When French media flashed yesterday morning that a young Algerian Muslim holed up in his apartment had confessed to killing seven people, including three Jewish children earlier this week, French Muslims let out a collective cry: Oh no, this is not good.
Well before Mohammed Merah claimed responsibility for the string of killings in southern France that also left three French soldiers dead, Muslims in France were feeling under siege. The country is in the midst of a hard-fought presidential election campaign that careened in an anti-foreign, anti-Islam direction weeks before, highlighted by a concocted panic about “halal” meat – which meets Islamic requirements – that was used as code for French Muslims being vaguely un-French and problematic.
At first, a sizable number of French thought the brutal murders at a Jewish school Monday would turn out to be the work of a proto-fascist or neo-Nazi – a French Anders Breivik. But then a 23-year-old, Toulouse-born Muslim claiming Al Qaeda credentials was suddenly all over the media, talking about his Islamic inspiration and grievances about the Palestinians.
Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, a presidential candidate with substantial support, immediately called for a “war” against fundamentalists.
“I called my wife and told her to prepare our luggage!” says Karim, an Algerian French resident who works at a Paris nongovernmental organization. He was only half-joking, he says. “This just opens the door to all xenophobic and racist themes. The Muslim community was already stigmatized, and now it may be more stigmatized.”
French Muslims fear a culture war
As Mr. Merah became an instant household name in France Wednesday, both Jewish and Muslim French groups issued statements completely divorcing his actions and views from those of French Muslim citizens, and from the teachings of Islam.
Yet that was small solace for 3 million to 5 million Muslims here, who make up Europe’s largest Islamic community. They sent blizzards of text messages to each other filled with cries of “Why now?” and voicing fears that Merah's actions would be used to justify stigmatization of their faith and its adherents.
Muslims in France feel they are battling more openly stated negative images of their community. They say that in this year's election campaign, the center-right and far right have competed to use the "Islam card" to woo mainstream voters. Many Muslims feel the French media and elites completely misunderstand them, and many are also suspicious about the timing of this week’s terror saga, just ahead of the first round of the presidential election on April 22.
“Why now, just before the elections?” asks Anis Saada, a young information technology engineer in Paris. “I’m not into conspiracy theories but I question this coincidence.”
Anxiety around Islam has cooled a bit in France and Europe since 2011's Arab revolutions, which were mostly a non-Islamic phenomenon, and the drawdown of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although deeply conservative salafist fervor is on a modest rise in France, says Gilles Keppel, a leading Islam analyst in Paris. The last militant Islamist operation in France was a brief episode at the Marseilles airport in the 1990s that was quickly quashed by police.
“Merah is a delinquent. He’s been to prison several times,” Mr. Saada says. “We hear he has committed 18 acts of violence. We should ask… is he a spokesperson for Islam? Can we generalize an entire community or country… can we say all Norwegians are like Breivik?”
Laurent Mucchielli, a leading expert on the French banlieu, or near suburbs, where most Muslims reside, says that “Many people are only waiting for something like this to bring into the national debate at a time of elections.
“When you look at the events in Toulouse, it may heighten Islamophobia and contribute to this ‘clash of civilizations’ view" – a view of relations between Europe and Muslim immigrants that Mr. Mucchielli, based at the University of Aix-Marseilles, says has been discredited.
Ms. Le Pen, one of the toughest critics of immigration and Islam, who polls at 15 to 20 percent as a presidential candidate, fired a volley yesterday, castigating French officials for laxity and saying, “We must bring [a] war against fundamentalist political groups who kill Christian children, our Christian young men, our young Muslim men, and Jewish children.”
In mass killings, ranging from the Oklahoma City bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh to last year's rampage in Norway by Mr. Breivik, Muslims have held their collective breaths. "Don’t let it be one of us," they think.
Despite early speculation that Arab or Muslim extremists might be the culprits in those cases, it was far-right extremists who brought the mayhem in those cases. Mr. McVeigh attacked the idea of American federal power while Breivik was a “crusader" defending “Christian Europe,” killing youth members of a Norwegian political party that supported multiculturalism.
A conflicted young man
Merah was born in Toulouse in 1988. His profile, emerging from French police, prosecutors, neighbors, and others interviewed by French media, indicates an internally divided character. The online news publication Nouvelle Observateur describes “the two faces” of Merah: a very polite young man, “soft like a lamb” and helpful to others, who buys sweets for kids in the neighborhood – but who has a police record and a background file that pinpoints him as a violence-prone and mentally disturbed youth with a hair-trigger temper that frightened others.
Former CIA analyst Mark Sageman told French Internet news website Rue 89 that Merah’s profile was characteristic of the “decline” and degradation of an Al Qaeda that has lost its inspiration or intellectual leadership. “Often they are thugs, young people who would have ended up in a gang if they had not finished in the jihad,” he said.
French prosecutor François Molins said yesterday that Merah visited Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2010 and 2011, but citing US officials and others in the region, French media today said there was no record of Merah in those countries. The scattered, incomplete information circulating about Merah is only causing Muslims in France further grief, they say.
Muslims make up roughly 5 percent of the French population of 65 million. They began to arrive in substantial numbers in France during the 1960s, often as guest workers or exiles from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, and Mali – basically, the former French colonies.
An under-30 Algerian bakery shop assistant who is completing her doctoral studies – Habiba is the only name she gave – said that she understands why the general population wonders about Islam. “If I wasn’t Muslim and didn’t know Islam’s principles, I would wonder who these people are," she says.
The shootings by an Algerian Muslim will "be hard on us," she says. "We are going to have justify ourselves, to say this isn’t what we want or what Islam means."