Tzvi Fleischer and Sharyn Mittelman
ABC Religion and Ethics 30 Mar 2012
When is a hate crime not a hate crime? Apparently, when a self-proclaimed “Islamic warrior” seeks out an obscure Jewish school, and shoots dead a teacher and three small children simply for being Jews – at least according to some reactions to the massacre that occurred in Toulouse, France on 19 March.
Seeking out and murdering Jewish people for the crime of being Jewish in the service of hateful ideology would seen to be the very essence of a “hate crime.” But some reacted to Toulouse by portraying the murderer, 23 year old Frenchman of Algerian descent Mohamed Merah, as a “lone wolf,” a “psychopath” or a “victim” of French society.
Such rationalisations and apologia for Merah and his crimes, a prime example of which by Tariq Ramadan was published on this site, are not only intellectually and morally offensive, but divert policymakers from focussing on the reality of the antisemitic racial hatred that motivated Merah and the ideology that creates and sustains it.
Ramadan writes that Merah was “not driven by racism or antisemitism” and chose his targets “based on little more than visibility.” But we know that Merah deliberately targeted Jewish children – in a school, which was difficult to find unless you were actively looking for it, and at a time and in a manner which strongly suggests he had cased his target carefully beforehand.
Video footage attests that Merah chased down eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego, grabbed her by the hair and shot her in the head, after killing Rabbi Yonatan Sandler and his two sons Gavriel (4) and Aryeh (6).
Merah told French Police that he regretted not having killed more children at the Jewish school, and that he did not want to be a suicide bomber because he wanted to “to see his victims” and “touch them” and that he took “infinite pleasure” in killing them. To Tariq Ramadan, quite incredibly, this is the behaviour of a “soft-hearted” man!
Ramadan also attempts to wave aside the obvious fact that Islamist ideology was a motivating factor for Merah. Ramadan wrote that Merah was “imbued neither with the values of Islam, nor driven by racism and anti-Semitism” and that “Religion was not Mohamed Merah’s problem.”
Yet Merah told French Police that he was an “Islamic warrior” and a member of al-Qaeda, who had trained in the Afganistan-Pakistan border. Merah also had a connection with Forsane Alizza, a pro al-Qaeda group in France, which was banned in therein January for recruiting French citizens to become jihadists in Afghanistan.
Merah also had jihadist connections in his family. Merah’s mother is married to Sabri Essid, a member of a Toulouse network that found recruits to join al-Qaeda in Iraq. Essid was convicted in a French court in 2009 after being detained in Syria in 2006 where he was running an al-Qaeda safe house.
Merah’s brother Abdelkader is also suspected of involvement in the same network and has been charged with complicity in the murders. Reportedly Abdelkhader is also suspected of being involved in a Belgium-based jihadist recruitment network.
There are also media reports that Merah created a chilling video of his murderous attacks – and he overlayed the footage of the murders with quotes from the Koran.
Tariq Ramadan is, in effect, shifting responsibility for the attack away from Merah and his beliefs, and on to French society as a whole. Merah committed racist crimes driven by an extreme religious-political ideology – and it appears Ramadan’s sympathies for elements of that ideology lead him to seek to distract others from focussing on this reality so as to avoid having his political program tainted by Merah’s actions.
Ramadan’s grandfather Hasan al-Banna was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and noted American liberal intellectual Paul Berman has documented in his book The Flight of the Intellectuals and other works, that while Ramadan uses the language of liberalism to portray himself as an Islamic reformist, he has radical views on a number of issues.
Berman demonstrates that ultimately, Ramdan’s political goal is not that different from Merah’s or al-Qaeda’s – a vision of the only just society being based on strict imitation of the society the Prophet Mohammed established in Arabia in the seventh century. Berman notes that although Ramadan has publicly condemned terrorism, he does not condemn it against Israel – saying he does not support attacks against civilians in principle, but then arguing that the “only recourse” Palestinians have is to attack civilians.
And Berman demonstrates that while Ramadan condemns antisemtism in principle, in practice he views almost all contemporary discussion of antisemitism as covering up nefarious or illegitimate activities by both Israel or Jews living abroad. He even attacked non-Jewish French intellectuals with Jewish sounding names for supposedly acting on behalf of nefarious, particularist Jewish interests.
