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'Toulouse terrorist never a real Muslim'

29 Mar 2012 - 7:06

Islam Times - Toulouse terrorist is French first, not really Algerian, and never a real Muslim.

The lump in the collective throat of France’s Muslim community has been confirmed: the man who claimed responsibility for the murder of seven people in what has been a horror movie of an affair was a self-styled mujahedeen named Mohammed Merah, a Franco-Algerian. Or perhaps: A French national of Algerian origin. Or maybe: A French citizen of Algerian descent.

But not French

In the English-speaking media such ethnic designations have been indispensable for describing Merah, but not in the French media. This may come as a surprise to many. Yes, Merah’s North African heritage is mentioned in the French press, sometimes even up near the lede paragraph, but often not at all.

Several French journalists I spoke to expressed surprise that Merah’s Algerian background has nearly always been mentioned in the English-speaking press. But to the French journalists, Merah was French: period. This is a reflection of the French principle of maintaining a complete disregard for religious or ethnic affiliations when it comes to describing a French citizen.

France is not a color

And for that we should give France some credit. After all, France is the only European colonial empire that ever made real attempts to turn foreign lands into French soil. There are 2.7 million people represented in French parliament who live in France’s overseas departments and territories, many with the right of citizenship. French people will vote in the upcoming presidential election, and even use the euro, in South America, the Caribbean and other lands which probably never grew a grape.

For decades France’s parliament was often subject to the desires of the French-Algerian bloc, which demanded concessions for the “pied-noir” settlers even when public opinion in mainland France sided with Algerian independence. Of course Franco-Algerian-Arabs (it does get complicated, doesn’t it?) were never awarded the same rights in apartheid Algeria to begin with, but such were the poor morals of the day, and contrasted with Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, et al, France was different, and these differences have shaped modern France’s decidedly different view of race, religion and ethnicity.

It’s difficult for me to explain to many non-French that the average French person simply won’t discuss issues of color or creed. Under French law they feel everyone is equal, and that’s that. And I’m talking about average people who are non-white: blacks with a background in West Africa, 3rd generation immigrants from Istanbul or from people whose grandparents hailed from what used to be called French Indochina.

It’s admirable, it’s modern and for many I’ve spoken with in France it works.

But only sometimes, because willful ignorance is certainly a double-edged sword: A horse with blinders on may concentrate better when running a race, but take the blinders off and you don’t want to be standing behind it.

French in good times and bad times

France’s neutrality often means less appreciation for the institutional problems facing their largest minority – Muslims. By not counting their numbers, establishing affirmative-action problems or addressing the problems created by those who only pay lip-service to the nation’s notion of colorblindness, France’s Muslims, and other significant minorities, relinquish their collective power.

That’s why it’s so important in times of possible racial scapegoating that France proudly affirm the Frenchness of Mohammad Merah. Now, more than ever, France better defend the idea that Merah was as French as a baguette.

Because certainly they can’t have it both ways: Denying minorities the chance to benefit from the advantages of their communal power during the good times and then playing up their differences when they most need the promised protection of blindness.

Merah’s actions fooled many into initially thinking the killer was a right-wing, European terrorist. But we weren’t fooled: that’s exactly what Merah was.

Early suspicion fell on three French paratroopers who had been dishonorably discharged due to their links to neo-Nazi groups. Many facts of the case dovetail more with a Western-style of terrorism usually committed by those of white European descent: A nihilistic disregard for human life, evidenced by taking the lives of innocent children, the lack of immediately claiming responsibility in order to justify the heinous acts by espousing a certain ideology and the fact that these were not suicide missions but calculating, cold-blooded murder.

That many initially suspected someone of (purely white) European descent is actually a testament to the level of integration achieved by France’s Muslims: Merah appears to have conducted his terror campaign like a proper European psychopath. Yet I don’t think he’ll be on the next poster for French-Arab unity.

Muslims brace for backlash, but hope a candidate transcends the hate

As a Press TV correspondent in Paris, I have spoken to hundreds of France’s Muslims about their issues and concerns. While their usually negative depiction by the French media is almost universally aggravating, they are largely inured to being scapegoated by politicians. As France’s presidential election is barely a month away, how the Merah case will be utilized by the candidates, and how the electorate views such treatment, will be very telling as to how French society truly views the Muslim and immigrant communities.

Marine Le Pen, the presidential candidate of the far-right National Front, showed no shame in immediately trying to make political hay of the murders, lambasting the Sarkozy government for underestimating the homegrown threat of France’s Muslims to public safety and the ubiquity of kabob stands to national waistlines (ok, not that second part). That contrasted, thankfully, with the more enlightened calls for calm and shunning of political opportunism promoted by front-running Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, the centrist Francois Bayrou, running fourth in expected first-round voting, and the commendable attitude of far-left, communist-allied candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, placing fifth, who said, “There’s a degree of violence and stigmatization in French society that’s growing - it’s unacceptable.”

Of course, all eyes are on the leader. Many are waiting to see which tack President Nicolas Sarkozy will take. In the 2007 campaign he narrowly edged the Socialist candidate by amping up his favorite “top cop” pose and brandishing xenophobia as though it provided an actual program for positive change in French society.

Will the actions of a serial killer, the first school shooting in French history and the gripping siege of a madman actually change the minds of voters?

Sarkozy already played the hate card in 2007

Many I have spoken with post-shooting immediately handed the 2012 election to Sarkozy. Even though the killings scream for France to reduce its level of racism and colonialism – of course there is no justification for such horrendous actions, but the killer said his reasons were France’s involvement in Afghanistan, France’s recent anti-burqa law as well as the deaths of children in Gaza (and perhaps he remembers the time before Sarkozy, when France was counted as an Arab ally) – many expect France to vote with a gut full of fear instead of a head full of thankfulness at not being included among the dead.

I find this lack of faith in Frenchmen and Frenchwomen surprising.

I can assure you that France already had a gut-level dislike for Sarkozy before the shootings occurred. Even his supporters, who believed his unfulfilled 2007 campaign promises, seem to regard him warily. There’s a collective feeling that his personality and his policies - his callousness towards common people, his materialism, his wars, his staggering string of scandals, his certain dates with judicial investigators once his presidential immunity expires – have dishonored the presidency and thus all of France in the eyes of the world.

And if Sarkozy turns even further to the far-right to profit off the massacre I don’t think France will be fooled twice. That would be a strategy which won’t surprise anybody, and Sarkozy knows he needs to change: This is a candidate who has been desperately trying to remake his image for several years. Waving the bloody flag of Toulouse will only confirm that the Sarkozy up for re-election is the same opportunist they’ve made the most unpopular president in postwar history.

I think French voters will tap the anti-austerity Hollande to take the reins, as long as he avoids trying to pull Muslims and immigrants into the dirt; if he can retain his dignity. Heck, the Socialists couldn’t even do that – remember Dominique Strauss-Kahn – and they’re still at least 10 points ahead in the final round.

Ultimately, France is a nation hungry for unity and calm after five years of a divisive and hyperactive president. They’re looking for someone who won’t raise the retirement age and more economic barriers during tough economic times. They’d also like to avoid – as a handful of terrible wars in the past 150 years proves – becoming the puppet of self-righteous German bluster.

If I’m wrong, then for all of France’s supposed high-mindedness and fancy culture they’re actually as dumb as the Americans who gave George W. Bush a second term.

Like the United States, France apparently is capable of generate gun-toting psychopaths who want to tar everyone in a certain group with the same brush. Let’s hope such negative similarities don't last through France's presidential election.