In the midst of continuous and intense media coverage and political crisis management our response to the Toulouse killings must be put in proper perspective. As in any situation of war or violence, compassion for the victims, adults and children alike, is our first obligation. 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 and minds go out to them in an intimate encounter that alone can express our condolences and our feelings of brotherhood. The loss of a child, a brother, a father, a sister, a friend in such circumstances is all but unbearable. But what is tragedy in Toulouse is no less so at the graves of all innocent victims whether in the West, in Africa or the Middle East. They remind us of our shared humanity, of the horrors men commit, of the dignity of resistance, and of the fragility of all our achievements. To the victims, to all victims, go our thoughts and our affection, 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 Salafi jihadi” 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 carousing in a nightclub. In 2010 and 2011 he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and earlier attempted to join the French army, which considering his criminal record and what is known about his brief life, proved unsuccessful. 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 before the final assault on apartment. An unbalanced, provocative, conscious, non-suicidal killer who wanted, as he put it, to “bring France to its knees.”
Religion was not Mohamed Merah’s problem; nor was 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 attacked symbols: the army, and killed Jews, Christians and Muslims without distinction. His political thought was that of a young man adrift, imbued neither with the values of Islam, nor driven by racism and anti-Semitism. Young, disoriented, he chose targets whose significance 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, to 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 dying as a terrorist of immigrant origin. Early on his destiny became confused with perceptions of that origin. In one last act of provocation, he had come full circle and vanished into the image to become the definitive “other.” For the French of France, there can 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 were all his victims (in the name of what strange logic are they differentiated and categorized by religion?), but he felt himself constantly reduced to his origin by his skin color, his religion and his name. The overwhelming majority of the Mohameds, the Fatimas or the Ahmeds of the housing projects 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 problems are overwhelmingly socio-economic. The story of Mohamed Merah today holds up to France a mirror in which it sees its face, that of a young man who ended up a Jihadi without conviction, after having been deprived of his dignity as a citizen. Once more, this excuses nothing. But therein lies a crucial lesson for us all.
A two-day suspension of the presidential election campaign was announced. Nothing could have been more illusory. The suspension itself was political. With the election one month away, analysts and journalists are speculating about 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 predicted to shift the focus of the president election even further to the right. There will be much talk of insecurity and 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 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 hold surprises. The opposition candidates are in a holding pattern, as though paralyzed at the thought of a slip-up, while Nicolas Sarkozy is now in a position of symbolic strength, a position carries substantial weight, even though the final outcome is still in doubt.
All the maneuvering and the grand gestures have created a feeling of extraordinary malaise. The victims, the dead, their families, and the underlying social and political questions have become secondary. Now is the time for cold calculation, for strategy. Politicians wield the power of symbols just as certainly as Mohamed Merah in his impotence struck at those symbols. Now, these same 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 those aspirations. The President plays at being president, while 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 make do with trapeze artists, jugglers, and 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 long ago stopped engaging 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. Is that what hurts so much?
Tariq Ramadan is Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Saint-Anthony’s College, Oxford. The author of numerous books on Islam and the West, including In the Footsteps of the Prophet. his latest, The Arab Awakening, Islam and the New Middle East has just been published by Penguin. Web site: www.tariqramadan.com