When 22-year-old Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein murdered two people in Copenhagen on February 15, and was killed in a shoot-out with police, the media and politicians across the world did not hesitate to declare that an act of terrorism had taken place.
US President Barack Obama immediately phoned Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt to offer condolences and invited Denmark to take part in a February 18 summit in Washington to counter violent extremism, Reuters reported on February 16.
Other Western leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, responded similarly.
Obama's immediate and far-reaching response to a hate crime in Europe contrasted with his response to an equally violent hate crime on US soil.
On February 10, 46-year-old Craig Hicks shot dead three young Muslim neighbours in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Media reporting in the US was subdued. It was only after the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter started trending globally on social media that Obama finally released a statement on February 13, saying: “No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.”
There is no doubt that both crimes were ideologically motivated. In the Copenhagen attack, El-Hussein first targeted a seminar in a coffee shop promoting free speech for anti-Muslim propagandists. The headline speaker was Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, famous for depicting the prophet Mohamed as a dog.
Heavy security meant that Vilks escaped unharmed but Finn Nørgaard, a 55-year-old filmmaker with, ironically, no history of racism or Islamophobia, was killed.
El-Hussein then targeted a synagogue and was again thwarted by security but killed 37-year-old volunteer security guard Dan Uzan.
Hicks made no secret on social media that he hated Muslims and loved guns. Before killing his neighbours — Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, her husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, all three of whom were students — he had repeatedly threatened the family.
The sisters’ father, psychiatrist Mohammad Abu-Salha told the February 11 News & Observer: “This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt. And they were uncomfortable with him … Honest to God, [Yusor] said, ‘He hates us for what we are and how we look.’”
Yet US authorities have been reluctant to acknowledge that it was a hate crime. “Ripley Rand, the US prosecutor for the Middle District, which includes Chapel Hill and Durham, said ... he did not think the killings were part of a targeted campaign against Muslims,” the News & Observer said.
North Carolina police continue to insist it was a dispute over parking spaces.
But the father told the News & Observer: “It was execution style, a bullet in every head. This was not a dispute over a parking space; this was a hate crime.”
This is part of a pattern. Throughout the Western world, Islamist extremists risk prosecution merely for their statements, even in private conversations that are monitored under increasingly draconian security laws. These thought-crime prosecutions are given saturated media coverage, much of which is Islamophobic.
The endless summits held by Western leaders to counter “extremism”, such as the February 18 Washington summit, not only target Islamist extremism and ignore its Islamophobic counterpart, they deal with it only as a security issue in an Islamophobic framework.
Understandably, given their own role in fuelling it, the Western media generally ignores Islamophobic violence, such as the epidemic of vandalism and arson attacks on mosques throughout the Western world. When Islamophobic violence is on a scale that cannot be ignored, its ideological content is generally denied.
Even the 2011 killings of 77 people in Norway — the worst terrorist attack in post-war Europe — was treated as the act of a deranged individual despite the perpetrator, Anders Breivik, releasing a long Islamophobic manifesto that referenced several mainstream media commentators and politicians, including then-Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
Of course, the increasingly pervasive Islamophobia in the West legitimises Islamist extremism. The two have a symbiotic relationship. The perpetrators of the January 17 attacks in Paris (who, unlike El-Hussein, were linked to wider terrorist networks) understood this. The Islamophobic response, including several arrests for and criminal investigations of thought crimes (including that of an eight-year-old child), will serve their cause.
Danish PM Thorning-Schmidt has acknowledged that there is “no indication [El-Hussein] was part of a cell,” the December 16 New York Times said.
Islamophobia is part of a broader system of racism against Third World migrants in the West. The NYT reported that before being imprisoned in 2013 for assault, El-Hussein had been involved in urban gang culture and his affiliations were not political or religious. “This was a loser man from the ghetto who is very, very angry at Danish society,” Aydin Soei, a sociologist who knew him told the NYT.
El-Hussein was won to Islamist extremism in jail, as were the perpetrators of the Paris attacks. After the latter, there has been discussion in France about Muslim youth being exposed to extremism in jail. Muslims make up less than 10% of the French population but 70% of prisoners.
The solutions discussed focused on security, such as keeping “known extremists” in isolation. The over-representation of Muslims in French jails – like the over-representation of African-Americans in US jails and Aboriginal people in Australian jails, the result of discrimination in education and employment and systematic racism by the police and courts – was ignored.
The Western establishment's promotion of Islamaphobia is partly to provide justification for imperial wars. But it also serves domestic agendas. One of these is justifying increasing state powers at the expense of civil liberties.
Another is a way to provide a diversion for governments implementing unpopular policies. This could not have been clearer when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott released a YouTube video on February 15 drumming up anti-Muslim paranoia and foreshadowing new “tough” measures against Muslims and asylum seekers.
Abbott's attacks on social services and ordinary people's living standards have made his government the most unpopular in Australian history. A week after surviving a leadership spill and promising the beginning of “good government”, his popularity has continued to plummet.
While many voters would have wryly interpreted his YouTube statement that “Australians have been played for mugs by bad people” as a confession on behalf of his government and its big business backers, sadistic persecution of asylum seekers has been one of his few policies to retain significant support.
Despite many asylum seekers not being Muslim, and Muslim asylum seekers often having fled from Islamist violence, Islamaphobia has been used by the media and politicians from both major parties to fuel hostility towards refugees in general.
While it is unlikely to save his government, Abbott's playing of the Islamaphobia card will not just cause further suffering for asylum seekers. As in other Western countries, Australia is undergoing an epidemic of street violence against Muslims and vandalism and arson of mosques, most of which are unreported in the media.
On February 16, Islamophobia Register Australia reported that a Perth mosque had been daubed with a swastika and the slogan “White Power”. This was the fourth attack against that particular mosque alone in six weeks.
Establishment-promoted Islamaphobia does not just embolden neo-Nazis, it allows them to hide behind an acceptable veneer. Neo-Nazi mobilisations in Australia have usually been small and only attracted a marginal fringe. However, the 2005 Cronulla riots showed that, with mainstream media support, Islamaphobia allows them to tap into a broader vein of Australian racism.
Neo-Nazi groups are currently using social media to promote nationwide “Reclaim Australia” rallies on April 4. The propaganda for these events is explicitly denying that they are white supremacists, instead echoing mainstream Islamaphobia and relying on conspiracy theories about Halal food that are pushed by the extreme right and promoted by government parliamentarians.
Counter-protests are being planned against the April 4 marches. It is important that these do not just focus on the neo-Nazi extremists behind the “Reclaim Australia” events, but take up the Islamaphobia and racism of mainstream politicians and media that the neo-Nazis are capitalising on.
[Tony Iltis is a member of Socialist Alliance.]