It may be that Merah’s fundamentalist Islamist views are not being discussed for fear of encouraging “Islamophobia” and reprisal attacks on Muslims. And it is important that it be made very clear that normative Islam does not advocate terrorism as Rachel Woodlock noted in her article, “Understanding the cancer of jihadism.”
But it is morally perverse to do this by means of covering up the main motivation that led to the hate crime at Toulouse. What this amounts to is advocating that we should worry more about the hypothetical possibility of future aggression against Muslims as a result of these attacks than about the aggression against Jews which is already occurring – creating a general climate of fear in which many French Jews now live, quite apart from this attack.
In recent years, many anti-Jewish hate crimes in France have been perpetrated by immigrants from North Africa, who have rationalised bigotry and criminality through their understanding of Islamic beliefs and skewed, extremist views of global politics. These include an attack in 1982 when six people were killed and 22 wounded in a grenade attack on a Jewish restaurant in Paris that was believed to have been carried out by a Palestinian group. More recently, in 2006 Ilan Halimi a young French Jew was kidnapped and tortured over a period of three weeks resulting in his death.
In recent years, antisemitism has resulted in a significant number of French Jews emigrating or preparing to emigrate to Israel. Illustrating the reality they face is the fact that following Merah’s crimes and his death, vigils were held in Toulouse to honour his memory and several Facebook pages were created in his honour by local supporters of his murderous acts.
Woodlock argues that we should focus on the conditions in French society that led to Merah’s actions, not to excuse them, but “just as a medical scientist studies a cancer in order to invent medicines to cure and prevent.” What’s wrong with this approach is that human beings are not cancer cells. Unlike cancer cells, the actions of human beings are shaped by ideas and values – their actions are given meaning by their belief systems, which in turn strongly shape their behaviour.
Mohamed Merah had a belief system, an Islamist-totalitarian worldview which he was led to believe was integral to his identity as a Muslim, that led him to believe he should kill French soldiers and Jews. That belief system, whatever its relationship with normative Islam, is the single most important cause of his actions.
We know this because the admittedly less-than-healthy conditions for Muslims in France highlighted by Ramadan and Woodlock, are hardly unique. Other minorities face similar pressures – racism, feelings of exclusion, socio-economic disadvantage, lack of good jobs – both in France and elsewhere. Even French Jews complain that, as Woodlock highlights with regard to Muslims, “the French State … has continued to refuse to offer Frenchness without … the complete abandonment of their cultural and religious heritage.”
But no one amongst them nor amongst other minorities in France or elsewhere, react to similar sorts of perceived injustices the way a small minority of Muslims do.
In other words, Woodlock’s insistence that “Jihadism exists because there is a market for it” is very incomplete. Feelings of social exclusion, identity-confusion and despair over lack of opportunity are not uncommon and may indeed open some individuals up to radical, pathological and violent belief systems.
But there is a particularly violent and dangerous, particularly vigorously proselytised and particularly unappeasable ideological movement coming out of the Middle East today that appeals almost exclusively to Muslims. It lies behind not only Merah’s crimes, but many others, from 9/11, to the London and Madrid bombings to Bali and several attempted attacks in Australia, to Mumbai, where a tiny Jewish community house became a major target, to a “lone wolf” attack on a Jewish community building in Seattle in 2006, where the murderer entered the building shouting “I am a Muslim American” before shooting six women.
Of course, the shortcomings of French and other societies in terms of their treatment of Muslims and other immigrants should be addressed both as a matter of justice, and because these problems do contribute somewhat to the attraction of radical Islamism and other violent movements.
But it worth remembering that there is no such thing as either perfect justice or a society in which no members of minority groups experience feelings of social exclusion, identity-confusion and despair over lack of opportunity. Woodlock’s “market for jihadism” can thus never be completely eliminated.
Instead, the ideological product being sold must be made much less available and attractive and this requires the reality of the threat of violent Islamism be confronted directly, and not elided in favour of focussing solely on the less morally complex problems of racism against, and exclusion of, Muslims and other immigrants.
Merah’s murders should have encouraged genuine soul searching as to how to avoid future hate crimes. This would demand an honest discussion of the anti-Jewish hatred embedded in Islamist ideology and the jihadi networks that feed such hatred – rather than excuses that gloss over or dismiss such attacks as mere isolated incidents, or the product of social injustice. Otherwise, such attacks are likely to keep happening again and again.
Tzvi Fleischer edits the Australia/Israel Review at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). Sharyn Mittelman is a Policy Analyst at AIJAC.