When young children are murdered by point-blank shots to the head, it is very difficult to draw conclusions about anything, let alone religion. The crimes Mohammed Merah has apparently confessed to are unimaginably wicked. French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, summed them up with the blunt relish of a newspaper headline writer, describing the 23-year-old killer as a “monster” who represented nothing and nobody.
However, such interpretations of what has happened in the Toulouse area over the past 10 days won’t last long. Far-right politicians have already seized on the image of the lethal young Muslim from an Algerian immigrant background. The National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is on course to win up to 20% of the popular vote in the presidential elections beginning next month, said it was time to “launch a war” against a “fundamentalist risk which has been underestimated in our country”.
Le Pen has highlighted the fact that Merah had a French passport and was born and brought up at the expense of the republic. Even after he escaped from an Afghan prison where he was held for planting Taliban bombs, he was able to return to a council flat in Toulouse. “Homegrown” Islamic terrorists are the ultimate bogeymen for rabble-rousing politicians, and there is absolutely no doubt that the National Front’s share of the vote will increase because of this outrage.
Sarkozy, himself no stranger to right-wing demagoguery, will also now try to make political capital out of Merah. Earlier this month, the president stated that there were “too many foreigners” in France, and pledged to halve the number of immigrants arriving in France. His presidency has been marked by firm measures against Muslims, including a burqa ban. That Merah told the France 24 TV channel by telephone that he “objected to the law on the veil” and that “Jews have killed our brothers and sisters in Palestine” will be fully exploited by Sarkozy as he tries to win back votes from the National Front.
But Merah has apparently confessed to killing Muslims too: they were among the ethnic minority troops gunned down last week, with Merah claiming that he objected to their regiment fighting in Afghanistan. The truth is that extremist killers seldom differentiate between religions. Suggesting otherwise would mean turning Merah into a crude stereotype.
Note too, that according to interior minister Claude Guéant, Merah had been “under surveillance” by France’s domestic intelligence services for “several years”. A neighbour on the estate where Merah lived has said he was a “known violent extremist” who kidnapped another man a few years ago, but remained on the loose. Merah and was also spotted dressed in combat gear while brandishing a sword and chanting “al-Qaida”. How all this fits in with Sarkozy’s allegedly tough approach to law and order we will have to learn.
The only thing we can be certain of is that a formerly imprisoned Taliban bombers should not be given the freedom to plan and execute terrorist atrocities. To try to extend this fact to a wide-ranging debate about Muslims in French society might be considered wide of the mark.
As Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of Paris’s grand mosque put it, Muslims in France are “peaceful, law-abiding, responsible, nonviolent” citizens who will be outraged by what has happened. Jewish leaders have also appealed for reason, pledging to join a silent march with their Muslim counterparts on Sunday in memory of the victims. Like so many others, they will view the serial killer as nothing more than a “monster”.