Three American Muslims were shot dead in Chapel Hill, US, on February 11. A few days later, two shootings in Copenhagen cost the lives of two more. No court has declared a guilty party in either of the killings, but there is enough evidence in both cases that the police got their man.
But media coverage of the two alleged culprits has been dissimilar. Despite an outpouring of sympathy by Americans for the victims in Chapel Hill, there is a trend in the western media to see Craig Stephen Hicks, the alleged murderer, as a bully who picked fights with his neighbours and went too far with the young Muslims. This is in contrast to the version in Muslim countries, where Hicks has been accused of indulging in ‘terrorism.’ On the other hand, Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, the Danish man from a Palestinian background, supposed to be behind the Copenhagen shootings, is mostly discussed in terms of Islam, Muslim radicalisation, and of course terror.
What do we make of this? Is Hicks Islamophobic, or just a parking-lot bully? He is said to have picked fights over parking with the three victims, and with others too. Western reports seem to prompt the bully interpretation — for instance, by highlighting Facebook postings by Hicks where he disparages all religions, but also stresses that Muslims have as much right to practise their own faith as any other people.
El-Hussein seems to have felt that Muslims were under attack by forces in the West. Again, like Hicks, El-Hussein was an angry social misfit. He had grown up in a difficult neighbourhood and been imprisoned as a criminal. El-Hussein appears to have found ready outlet for his resentment by acting loosely on an anti-semitic, extreme Islamist agenda.
It does not matter that he had never been trained by al-Qaeda. He had been inserted into an Islamism-influenced nexus of suspicion, blame, resentment and violence. The blood shed by the action of an El-Hussein inevitably stains the hands of ideologues and mullahs who help create that nexus.
But what about Hicks’s actions? Isn’t it legitimate to ask: Why didn’t his other ‘parking lot’ arguments, with non-Muslim ‘white’ Americans, lead to a similar crime? Could it be that the visible ‘Muslimness’ of his three victims set off a trigger of prejudice in Hicks that he was not even conscious of?
Hicks, a white man connecting to a ‘liberal’ society, saw himself as an atheist — but he lived in a country where signs of Christianity are also accepted as ‘secular’ or just ‘cultural.’ The signs of Islam are not. In a world like that, how would an ‘atheist’ react to the visible ‘provocation’ of another religion – and that too a demonised one, like Islam? Is he not likely to react more extremely?
Hence, the blood shed by Hicks, if he committed the crime, also stains the hands of those who point an easy finger at Muslims. Hicks is not a ‘terrorist’, narrowly defined. But, in ways similar to El-Hussein, he might have terrorised people (Muslims) in any case — driven by unconscious prejudice. And, in both the cases, the blame for their crimes rests squarely on those who make easy sweeping accusations. The screaming words of all farmers of resentment drip blood.
Tabish Khair is a Denmark-based author
The views expressed by the author are personal