‘Safe European home’?

Israel/Palestine
on 46 Comments
cover of liberation mourning victims
Cover of Liberation mourning victims

According to French police, the now-deceased prime suspect in planning and carrying out the murders of four French Jews (as well as three French soldiers) this month was either linked to Pakistani and Afghan militants, or a member of the disbanded “Knights of Pride” (Forsane Alizza) French Islamist group. 

Even though he cannot stand trial now, we still have to examine his associations and motives leading up to the terrorist attacks and the final confrontation with police. The website of Forsane Alizza strikes me as a Salafist web clearinghouse – it has al Qaeda sympathies and is vague in explaining how its purported community building/confronting anti-Muslim bias efforts actually work. Given all the religious allusions and apparent bias against dissent in the Muslim community, it’s clear that its professed lack of political engagement is not that sincere. Part of Forsane Alizza’s mission statement is that it exists “to fight the unbelievers hostile to Islam in every way that we have available.” That is basically incitement by EU standards, which partly explains why the group was ordered to disband by a French court this January. As of Wednesday, the site has been taken down and a statement posted claiming that the group is now officially “disbanded.”

If the suspect, Mohamed Merah, was indeed a member of Forsane Alizza, then the Islamist group’s most militant windbags have much to answer for in the coming investigations, such as if members were aware of his actions and what hate speech emerged from their meeting halls and propaganda efforts.

The suspect had, like Osama bin Laden (Merah also says he acted on behalf of al Qaeda and a little-known jihadist group called “the Sons of the Caliphate” is claiming he was one of theirs) and Anders Breivik, claimed a political motive, specifically opposition to French involvement in Afghanistan and, sickeningly, to get “revenge” for Palestinian children, a morally bankrupt claim from every angle. Later he apparently changed his story to assert that his opposition to the “burqa ban” made him do it. His reportedly calm demeanor belies the ideological train wreck that was his justification for murder. No ideology is ever worth killing children for, and the conflation he made is absolutely disgusting.

The immediate question  is how Merah, who was said to have “spent considerable time in Afghanistan and Pakistan
. As the Sunday Telegraph’s Tim Jotischky mused, “If it’s true the Toulouse terror suspect had been followed ‘for several years’ then French security services may face some difficult questions.” French and Israeli commentators are wondering out loud who dropped the ball. Considering how draconian French counterterrorism practices were long before 9/11 or the Madrid and London Islamist terror attacks, it really surprises me such an individual could slip through their surveillance cracks, since it seems the French police would have had legal recourse to suspect and surveil Forsane Alizza in the meantime.  

The motivation of the late suspect, who called France24 and confessed to – or rather, bragged about – the killings several days earlier, are easy to discern. He viewed assimilated Muslims as apostates, and Jews as “soft targets.” Even if, as French prosecutors say at the moment, the suspect was a lone-wolf killer, he was inspired by and worked with armed Islamist extremists who never stop trying to spin what Israel and Western nations do into justifications for their own wars of aggression against civilian targets abroad, whether in Toulouse or Madrid or London.

This is militant Islamism, which seeks to dismantle societies such as France’s in favor of less pluralistic, more religiously-guided exclusivist ones– mirroring how the far-right in European history has demanded that citizenship be limited to Christians and Caucasians. It is not unlike the far-right’s “strategy of tension” pursued in 1980s Italy in the hopes that they’d seize and force the government into cracking down on their leftist rivals. Militant Islam also creates such tension, tension that only gets ramped up when governments adopt racist rhetoric and harsh policies against the vast majority of Muslims who aren’t seeking to make society conform to a particular (mis)interpretation of their religion. Militant Islamism is not legitimate political discourse; it doesn’t just want to express religion in politics, something that happens in France all the time among Catholics and other groups – it wants to make its narrow views on religion the basis for the entire political system. That does not constitute democracy.

