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.”See? Merah was a victim! His second-class upbringing forced him to go to Afghanistan to be trained by the Taliban! He could have chosen any school in France, and it is sheer coincidence he chose a Jewish school! Videotaping his murder of a little girl? Any one of millions of Ahmeds or Fatimas could have done the same!
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.
Allah forbid that he is responsible for his crimes, or that he was the least bit anti-semitic or hateful. Of course not. He smiled! Let's hope that France learns its lesson that this is entirely the fault of the French!
Maybe Ramadan should start a fan club for Merah on Facebook.
(h/t Harry's Place via Michael)