In the midst of continuous and intense media coverage and political crisis management our response to the events in Toulouse and Montauban must be put in proper perspective. As in any situation of war and violence, our first obligation is that of compassion for the victims, adults and children alike. Grief and despair has touched French families, be they Jewish, Catholic, Muslim or without religion. Far from the floodlights and the excited commentary, far from hypotheses and from possible political exploitation, our hearts go out to them in an intimate encounter with our minds that alone can express our condolences and our feelings of human brotherhood. The loss of a child, a brother, a father, a husband, a sister, a friend in such circumstances is all but unbearable. In Toulouse and Montauban as well as at the graves of all innocent victims, in the West and in Africa and in the Middle East. They remind us of our shared humanity, of the horrors men commit, of both the dignity of our fragility and the legitimity of our resistance. To the victims, to all victims, go our first thoughts and compassion. And our respectful silence.
Twenty-three year-old Mohamed Merah was a familiar face in and beyond his neighborhood. People describe him as quiet, easy-going, nothing at all like an “extremist jihadi Salafist” ready to kill for a religious or political cause. His lawyer, who had previously defended him in offenses ranging from petty theft to armed robbery, had never detected even a hint of religious leanings, let alone of the Salafi stripe. He had just been tried and sentenced for theft and driving without a permit. Two weeks before the shooting, witnesses said he spent an evening in a nightclub in a very festive mood. In 2010 and 2011 he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and earlier attempted to join the French army, which was unsuccessful , because of his criminal record. Mohamed Merah stands before us like an overgrown adolescent, unemployed, at loose ends, soft-hearted but at the same time disturbed and incoherent, as illustrated by his long hours of conversation with the police as they surrounded his apartment. An unbalanced, provocative, conscious, non-suicidal killer, are we told, who wanted, as he put it, to “teach France a lesson.”
Religion was not Mohamed Merah’s problem ; nor is politics. A French citizen frustrated at being unable to find his place, to give his life dignity and meaning in his own country, he would find two political causes through which he could articulate his distress : Afghanistan and Palestine. He attacks symbols : the army, and kills Jews, Christians and Muslims without distinction. His political thought is that of a young man adrift, imbued neither with the values of Islam, or driven by racism and anti-Semitism. Young, disoriented, he shoots at targets whose prominence and meaning seem to have been chosen based on little more than their visibility. A pathetic young man, guilty and condemnable beyond the shadow of a doubt, even though he himself was the victim of a social order that had already doomed him, and millions of others like him, to a marginal existence, and to the non-recognition of his status as a citizen equal in rights and opportunities.
Mohamed—how typical the name is !—was a French citizen of immigrant background before becoming a terrorist of immigrant origin. Early on his destiny became tied to the surrounding perceptions of that origin. Now, in a final act of provocation, he has come full circle, has vanished into this constructed and distorted image to become the definitive “other.” For the French of France, there is no longer anything French about Mohamed the Muslim Arab.
That cannot, of course, excuse his actions. But let us at least hope that France can learn the lesson that Mohamed Merah had neither the intention nor the means to teach : he was French, as are all his victims (in the name of what strange logic are they differentiated and categorized by religion ?), but he felt himself constantly reduced to both his origin by his skin color, and his religion by his name. The overwhelming majority of the Mohameds, the Fatimas or the Ahmeds of the suburbs and the banlieues are French ; what they seek is equality, dignity, security, a decent job and a place to live. They are culturally and religiously integrated ; their problem is overwhelmingly a socio-economic one. The story of Mohamed Merah today holds up to France a mirror in which it sees its face : he ends up a Jihadi without real conviction, after having been a citizen deprived of true dignity. Once more, this excuses nothing. But therein lies a crucial lesson for us all.
There was to have been a two-day suspension of the presidential election campaign. Nothing could have been more illusory. Even the suspension was political. With the election one month away, analysts and journalists are speculating who could turn the affair to maximum political advantage. Nicolas Sarkozy, posing as president of all the French, holds a winning hand. The Toulouse killings can be relied upon to shift the focus of the president election even further to the right. There will be much talk of insecurity, immigration, violent Islamism, and of Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine on the international level. Precisely where President Sarkozy is at ease. In his role as crisis manager he can encroach on the territory of the far-right Front National, and display to excess his international stature, where his record is less objectionable. The game is far from over, and the weeks to come may well prove surprising. In France as well as abroad. The opposition candidates are in holding pattern, as though paralyzed at the thought of a slip-up, while Nicolas Sarkozy is now in a position of symbolic strength, and that position carries substantial weight, even though the outcome is still in doubt. At the sight of the maneuvering and the grand gestures, one feels an extraordinary malaise. The victims, the dead, their families, the underlying social and political questions have become secondary. Now is the time for cold calculation, for strategy. Politicians employ the power of symbols just as certainly as Mohamed Merah in his impotence struck at those symbols. Now, these themes have forced their way into the election campaign, carried along by a flood tide of emotion. Much will be said of integration, of Islamism, of Islam, of anti-Semitism, of security, of immigration, or the lost banlieues, of international relations—but it will not be the speech of democrats in tune with the people’s aspirations but populists exploiting events and mocking people’s emotions. The President plays at being the President, and his opponents seek only to prove that they are worthy pretenders. Where we might have hoped for a true debate on political issues, we must now be content with trapeze artists and jugglers, with illusionists, and with clever and cynical attempts to exploit a tragedy.
In Toulouse, France now beholds its own mirror image. The crisis has revealed that the candidates have long ago ceased to engage in politics, not simply for two days in tribute to the victims of a terrorist act, but for years. For years, in fact, real social and economic problems have been pushed aside ; a substantial number of French citizens are treated as second-class citizens. Mohamed Merah was French (whose behavior was as remote from the Quranic message as it was from Voltaire’s texts). Is it so difficult to conceive and acknowledge this fact ? Is it hurting so much ? There indeed lies the French problem.
(www.tariqramadan.com / 23.03.2012)