24 March 2012

Tragic Events in Toulouse and France's Muslims

You probably heard of the French gunman who killed seven people in Toulouse. His name was Mohamed Merah and he was a French citizen of Algerian descent and a self-proclaimed member of Al Qaeda.

No one seems to know why he killed these people and there is considerable doubt that he is indeed a member of Al Qaeda.
U.S. officials declined comment on any role in handling Merah in Afghanistan but said they believed he was probably not affiliated with what remains of the core al Qaeda organization created by the late Osama bin Laden and led now by Ayman al Zawahiri. Instead, they believe he is probably a lone wolf, or almost-lone-wolf, with at most a handful of associates including perhaps his brother.
When I first of the murder of three army officers I was puzzled.  Nothing of this kind ever happens in France. For one thing, this is not a violent country or a violent culture. Secondly, it is very difficult to get guns without getting the police alerted. Thirdly, the French state knows pretty much everything about everybody. For instance -and this may sound strange to North American ears- you cannot move to a new place without registering with the local authorities. They will duly note your new address and change your national ID card accordingly.

When I heard of the killing of Jewish people (tragically, three of whom were children) I was saddened and shocked. I am not Jewish but I understand how it feels to be blamed for everything under the sun and to be a universal target for every deranged idiot who wants to lash out at something. And to endure this practically everywhere and for several millenia. I am a student of history and I know how much they suffered and I have nothing but sympathy for them.

I was shocked because, as I said, acts of terrorism are extremely rare in France. The last antisemitic terror incident was in 1982, which consisted of a bomb that exploded in Goldenberg restaurant in the Marais district in Paris. And it was probably done by the Abu Nidal group. The last general act of terrorism was in 1995: a shadowy Algerian group called GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé) recruited some disaffected young people and convinced them to kill one moderate imam and place bombs in several metro stations.

I assume after Merah's violent death, right-wing pundits and wingnut blogs were busy rehashing clichés like the five million French Muslims being a ticking time bomb.

Actually, what is remarkable is that despite having the largest Muslim population in Europe such incidents are incredibly rare in France. In fact, they are practically nonexistent.

There are many reasons for that. But foremost is the fact that France's Muslim population are a peaceful bunch. You wouldn't think that if you only looked at the loud media storms around Muslim issues, like Friday prayers on the streets of Paris suburb Saint Denis or the ban of  restrictive Islamic garbs like full veil or niqab in public spaces.

It is true that after 9/11 there has been some radicalization of Muslims living in the West. Remember Faisal Shahzad? But for every Shahzad, who felt wronged and vengeful, there were millions who just went on quietly with their daily lives. For instance, you may know Shahzad, but you probably don't know the Time Square guy who alerted the police about the bomb in Shahzad's SUV was also a Muslim.

In that sense, France was no exception. The radicalization of Muslims was partly caused by new hardline clerics who tried very hard to organize and turn the disaffected youth. Like other Western countries, France had to deport quite a few of those imams since 9/11 (apparently 35 in ten years).

But the radicalization was primarily caused by a constant media narrative that depicted Muslims as violent, barbaric and savage people. As I mentioned before, in France racism is not ethnicity based, it is mostly cultural. If you act French (and that requires a very detailed knowledge of what is permissible and what is not), people will largely ignore your skin color. In other words, if you were culturally assimilated you could be purple and be fine. And prior to 9/11 that assimilation was more or less a universal process.

But the post-9/11 narrative prevented the assimilation of the young generation. Faced with constant demonization of their parents' identity, accepting to act French was like asking young urban black men in the US to act "white." Remember how white folks in the US were deathly afraid of young black men? And still are? And how that fear reinforced the black youth's desire to own that despised and feared identity? Those pants, which give you the impression that they are about to roll down to the wearer's knees, became fashionable because they originated in California prisons as a result of a policy of no belts and ill-fitting jeans. It was a statement. Gangsta rap, all kinds of hip hop symbols are all part of that same, you-hate-who-I-am-then-I-will-act-more-like-that syndrome. You know, the same idea as "we\re here, we're queer, get used to it."

The niqab perfectly illustrates that. When you realize that, despite the huge media outcry about the banning of this abhorrent garment, there are actually less than 2000 women wearing it in France, you realize that there is more than political and religious principles at stake. We are talking about 0.04 % of the Muslim population (or 0.08% of female Muslims). One side is massively overreacting and the other side, if they pardon the analogy, is owning up to the name "queer."

In fact, most niqab wearers are not recent immigrants as one might expect, they consist of either the unassimilated second generation or the new converts:
Mariam, married with three children, is a French citizen whose Tunisian-born parents never approved of her decision to wear a full-length veil. Young and French-born from a moderate Muslim family, she exactly fits the profile of the very small number of fully-veiled women in France. 
According to a French internal intelligence service investigation last year, 1,900 women wear the niqab in France. None actually wear the burka, the all-encompassing and more restrictive garment popular in Afghanistan. 
Since there are an estimated two million adult Muslim women in France, niqab wearers amount to roughly one in 1,000 or 0.1 per cent. The typical fully- veiled woman is young, French-born and a recent convert to a purist or radical form of Islam. Half are under 30 and the vast majority under 40. Two- thirds are French born. One in four is a white French woman who converted to Islam before or after she got married.
In other words, this is not so much about religion as it is about the highly polarizing us-and-them-discourse and treating these people as the internal enemies that are likely to "stab us in the back."

What is sad is that these tragic losses of life will not lead to a genuine questioning of the polarizing and alienating discourses. Instead they will strengthen the mainstream narrative that "Muslim people refuse to be French" and will perpetuate an environment that breeds gullible and deranged people like Merah to lash out violently.

One of the immediate consequences of these tragic events will be to increase Sarkozy's re-election chances. As you know, I predicted before these events took place that he was likely to win in May. Now it is more likely than ever. Thanks to his appropriation of extreme right issues like stopping halal slaughters, Nicolas Sarkozy will be viewed by to a large segment of the electorate as the only guy who can stop the Islamisation of France.

My fear is that this polarizing discourse that will most likely mark his second term might create a few more Merahs.

BBC reports that these events were especially traumatizing for France's Jews. It is never easy to realize that someone hated your identity so much that they did not hesitate to put a bullet in a child's head and felt "un plaisir infini."

Le Monde reports that France's intelligence services had Merah under surveillance for some time (as I said, they know everything and everyone) but somehow were very slow to realize that the man who used his brother's email address to lure his first victim to a rendez-vous was actually Mohamed Merah.

This led to a lot of speculations and calls for an independent investigation, including by the Mister of Foreign Affairs, the veteran politician Alain Juppé, who seems to disagree with Sarkozy on a lot of issues. Given the widely expected jump in opinion polls, French people seem to believe that DCRI knew about Merah and did not stop him until the did is done.

Similarly, some people questioned the way the siege was handled and asked why Merah had to be killed.  Instead of incapacitating him with tear gas, the SWAT team waited for a long time and then forced an entry into the apartment. Some people in France now believe that just like the shooting of the GIA bomber Khaled Kelkal, the security services had different motives in finishing off Merah.

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