party, and so something had to give. They can’t hate themselves, so they need other targets to hate. Islam just happened to be convenient.

  •' BeeSmart says:

    Your narrative is so skewered that it is useless. This was a murder by a mentally ill individual using some religious “excuse” to “explain” his actions. Muslims use this practice as a integrated part of their reaction to infidels, blasphemers and enemy military.

    Muslim apologists seem interested in excusing this organized behavior and dogma of radical Muslims then any truth. To even mention Christians and equivocating them with current day radical Muslims is dishonest and stupid.

    After all that is said and done the act of beheading is in fact an often used punishment by radical Muslims. It is NEVER used by actual Christian organizations or denominations as sanctioned practice. Mentally ill individuals do many things in the name of who knows what. Organizations are something else.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    I don’t think Wiskeyjack was suggesting that religion was the only possible method of validating supernatural beliefs.

  • There are a great many ways people describe these kinds of acts, and attributing them to religious fervor is one. In both cases, however, mental illness and drug use are the actual causes, and the use of religion to create a public furor is the work of a press that looks not for objective news reporting, but sensationalism.

    Ever since we allowed the press to get away with moving from actual journalistic integrity to yellow journalism where the motto is “If it bleeds, it leads”, we have seen a huge uptick in these kinds of things. Add in the religious hysteria that has gripped this country since the mid-1980s coupled with 9/11, and you have the perfect mix for things like the Hobby Lobby judgment and these crimes.

    We hear all the time about criminals who get paroled because they embraced some faith, usually Christianity, while in prison, only to have them “relapse” once released and commit crimes again. These cases show that religion can be used to justify anything in the minds of some people, and until we are willing to actually address how we report these stories and how we govern without religious influence, they will continue.

    Rev. Devon J. Noll
    New Word Universal Fellowship Church
    Christmas Valley, OR

  •' BeeSmart says:

    After you get done “curing” religion you can start on human nature. Insanity can be caused by organic issues, social pressures and just living. The outward signs can be labeled by anyone to fit their understanding of the causes and the actions of the ill person.

    Question might be does evil exist independent of humanity. Is it an external force with its’ own agenda. Do individuals acquire it like an infection? If in the DNA is it passed between relatives? Understanding and relabeling behaviors might eliminate the word evil. Then does the labeling of child killers, mass murders, serial rapists and killers make the activities more palatable since we can call it “sick” activity.

    Rather then have religious authorities deal with the results of and causes “evil” we now turn it over to doctors. Now it is okay to think we have eliminated ALL evil from the world. Now we supposedly “understand” the source of the actions and can treat it. Well whatever you or anyone else choose to call it “IT” seems to be becoming more and more of “IT” and its’ effects are spreading faster then before the relabeling process.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Christians are more advanced than that. We have drones that can kill from the sky controlled from the other side of the world and the victims can’t hear or see anything until they are dead. We only target terrorists, but other muslims usually get in the way.

  • Never is a very strong word. Christians in Africa are pushing for laws to kill LGBT members of society. Atheists, egged on by Christians, have made being gay a crime in Russia, punishable with jail and possibly other punishments. Christians who follow the teachings of Christ – not fundamentalist or evangelical preachers – reject these kinds of actions publicly and often. Muslims who practice their faith honestly have publicly and regularly denounced the actions of FANATICAL Muslims, like ISIS and Al Quaida.

    You say that Muslims consider beheading a fundamental part of their religion, but the Jews then could be said to consider stoning and beheading a fundamental part of their religion and if they were to follow true Mosaic law, stonings and beheadings would be a regular occurrence in Israel and Jewish communities. Stoning and death and torture are all part of the Christian faith in the past, so should they be acceptable today?

    Fanaticism is not faith, and has its basis more in political gain than in actual beliefs. The writings of all the major religions were put down in times when barbarity was the norm, and when fanatics take them and try to apply them today, they are wrong. But you cannot equate fanatics and zealots with the rest of those who embrace a faith. It is like saying that a few bad apples poison an entire crop. It is stereotyping and it is wrong.

    You may think I am an apologist for Muslims, but I look at all faiths in their totality and in how they are practiced by the majority that embrace those faiths. You look at the extremists, fanatics, or zealots, and you judge all followers by those standards, which is wrong. Try looking for the things that these religions have in common, not the extremist views, and you may find that they are not all that different.

    Rev. Devon J. Noll
    New Word Universal Fellowship Church
    Christmas Valley, OR

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The basic question might be can belief in something that is not actually true sometimes be beneficial to society?

  •' Rmj says:

    Depends on what you assert isn’t actually true, doesn’t it?

  •' Rmj says:

    Again, all Christianity? World-wide? Even nationwide?

