Mohamed Merah: a failure in life and death

A Jihadist murderer might have hoped to spark wider terror. But a nation pulled through.

A failure in life and death

Jacques Brinon/AP

Mohamed Merah, the self-proclaimed Islamic holy warrior whose contribution to jihad consisted of murdering three children and four innocent adults, grew up in Les Izards, a Toulouse suburb of low-slung apartment buildings and gangs of loitering hostile youth.

Many of its residents are Muslim Arabs: immigrants from North Africa and, increasingly, their French-born children and grandchildren. Arson is common, one resident said. Cars and buildings are torched.

In a public square in the neighbourhood, civilian “mediators” patrol. Their job is to liaise between residents and the police, who are often present in large numbers but hang back and don’t readily interact with those who live in the district.

It was here that Merah passed an adolescence of juvenile delinquency and petty crime, before adopting a radical strand of Islamism. He travelled to Israel, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he was briefly arrested. He ended up back in France where security services kept an eye on him after that—though, it is now evident, not closely enough. At home he forced a neighbour’s child to watch gore videos from Afghanistan. When the boy’s mother intervened, Merah beat up his sister.

Few of Merah’s former neighbours want to speak to a visiting reporter. “I don’t know anything about him. I know only God,” says one man, bearded and wearing a long and loose Islamic tunic. “If you want to talk about God, we can talk.” Other residents offer threats and insults.

One young woman, her body and face cloaked in an abaya and niqab, is willing to talk, and does so in perfect, unaccented French. She says she grew up with Merah. It would be wrong to describe them as friends, she says, because all the children in the estates were more like a family and Merah like a brother. She says Merah was driven to act by the suffering of Muslim children around the world.

“Why are you here to find out our emotions when three Jewish children are killed but not when our own children die?” she asks.

Of course, she says, she condemns all murders. “We’re not monsters.” But she says it’s necessary to understand the “source” of the killings. Why are people making and selling weapons? she asks. And what about the wars in Afghanistan and Palestine?

It is pointed out that the seven people who Merah shot did not die in a war, but were murdered.

“And what is happening in Israel isn’t murder?” she shoots back.

This is her rhetorical knockout punch. She makes it triumphantly, to the cheers of those around her.

She then tries to organize a march in Merah’s memory. The plan is to find and purchase flowers to take to the home of Merah’s mother. But the closest subway entrance is closed and police have blocked a nearby street. So the group walks through the neighbourhood, chanting occasionally while the woman exhorts them with a megaphone. They reach a line of police and stop, seemingly more dejected and embarrassed than angry, their momentum fading. Most are under 30. Some are children.

Mohamed Merah might have hoped to inspire French Muslims with his slaughter in the name of God, but this is a desultory group barely willing to even mourn his passing. Like so many jihadists before him, Merah likely had an exaggerated sense of his cause’s resonance with other Muslims. And he underestimated the capacity of his enemies to absorb the evil he would inflict.

MERAH’S LIFE ended a short distance from where he grew up, in a quiet, mixed neighbourhood called Côte Pavée. Here, in the apartment where he lived, he defied police in a 32-hour standoff last week. He admitted to the murders and said they were to avenge Palestinian children, to oppose France’s military presence in Afghanistan, and to protest France banning the Islamic face veil.

Merah’s victims were murdered in three separate incidents over nine days in and near Toulouse. He first killed Imad Ibn-Ziaten, a French soldier with Moroccan roots, on March 11. He then fatally shot soldiers Mohamed Legouad and Abel Chennouf in the nearby city of Montauban on March 15. Ziaten and Legouad were Muslims, Chennouf a Christian. On Monday, March 19, Merah attacked the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse. He killed Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and two of Sandler’s children, Aryeh and Gabriel. Merah also murdered Miriam Monsonego, the young daughter of one of the school’s teachers. Merah ran her down and grabbed her by the hair when his gun jammed, shooting her in the head with another weapon.

Bryan Bijaoui, a teenager at Ozar Hatorah school, was wounded in the school attack. Loïc Liber, a French soldier from Guadeloupe, was injured in the attack that killed Chennouf and Legouad.