As such, the murders are also partly a manifestation of European polarization on the immigration debate between far-right Islamophobes and Islamist ideologues; Forsane Alizza’s ideology has just as much potential for abuse as a European far-right group like the English Defense League. The EDL draws from a pool of slighted, angry men to incite to the right over identity politics. They have at times turned their rhetorical radicalization into violence against innocent bystanders. The BBC speculates that the far-right National Front, which Sarkozy is jousting with over conservative voters on immigration policies, may be the first party to break the “informal truce” to not discuss the Toulouse attacks from a party platform.

Inevitably, 
we are also hearing remarks that Jews should leave Europe for Israel, where, pundits proclaim, it is “safe.” Ariel Sharon said so in 2004, drawing much criticism and soul-searching among French Jewry, since France, like the rest of Europe, has a troubled past with antisemitism; people forget how collaborators like Maurice Papon did well for many years after the war and dodged prosecution despite having committed war crimes. As Robert Zaretsky wrote in Forward, Holocaust echoes reverberate in the city of Toulouse because it was there that a French archbishop dared to speak out against the Vichy government’s choice to participate in the European-wide deportation of Jews to the camps in Germany. The “Safe European Home” – a title of a song and also a book chapter from journalist Joel Schalit’s Israel vs. Utopia - is still elusive according to this point of view. As JPost noted, French Jewish and Muslim leaders had made progress combating attacks from the far-right in France until the Second Intifada apparently split the two faith communities apart even further. Both faith communities, caught between the antisemitic echoes of fascism and the violence of militant Islamism. 

Antisemitic attacks like these are presented as evidence that Jews have no place in anywhere but Israel. The counter argument of that claim is that either we all figure out how to make “liberal democracy” inclusive, or we throw it out. This counter-argument on inclusivity definitely applies to France and French Muslim as well as Jews. Israeli columnist Carlo Strenger weighed in: “Jews, as part of the global community, need to find ways to address and fight violent fanaticism in all its forms, rather than arguing that the world should be re-partitioned into tribes.”

“Jewish leaders have appealed for reason, joining a silent march with their Muslim counterparts on Sunday in memory of Merah’s victims,” a French reporter told the BBC. Hopefully this unity will help the communities move forward against their common foes, as well as confront any on the right who will try to make political hay of the murders. May that silent march turn into a chorus of condemnation and scrutiny within French society.

Two of the dead were Muslims, of Algerian descent, like the suspect, in fact, though the person who killed them clearly regarded these soldiers not as fellow hyphenated Algerians or fellow Frenchmen or fellow human beings. It is the same mentality of the Nazis who, as Primo Levi said, referred to Jewish prisoners deemed “weak, the inept… doomed to selection” as “Muselmann,” which means Muslim. Gil Anidjar, in his “The Jew, The Arab” explains how Jews became the internal, morality-sapping enemy and Arabs the external, military-endowed enemy in Europe. That view remains among the far right, and I would say radical Islamists have taken it and modified for themselves: to them, Jews (read: Israelis) are the external, military-endowed enemy, and “Arabs” (read: Muslims who don’t agree with them) are weak and inept. That is Islamist terrorism, and that is why it is imperative that both Jews and Muslims stand up for their right to live in Europe if they choose to do so. 

The killed and wounded soldiers decided to embrace a French identity ostensibly unbound by race and creed. Such multiculturalism is and has been the death for extremists of all varieties in Europe, from the far-left Baader-Meinhofs to the far-right P2 Masonic Lodge to al Qaeda-inspired Islamists today.

And four civilians who exercised freedom of religion in France paid a totally unwarranted price, while a fifth may yet die from wounds inflicted by the gunman at the Jewish school. What we also must do is put those who decline to join in building a tolerant society, like the shooter, in the dock whenever possible. This is one way to counter the alienation many Muslims will surely feel as they are pressed to denounce the killings and experience a rising wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that militants will exploit. 

Court proceedings on what led to these seven murders, even if they embarrass the French security forces, offer an opportunity to discredit militant Islamists’ claims that democracy and due process are signs of a weak society. A strong society, unlike the one the killer and his colleagues aspire to create, doesn’t have to gun down citizens in the street for political ends because they have served their country, or happened to be Jewish. 

Update: French police are now asserting that Mehar was not imprisoned in Afghanistan in 2007. An earlier version of this post reflected the police’s earlier narrative.