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.

  1. May 3, 2012 at 11:51 am

    “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.”
    Et en Algérie ou en Arabie Saoudite, Noël, le 15 Août, Toussaint sont-ils célébrés ?
    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.”
    Les églises n’ont pas été construites par l’état mais payées au cours des siècles par les fidèles.
    Pourquoi les musulmans réclament-ils ce qu’eux-mêmes n’accordent pas aux autres ?

    Quant au fond de l’affaire, quand bien même M. Merah se serait senti rejeté, exclu, maltraité, etc. était-ce une raison pour assassiner trois enfants dans une école ? ( Je ne parle pas des soldats assassinés, Merah devait se sentir un grand soldat, héros de l’islam en tirant au pistolet mitrailleur sur des gens désarmés !)
    Non, pour moi il n’y a que deux solutions, soit c’était un malade mental (et cette solution sera celle retenue par tous ceux, gens raisonnables, qui ne veulent pas jeter de l’huile sur le feu), soit il était sain d’esprit et personne ne devrait pleurer sur son sort.

    • May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      The difference between the Saudi Arabia/Algeria and France is that Saudi Arabia/Algeria are not democracies, no one things of them as democracies, and they never pretended to be democracies. While you in France, you think of yourself not only as a democracy, but a secular democracy. And here, there is a huge gap between what is real and what is not.

  2. helen
    April 6, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    Thank you for this very thought provoking piece.I have searched the internet for something written about Mohammed Merah that wasn’t full of hatred and murderous intentions and this is the only piece I have found written by someone who has the guts to look outside the box and actually think about what life would have been like for Merah.I followed the story from it’s beginning right through to the end, and for some reason it stuck in my mind.The awful alleged crimes of this young man are inexcusable and all sympathy must go the victims but I also believe this young man was a victim of being unable to believe he belonged anywhere in this world.Trying to fit in somewhere, he came up against rejection after rejection in a country that cared little for him and others like him.Anger and humiliation mixed with a fragile mind and a lack of human identity is an explosive mix for some people and all too often it leads to disastrous consequences such as we all witnessed in Toulose.This young man and many others like him were doomed from the start.It’s true we all have a choice with which path to take,but what happens when every path we take is a dead end…where do we go from there?.Those of us who have never been there cannot imagine what that must be like.To feel like, and be treated as a second class citizen…to be rejected at every turn must be soul destroying and humiliating.We all have dreams and paths that we want to follow.As decent human beings we can and must condemn Merahs alleged crimes but lets not forget that there are different kinds of suffering and different kinds of victims..I pray that all victims in this horrendous crime rest in peace in a better place than this sometimes ugly world we live in…and that includes Mohammed Merah..
    Metaphorically speaking I am sure I will get shot down in flames..that’s fine, but I am just a mum of two children who also looks outside the box and tries to find an explanation that doesn’t involve hatred and bitterness.

    • April 6, 2012 at 3:15 pm

      I could not have said it better. What you said was exactly the essence of this post. Yes he is a monster and criminal and cold blooded killer, but when we finish saying that, we need to say how he got to be that person and here we notice the totally broken assimilation model of France, which has been broken for decades now. We also notice that he is an outlier, an epiphenomenon, and he was victim of bad situation. Does it absolve him from his acts? Absolutely not, but it is worth noticing his path for probably avoiding the same thing from happening again. Thanks and don’t worry, no one would shot you down in flames 🙂

  3. April 5, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    I posted a link of this article on the Dailykos and i have to, it generated some severe reactions. Beside the fact that some are just over the top reactions because they don’t understand the living condition in France for those 2nd and 3nd generation Muslims, the most valid criticism that you got had to do with agency. How much agency did merha had? Could he have acted differently or was totally condemned to act the way he acted?

    • April 5, 2012 at 10:26 pm

      I was not aware that this post was posted or linked to another site. I was not aware also that it generated some controversies. However, if it did, then i am glad. It is better to discuss topics or situations even if they are heinous crimes as these crimes without taboo, than just sweep them under the rug and subscribe to explanations that help us sleep quietly at night.