While besieged, Merah bragged to police about the murders and told them he regretted not being able to kill more. He died instead in a hail of gunfire when security forces stormed his apartment. In his final moments, Merah wounded two police officers before leaping while shooting through his front window. A sniper shot him in the head.

“This is where he fell,” Martis, a nine-year-old boy living in the neighbourhood said, pointing at the rubbish-strewn lawn beneath Merah’s window. The surrounding apartment walls are chipped and pockmarked with bullet holes, as are cars parked nearby, and an evangelical church across the road. “Three hundred bullets in five minutes,” he continued, sounding vaguely impressed. “I heard them from my school.” His grandmother said Martis was too frightened to sleep by himself.

A march to remember the victims, organized by France’s largest Jewish organization, was held in Toulouse on Sunday. Thousands walked slowly through the city to the Ozar Hatorah school, led by Jewish and Muslim leaders walking arm in arm. At the school, and also at a nearby street corner, heaps of flowers and stuffed animals lay piled among messages of condolence. “Muslim parents with you,” read one.

Sebastian Nouchi, a father of three, was at the march. Watching television with his four-year-old daughter, they saw images of the victims. “That’s my friend, Aryeh,” Nouchi’s daughter said.

“We didn’t know she knew her. We started to cry,” said Nouchi. And so he had to explain the inexplicable to a four-year-old.

“She understands that she won’t see her friend again. She knows that a bad guy did something, but we didn’t explain exactly that the bad guy wanted to kill her and people like her. We say to her that Aryeh is with God. We did not say that Aryeh is dead. We say to her that there was a bad man outside but he is in jail now. We say it is finished. It’s over.”

BUT IT’S NOT over—neither the grieving, nor the questions about what the attacks might mean for France.

The French model of identity, unlike elsewhere in Europe, is based on civic rather than ethnic nationalism. “It’s colour blindness. It’s complete blindness to any sort of difference,” says Manlio Cinalli, an associate professor of political science at the Institute d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) in Paris.

The idea is that anyone can be French, regardless of their background, if they learn the language and adopt the values of the republic. Among the most important of these is loyalty to the state rather than any other collective. Group rights and even group identities are shunned. “Communautarisme is a dirty word in France,” says Hall Gardner, chairman of the department of international and comparative politics at the American University of Paris.

A related concept is laïcité, a principle designed to ensure the secular neutrality of public space, which is why France recently banned conspicuous religious symbols such as Islamic veils in French public schools.

These measures are meant to make French identity accessible, to ensure that the country’s multi-ethnic population will integrate and see those from different backgrounds as their compatriots and equals. But now Mohamed Merah, born here and a citizen of the republic—“a child of France,” as at least one French newspaper has described him—has massacred his fellow French specifically because his loyalties lay not with them, but with al-Qaeda and with Muslims around the world who he felt were oppressed.

“It triggers all the underlying fears of integration and anti-Semitism—all of those national obsessions that the French have anyways. So it’s the perfect little storm within the campaign,” says Jan Techau, director of the European centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to the French presidential election. Its first round takes place April 22.

Discussions about integration in France frequently circle back to the banlieues, or suburbs, ringing many of France’s largest cities, where Muslims and other ethnic minorities often predominate. Karim Amellal, an author, lecturer at Sciences Po, and founder of an Internet media company, grew up in one of them—although he stresses that because his father was a senior Algerian civil servant before the family relocated to France, his background is not typical of those who live there. He describes the banlieues as “lost areas of the republic.”

“We have a huge gap between our values and how things are going on in the suburbs,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. “The republic’s values are equality and fraternity, but what’s going on is growing division.”

According to Amellal, most French Muslims, even in the poorest banlieues, want to integrate and believe in French republican values. Their isolation is driven by economics. They don’t have money or jobs and so are cut off from the rest of French society.

“The only value that I believe in, equality, is the unique word that we have to make real,” he says. “Very concretely, it means struggling against discrimination. It means giving people from poor backgrounds the same education as people from rich backgrounds. It means giving them access to employment, to credit, to banks, if they want to start their own business. It means giving them access to transport.”