    I didn’t realize 9/11 had driven me to hate Islam because of my Christian beliefs. I really need to be sure I’m on the right mailing lists, I’m not getting these memos.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Jesus. We know from the Bible that he was invented over several decades extending to the end of the first century, and in the middle of the first century when Paul was writing none of the gospel stories had been made up yet,

  •' westernwynde says:

    Clearly one thing that these two men shared in common was the belief, regardless of its source, that violence is legitimate in some circumstances. Religious beliefs doubtless help shape exactly what circumstances the individual sees as justifying violence.

    Another thought – I read recently of a study that seemed to show that children who are brought up to believe in supernatural beings have greater difficulty telling fantasy from reality. Does this mean that religioun itself can be a contributor to disordered thinking? Maybe.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    We can do a quick check on telling fantasy from reality.

    How many think religion is reality?

  •' BeeSmart says:

    A well thought out posting. Please account for the average Muslims treatment of women. Some of it very violent and deadly. Beheadings are surly an extreme reaction and should not be attributed to the Muslim community as a whole.

    In the modern world it seems impossible to reconcile some of the practices of Islam with our understanding of human rights. Where those rights are non existent is it possible to engage Muslims as equals without feeling some antipathy towards them?

    All religions can be debated openly and vigorously but Islam seems to have strict bounds that once crossed result in something other then just a verbal denouncement.

  •' BeeSmart says:

    I am 100% sure if Muslims had drones or a nuclear weapon the radical elements would not hesitate to use them in the name of Allah. Even if only 5% are radicals that comes to about 80 million. Even one half of 1% is a large number of radicals. Sure we use what we have within bounds. Do you think they would do the same?

    Your distain for Christians seems rooted in your dislike of America’s policies. Try asking the Christian community currently under the ISIS yoke who are the more indiscriminate killers of innocent people.

    The knee jerk reaction of blaming America and Christians for every human rights violation on planet earth is becoming harder and harder to defend with old equivocations and moral outrages.

  •' BeeSmart says:

    Maybe after 9/11 even secular people felt some hatred of radical Muslims. The Christians you so easily smear probably don’t even belong to or practice their religion. The ones who have wedded themselves to the GOP have way more then religion on their minds and probably many other elements in the political world are driving forces behind their Republicanism.

    Whether you know it or not Republicans are Americans too and not some evil incarnate. Over fifty million Americans voted Republican and add to that their families and those who did not vote and you have a pretty broad based group that you might like to suppress or deport.

    Oh BTW their are individuals who vote Democrat and Liberal who happen to be fundamentalist or just plain run of the mill Christians.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    We are the superpower so we should lead the way to a better world. Instead we use our superpower status to try to control the world’s economy and take more for ourselves, or more accurately take more for our rich people. They see through our greed even if we see it as spreading democracy and preaching Jesus.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    However we think the numbers break down, Christianity put the GOP in power, and the gap between the rich and the rest of us has increased about 10 fold.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    It might be more important for us to deal with the problems that we have here in our own country than for us to deal with the problems in some other country on the other side of the world.

  •' BeeSmart says:

    After a few decades will FDR have been invented? The strict prohibitions on scribes and their writings, in those days, sure beats todays freelance interpretations of truth justice and the American way.

    Gospel stories made up???? Maybe you mean oral stories were not written down yet. Your use of “invented” moves your skepticism into the area of denial of Christ and the entire narrative of the Bible. So why bother “believers” with your opinions. You are not a scholar in the field. If you are your apparent belief system does not include Christ as anything but an invented personality used as the center of a cult. If so what religion do you embrace?

  •' BeeSmart says:

    Maybe sometimes. Santa Claus, tooth fairy and other benign beliefs are interesting. Strong beliefs have built many, many hospitals, orphanages, old age homes, schools and on and on. The truth of the beliefs has not effected the good done society. Often organizations dedicated to doing good and great things for society and people in general are based on ephemeral, metaphysical or mistaken beliefs.

    How necessary is it to wed beliefs to “truth.” After all truth has been changing since recorded time. Yesterdays “truth” is todays “old wives tail.” Universal truths are products of the society in which they live.

    Even scientific truths change as new information reveals itself. We all seem to live within the fog of believing we know the truth about this or that only to be made to look foolish when ‘new” truth is agreed upon by majorities.

  •' phatkhat says:

    The keyword is “radical”. The majority of Muslims are not. But, like their Christian and Jewish brethren, they do tend to turn a blind eye, or even offer weak rationalizations for the bad behavior of the radicals. It seems the religious blood is pretty thick.

    If you look at the radical evangelicals – the Dominionist/Reconstructionist lot – you will find little difference between their goals and the goals of the radical Muslims. In fact, they are much more like each other than either is like the mainstream of their own faith traditions.

