France: Mohammed Merah, la victime de la République.
So let’s talk about Mohamed Merah (for my American readers and followers who are not up-to-date on this story here is a CNN link and BCC top 10 articles on this incident, which should be enough to bring you up to speed). I didn’t want to write anything about this story for the simple reason that I thought it didn’t need more attention that it already had. However, after reading whatever was written on this terrorist/murder/killing-spree incident, and watching news summaries linked to it, I noticed something that bothered me a lot; something that was missing from the debate surround this incident. The way the whole story was presented was as if Merah and what he did was sui generis; he came out of nowhere; those incidents were not caused by any structural and/or institutional variables. For French politicians, pundits, and blowhards alike, Merah was just like Jesus; both men were the result of an immaculate conception. However, Merah’s immaculate conception was neither biological nor divine; it was institutional and structural conception. For them, Merah just hated so much the Jews and the French soldiers, and loved so much radical Islam that he woke up one day and decided to kill some Jews and some soldiers. This explanation is as misleading as idiotic. No one has yet to ask: how did Merah get to this point? What are the structural reasons? Are there institutional causes? No one wants to ask these tough questions because no one likes or wants to hear the answers.
Because of this, I decided to bestow on Mohammed Merah the status of victim. Yes, he was actually a victim, and no one dared to say it. But how can I say that Merah was a victim when he was allegedly accused (I am using “allegedly” because the courts and/or the prosecutors have not yet indicted and/or charged Merah with these crimes) of killing 3 Jewish kids, 3 soldiers and 1 adult male? Have I lost my mind? Have I lost all sense of compassion for the victims? Am I justifying these horrendously inhumane crimes? No, I have not and i do not by any stretch of the imagination. Merah is as much a killer as he is a victim. He is victim of the French Republic; he is the victim of his own name, his own skin color, of his own accent, of his own religion, of his own appearance, of his own history, of his own socioeconomic situation, of his own culture, and of his own identity. Everyone of these aspects of his victimhood (or victimology as criminalists would called it) were aggravated, manipulated, isolated, amplified and used against Merah by the French Republic to shame him, to isolate him, to degrade him, to debase him, to dehumanize him, and to strip him of any honor and any pride in himself, his family, his community, and his country.
Merah was an outcast living in a society that despised his forefathers, his fathers, and despised him. He was living in a country that dehumanized his forefathers, his fathers, and dehumanized him. He grew up seeing his parents disrespected and afraid of whom they are. He was probably ashamed of his father’s accent, his grammar mistakes, and he wanted so much his daddy to just speak like a “normal” Frenchman. As a young kid in school, Merah had probably asked himself several times, “why don’t I have blue eyes and a fair skin? Why is my name so different and so hated and synonymous with ugliness and poverty? If only my name was Francois or Jacques or Pierre, and I had fair skin and blue eyes, I wouldn’t be living in these dire conditions.”
Merah was ashamed of his religious tradition because he was told repeatedly that Islam is an evil and backward religion. He was told that the hijab that his grandmothers wore for years, and probably his mother too, wasn’t a religious practice, but a sign of proselytism, fanaticism, and inferiority that was not welcome in the Republic. He was told that the Republic would fight and criminalize his religious tradition. He was told that he lived in a secular country, yet he noticed that Catholic holidays are recognized and celebrated while his are demeaned and forgotten. He was told that he lived in a country that did not distinguish at all between all religions, yet he watched his father pray in a dilapidated cave-like make-shift mosques while churches are erected at every corner like majestic architectural marvels.
Merah was ashamed of his history and the history of his community because his forefathers migrated to France as second-class indigenous Muslims who were neither Algerians nor French. Politically speaking, his fathers and grandfathers were bastards as far as the French Republic was concerned. And even when his father embraced the Republic and became a French citizen, the Republic never embraced him back. In fact, the Republic fought his father’s religion and origin and wanted him to erase his distinctiveness and live in a cultural, religious, ethnic, and linguistic vacuum; a no-man’s-land identity where he could neither prosper as a French citizen nor could he be proud of his Algerian heritage. So his father was just like his grandfather: a bastard of the Republic. This didn’t change with Merah. Although he is of this new generation, these young beurres who were born in 1980s and 1990s and think they are fully assimilated into the French societal fabric. But to Merah great sadness and psychological despair, he discovered that to be assimilated in the French societal fabric he needed to radically change and become someone else. He found out that speaking French without an accent wasn’t enough. He needed to strip himself of his religion, his past, his culture, and hide who he really is so deep in the confines of his psyche that no one would dare call him anything else but French. But every time Merah rode the train, he was reminded that he didn’t look “French”. Every time he wanted to talk to a pretty “French” girl, he was reminded of his origins. Every time he crossed the path of a cop, he was reminded that he was presumably guilty, not innocent. Every time he watched politicians on the news, he was reminded of his second-class citizen status. Every time he listened to the minister of Interior (to all of ministers of Interior since 1970s), he was reminded that he and his parents belonged to a backward civilization. Every time he watched his president campaign, he felt that he was just a guest in a foreign country; that he was just an electoral merchandize bartered around between the radical right and the extreme right. Briefly stated, Merah was not French, though he has no other citizenship. He was never French not because of the lack of wanting to be French, but because the French Republic and the French society refused to accept him or accept any of his heritage with respect, dignity, and equality.
See, to be assimilated in the cultural and the sociopolitical fabric of a country, that country has to assimilate you and accept your culture, your ethnicity, and your tradition as well. Assimilation works both ways. Assimilation is an endogenous phenomenon; you embrace a country, and at its turn, the country embraces you too. In the case of Merah and many like him, assimilation meant one thing: leave who you are behind and wear this new foreign suit hoping that the suit would fit you. After a while, Merah felt like a clown who was acting his part in a circus called France. The problem was that Merah was just acting the part, not living or becoming the part. This daily dissociation from reality is hard to maintain, and if a person is not psychologically strong, that person could start looking for alternatives. Unfortunately for Merah, he found an alternative to the republic. A radical and perverted form of a religious belief that provided him with an easy explanation and designated an already guilty target. That’s the whole story of Merah and that is the story that no one is telling out there. No, it is not about Islam and radical fanaticism. It’s all about the Republic and its failed models of integration and assimilation. Yes, Merah pulled the trigger and there is no doubt about that, but we need to backup a little, get our story straight, and determine how he got to that decision. In the case of Merah, genetics loaded the gun, his cultural, social, and political environment aimed the gun, and the French Republic pulled the trigger.