Equality, for too many in the suburbs, says Amellal, is just a word. There are “invisible barriers” between them and the rest of France. “It is the cancer that is destroying from inside the republic.”

Clichy-sous-Bois is perhaps the most notorious of Paris’s banlieues. The riots that swept France in 2005 began here, triggered by the death of two youths who were accidentally electrocuted while running from police. Last year a new park was built in Clichy, with a play structure for children, green lawns, and a combination soccer pitch and basketball court. On a recent spring evening the park was full of playing children and their watching parents.

The apartments are still shabby. Most have some variation of “F–k the police!” spray-painted on them. The police themselves roll by in packed vans. “Look. Tourists,” one resident says, pointing at them.

Several young men gather outside an apartment building, including Ender Cakar, a clean-cut 22-year-old wearing a turquoise golf shirt. “I was born in France,” says Cakar, whose family origins are Turkish. “But when I apply for a job, they see my name and think I am not French.” Cakar says he will begin university in the fall.

Ali, 26, standing next to him, has no doubts about his identity. “I’m French. It’s thanks to France that I eat bread. It’s thanks to France that I have a job.”

As for the attacks: “Terrorists are s–t,” he says. “There are no Muslims, Christians, Jews—I respect everyone. I have Jewish friends. I say ‘Shabbat shalom’ on Saturdays. It’s good.”

Ali points to a nearby apartment complex. “But the people who live there are crazy,” he says. “They want to assault Jews.”

Outside the apartment building in question, a group of young men, a woman, and a toddler are preparing a barbeque. Someone is smoking marijuana. One man says they respect Jews and everyone else. Another, Moktar, from Afghanistan, complains that everybody is interested in three dead Jewish children but ignores Palestinian children who die everyday.

“Write this down,” Karim Nasri, a 25-year-old from Egypt says. “It’s wrong to kill children everywhere, not just in France.” He says Jews threaten Muslims when they pass by synagogues in Paris.

Others dispute that Merah was responsible for the deaths in Toulouse. It was a Zionist plot, like Sept. 11, says Sidi, who did not want to give his last name. He runs inside to fetch an iPad to show videos depicting Israeli abuses against Palestinian children.

“I don’t like the Jews,” says François Lemoin, a Christian. “If I had a nuclear bomb, Israel would be finished. Soon, soon. Ten years. If Israel is gone, the whole world would be peaceful. No war.”

There are other anecdotal signs of social disharmony in France. Jews interviewed by Maclean’s in Le Marais neighbourhood of central Paris say there are parts of the city where they don’t feel safe wearing a kipa because of the Muslims who live there.

“They shout, ‘Dirty Jews!’ ‘The Nazis didn’t finish their work,’ things like that,” says Norman Sion, who works in the clothing trade. It’s not everyone, he says, adding that he has Muslim friends.

“Jews don’t want to kill Arabs because of this,” says Daniel Ifergan, 27, referring to the murders in Toulouse. “We understand the difference between Muslims and terrorists and Islamists. They’re not the same.”

Another man claims there are too many Arabs in France. Ifergan scolds him for being racist.

ACCORDING TO Manlio Cinalli of Sciences Po, individual cases of ethnic and religious hostility mask larger trends in France, which he says point to the increasing integration of French Muslims in the rest of the society.

Cinalli cites polls showing growing instances of mixed marriages involving French of different backgrounds, as well as the tendency of French Muslims to name French citizenship as the most important facet of their identity. French Muslims are also becoming more likely to adopt social habits common to non-Muslim French, such as drinking and premarital sex—though they are reticent about accepting homosexuality, and are comparatively ill disposed toward Jews.

“The overall impression is there is a large interiorization of French republicanism in the French Muslim population,” he says.

One man who has fully embraced these values is Ahmed, a Frenchman of Algerian background who asked that his real name not be published. Ahmed, like Amellal, grew up in a Paris banlieue. His parents were poor. His mother came to France as an illegal immigrant and later worked as a cleaning lady. His father was a clerk.