    Mainstream Christians may vote democratic, but I’m pretty sure fundy Xtians do not, unless some teabagging crossover has become a dem, like some did in Maryland. And if I sound bitter and/or dismissive of them, it’s because I am. They are literally tearing the US apart and ruining it for everyone.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    That has long been accepted as the common apologetics, but the problem is the writings of Paul are different than the unknown oral traditions that everyone uses. The writings of Paul are all we have from that earlier period. Paul wrote a lot, and covered a lot of theological areas, but he knew nothing of Jesus the man from Nazareth, or what he preached, or what miracles he worked. Paul knew none of the gospel stories, and if they were the Christianity of that day they would have been in Paul’s writings, or at least some of them would. The writings show what Christianity was at that time, and the oral traditions are only what people centuries later would like to think were the oral traditions because they have no written traditions, other than ones that don’t match any of their stories. Jesus was invented in later decades when they made up the gospels.

  •' BeeSmart says:

    Don’t know about the “we.” Since we all only have ONE life to live why bother living under such a horrible government and/or among people who take so much for themselves?

    There are many, many countries that might meet your criteria for a moral, upstanding and generous society. Most of Scandinavia might qualify. Living out your days under and with such immorality is not a good thing. As an American you, unlike many others, can go where the “weather suits your clothes” so to speak. Again one life; why here?

  •' Jim Reed says:

    It can still be fun to point out everywhere that beliefs are wrong.

  •' BeeSmart says:

    Muslims are not on the other side of the world. The world is a small place in 2014.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    We have a responsibility to try to fix things. We can’t just leave the country to the conservatives because that would be way too dangerous for the world.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The Muslims here are just trying to keep a low profile and not get caught up in our purges. You can’t complain about Muslims here.

  •' Craptacular says:

    “Demons are a cultural artifact.” -Rmj

    The problem, though, is that some religions, major religions, currently treat these as actual entities that can interact with and influence people. The key word in that sentence is CURRENTLY. Comic books do NOT treat these as actual entities…no more so than Superman, as you said.

    Even though I agree with you that religion alone is not responsible, to pretend that religions don’t still believe in and teach about possession, demons, casting of spells, etc. as physical fact is ignoring a major part of the problem. At least that is what I think Whiskeyjack means by “religions [legitimizing] the existence of demons and witches,” and I agree with them.

  • The average Muslim treats his wife with respect and love, just as the average Christian does. In fact, he is required by the Qur’an to insure that she is well cared for and provided for as part of his obligations as a husband, and failing to do so can get him in trouble. Islam’s rules are not all that different from Mosaic law of the Jews, and in a modern world, most Muslims are not as rigid as the extremist/terrorist approaches we see in the news. Those Muslims who follow the letter of the law in Islam today, applying ancient punishments to what we perceive as minor infractions or human rights violations depending on the circumstances, are not all that different from the Christians who preach to kill Muslims from the pulpit (and I have heard just that admonition from the pulpit) or to beat your wives and children if they do not do as a husband demands.

    The governments or ruling parts of various forms of Islam use their religion to control women and through them to keep control of their wealth and property, not unlike fundamentalist or evangelical Christians do.

    We have a nation that is not led by Muslims, but by Christians who would strip a woman of her rights to medical care, equal pay, redress under the law for sexual assault, and force her to remain in contact with her rapist if she is impregnated by him and cannot get an abortion (because that is the outcome of such situations – I know my daughter has had to put up with it for 18 years). These Christians act in such a manner that they shame women in public, physically and financially abuse women, and are not held to account.

    Under Islamic law, a man may have up to four wives, but he must provide equally for each wife and any children, providing them separate homes, incomes, and other necessities. If he fails to do so, a woman may take him to court to demand her rights to these things and the man will be forced to provide for them or face jail and worse. If a man rapes a woman, he can be executed under law unlike here in the US where rapists often get off.

    Islam does have strict laws, but if you read the Bible and study the laws of Judaism and Christianity, the laws there are just as strict. For example, Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol could have been stoned to death for not only having sex outside of marriage, but also for having a child outside of marriage. Palin’s son could have been taken and left in the wilderness to die under Judaic law because he would have been perceived as possessed. The punishments for things we do not even consider crimes today were based on the way that they lived then and what were societal norms. Sadly, today extremists in all three major religions seem to think that defaulting to this outdated punishments and laws are somehow going to solve our problems, but they will not.

  •' Whiskyjack says:

    My point, perhaps inadequately expressed, is that religion is the major cultural vehicle for asserting and maintaining belief in supernatural entities. Certainly, there are non-religious people who also have those beliefs, but I think that the large majority of non-religious people do not.

    Among religious groups, Mormons (88%), evangelical Christian (87%) and members of historically black churches (87%) are the most likely to agree that angels and demons are active in the world. Jewish Americans are by far the most likely to disagree that these spirits stalk the planet (73% disagree with 52% completely disagreeing). Buddhists (56% disagree), Hindus (55%) and the religiously unaffiliated (54%) are other faith groups disagreeing that angels and demons exist in our world.


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