By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
It is amazing how well such tales of hatred and vengeance bring out the similarities—indeed the exact sameness—of people on both sides of the civilisational clash. For all their racial and religious differences, you could replace Robert Bales and Mohammad Merah with each other and no questions need be asked. In this sameness of their otherness lies the irony, and the supreme tragedy, of the past two weeks—and of the past two decades.
ROBERT Bales and Mohammad Merah have little in common and probably never heard of each other. One is a 37-year-old US army sergeant and the other a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent. And yet, over the past few days, they showed the world that there was something eerily similar about them, about their actions, about their victims—and ultimately about the people they thought they represented.
On the night of March 11, Bales shot dead 17 villagers in Afghanistan, including several children, inside their homes in Balandi and Alkozai, Kandahar. He did it in cold blood, and later burned the bodies. He was put in custody following a confession, and is now facing murder charges.
The same day and a few thousand kilometres away, Merah killed a French Muslim paratrooper outside a gym in Toulouse. Four days later, he killed two more French army men—also Muslims and of North African descent, like him. Then on March 19, he killed four Jews, including three children, outside a school. Following a 32-hour standoff, the French police raided his apartment and a sniper shot him dead.
While Bales hasn’t revealed why he killed the villagers, the fact that he then burned the corpses—weeks after the similarly sacrilegious burning of copies of the Quran by his fellow soldiers had caused such uproar in Afghanistan—sheds some light on his motivations. Merah, meanwhile, made video recordings of his shootings, in which he blames the French army for killing Muslims in Afghanistan, and Jews for killing Palestinian children.
The common leitmotifs in these two tragic tales are Hatred, Vengeance and Children. Hatred for “the other” seethed within both Bales and Merah, and no one knows for how long. Bales, who was serving his fourth combat mission following three in Iraq, perhaps saw “Muslim Afghans”—not particular individuals but all of them together—as his enemy. For Merah, the entire Judeo-Christian world was apparently the devil incarnate, bent on destroying Islam and Muslims.
If Hatred drove them to the point of no return, Vengeance nudged them past it. Bales may have been thinking he was paying back in kind for the killing of US soldiers in Afghanistan following the Quran burnings. Merah left no doubt about his motivations, telling the victims in his footage: “You kill my brothers. I kill you.”
To neither of them did it matter that the individuals they were murdering weren’t the ones who had carried out the “crimes” they wanted to avenge. What mattered was the narrative: “they” have killed “my brothers”, so I will kill “them”. This is particularly obvious from the common victims of the murders: Children, who had absolutely nothing to do with whatever it was that had driven the two to these murders.
It is amazing how well such tales of hatred and vengeance bring out the similarities—indeed the exact sameness—of people on both sides. For all their racial and religious differences, you could replace Bales and Merah with each other and no questions need be asked. They thought the same, they lived the same, they did the same—and for the same reasons as well.
In this sameness of their otherness lies the irony, and the supreme tragedy, of the past two weeks—and of the past two decades.
Hundreds of people have probably been killed every day on average in a civilisational clash that shows no sign of ebbing. No one sees that in this essential similarity of the way we go about clashing, we negate the very basis of the clash. Muslims killed thousands of “Westerners” on 9/11 to avenge the deaths of thousands of Muslims killed earlier, and then the West started killing tens of thousands of Muslims to “prevent” more such attacks, but only succeeded in setting off a spate of retributive attacks on Western targets around the world.
How can we be different, or how different can we be, if we think, feel and respond to each other in such identical ways? Not much, if only we could see the obvious. Perhaps the inability of both sides to see the obvious is just another illustration of this sameness.
It is tempting, at this point, to point out the list of commonalities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as indeed among all faiths. As a Muslim, it is also tempting to quote verses from the Quran that talk of Islam as a continuation of the same faith brought forth by Jesus, Moses and thousands of other Prophets—effectively barring Muslims from fighting or killing over supposed religious differences.
But this March, I won’t invoke the Prophets of Peace to argue that there is no sense to this blood thirst. I’d rather let the Prophets of Hatred tell us the same. Where Jesus and Muhammad have failed, can Bales and Merah shoot the way out of our mutual madness?
Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes regularly for New Age Islam.