Today Ahmed, 32, already has a successful career as a civil servant behind him and has worked, among other places, at the United Nations. He’s now a student at École nationale d’administration, an elite school tasked with training senior French officials. His request for anonymity isn’t because he has anything to hide, but because he believes members of the French public service can best serve the government by maintaining public neutrality.

“There are issues, but it’s working,” he says of the French model for integrating minorities. “There are people like me who are working through the system. And it’s not because of positive discrimination. It’s because the system is working.”

Ahmed credits his success with the education he received at a French public school. He says he was fortunate because the school drew students from mixed backgrounds—something he says is less common today, which worries him.

“In some neighbourhoods the republic is not keeping its promise,” he says. “It has given up on some neighbourhoods. There is less public service, fewer teachers. People are alone.” Without the republic to give people a sense of identity and belonging, they will look inward, he says. “There is a danger that you recreate communities.”

Still, Ahmed, like Cinalli, points to larger shifts in French society. “You have the sea and the waves—the surface and deeper tendencies,” he says. “And the deeper tendencies are people intermarrying. There’s integration. Companies are investing in people of immigrant backgrounds because they have energy and capabilities.”

The shootings in Toulouse, he says, were a criminal act, a terrible disturbance on the surface of French society, rather than the sign of a more profound rot.

“[Integration] will take time. It always takes time,” he says, recalling earlier waves of migrants to France from Poland and Italy. “But if two or three generations, it’s fine.”

MOST FRENCH seem to share his optimism. There has been no backlash. French Muslims have not been attacked. Mosques have not been vandalized.

Even French politicians have been restrained. President Nicolas Sarkozy announced some new measures designed to combat terrorism but has not made any sweeping changes to French law. He has urged solidarity and stoicism.

“Up against a terrorist aggression of contemptible violence, France proved its self-control and determination and stayed united and together,” Sarkozy said following the end of the siege and Merah’s death.

“Today the French should overcome their indignation and not let their anger get the better of them. Our Muslim compatriots have nothing to do with the crazy motivations of a terrorist. There must not be any discrimination. Before targeting Jewish children, the killer fired point blank on Muslims.”

Sarkozy had appeared headed for defeat in the upcoming presidential election. He had trailed Socialist candidate François Hollande for months, ever since the latter’s nomination in October. Senate elections in September also appeared to show a shift to the left among French voters, with Socialist and other leftist candidates winning a majority in the French upper house for the first time since the birth of the Fifth Republic more than 50 years ago.

By March, Sarkozy had pulled close to Hollande, even catching him according to some polls. He did this by tacking to the right to steal ground from Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, on issues such as immigration and the supposed threat posed by halal meat (from animals ritually slaughtered according to Muslim religious rules).

Before Merah was identified as the killer, many in France assumed the murderer to be a right-wing extremist who hated both Jews and Muslims. Some blamed Sarkozy for stoking nationalist tensions. Centrist candidate François Bayrou linked the murders “to a growing climate of intolerance.”

The revelation that the killer was a radical Islamist absolved Sarkozy of any implied responsibility. It also gave him the opportunity to assume the role of the nation’s leader during a moment of crisis. He has appeared calm and resolute, and has seen continued strong results in recent polls. Two more released this week showed him leading Hollande.

The far-right National Front leader might also have been expected to benefit politically from the killings. Le Pen tried, describing the murders as evidence that Islamic fundamentalism in France had been “underestimated.” Last weekend she went further, linking the tragedy to immigration.

“How many Mohamed Merahs in the boats, the airplanes, that arrive each day in France?” she asked at a rally. But this was a crude and illogical speech. Mohamed Merah was born in France. His victims included two Muslims of North African origins who chose to serve in the French military. Voters don’t appear to be buying into Le Pen’s logic. Polls show her support has held steady or dropped.

In the end, this election will likely be fought over the economy, the deficit and unemployment, says Bruno Cautrès, a researcher at Sciences Po. Mohamed Merah told police he wanted to “bring France to its knees.” His atrocities have shaken and saddened the country, but in this goal he failed.

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