      You are asking about human agency, well, with all due respect, If you have read any book beyond the 101 introductory textbook to sociology or economics or anthropology would have noticed that agency is a necessary, but not sufficient condition in explaining human action (even those textbooks make that clear). It is part of the equation, but not all the equation.

      If you would like to read more about that go and read McCann’ book (1998 or 1988, can’t remember the date exactly) titled “the works of agency: on human action, will, and freedom.” Or read “the actors of modern society: cultural construction of social agency” by Meyer and Jepperson. Or “cultural evolution: social rule systems, selection, and human agency”

      These works clearly show that agency exists, but it is a necessary and NOT sufficient condition in explaining our actions as human beings. Otherwise, no one would care much about institutional and structural conditions.

  4. April 1, 2012 at 9:11 am

    …able to speak, although this is always the main goal of anti-terrorist forces, as you must know well if I judge from your name . In the late 50s French forces wanted people to speak in your country . They want the same thing today, and the fact they didn’t try is the proof there’s something rotten in Denmark, I mean in this Merad’s case .

  5. April 1, 2012 at 9:05 am

    When I read “victime” I thought of something else . There’s something deeply annoying about this case . It reminds me 1988 when, 2 days before the second round of presidential election Mitterrand/Chirac, Chirac then head of the government ordered the assault against Kanak independentists in New Caledonia . You can learn about that in the movie ” La loi et l’ordre” ( Law and order) . The assault was completely useless and costed many lifes .

    There’s an old tendency in the French right wing to grab votes in the name of security .
    I can’t help from thinking this killing happened in a perfect timing for an until now condemned Sarkozy . In spite of all the efforts he recently made to catch extreme right votes, he was promised to a defeat, due to the misery into which he drove most French people in his complete obedience to “the market” masters .
    And suddenly, thanks to Merad, he won several points in the polls . This is an annoying fact .
    Who benefits from this crime ?
    When you learn Merad was an informer of French secret services, as the former DST chief just recognized, when you learn he was known by anti-terrorism units, when you think the last killings happened eight days after the first one, ( how could it take eight days to identify him ? French services are VERY efficient usually since they have about all powers like in a totalitarian state), and last but not least, when you know they shot him dead instead of taking him alive for further interrogation, you are lead to thing much .
    They have gas to paralyze anybody . When some guys took hostages in Mecca in 1979, the Saudi government called French units for help . They were considered as the best for that, and they used gas (chlorobenzylidène malononitrile) to paralyze many terrorists among many hostages . And nobody had the same idea to catch one only main alone ? This is unbelievable, and for me the major reason to doubt about the whole thing . Someone above the police didn’t want him alive and able to speak, a

  6. April 1, 2012 at 8:03 am

    The French will never acknowledge their part of responsibility, it’s a pathological phenomenon and the first step towards healing is looking at oneself in the mirror/ auto-criticism. Till now they find it impossible to acknowledge the ugly side of their colonial history, it’s very telling of the French chronic megalomania. They will not improve themselves if they continue on this path.

    It’s curious really, because in Catholicism, confession to sin and repentence are very important rehabilitating concepts. This is completely absent in French culture which was supposedly at least initially influenced by catholicism.

    As for the French version of secularism, it is worth mentioning that Judaism also is perceived as second class religion compared to Christianity. All religions other than Christianity are in fact, not just Islam. What saves Judaism is the Zionist lobby and the brainwashing propaganda which led to a sense of guilt with respect to the Holocaust.

    France has always dealt with immigrant communities with not even contempt but indifference. It just refuses to ackowledge their existence and that this existence is permanent. It’s almost as if they expected that they would just disappear after a while (they even wanted to bury Merah in Algeria and not in France!), but they have discovered with horror that they’re here to stay. There is a huge lack of trust which makes it very difficult to foresee what policies could work to resolve this cul-de-sac.

    • April 3, 2012 at 7:38 pm

      Well, if the Arab/Muslim French got organized, they would dictate the outcome of every election from national to local. They represent 10% of the population–about 6 millions–if up to 70% or 80% of them voted in block, no one would take them for granted anymore. Without getting organized, they are going to be second-class citizens for the foreseeable future.

  1. April 6, 2012 at 4:37 pm

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