Friday, March 23, 2012

Toulouse Shooting Spree Deepens France’s Divisions

The shooting spree at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, this week and then the revelation that the gunman, who was eventually killed in a police stand-off, was a Muslim named Mohammed Merah came as terrible news to nearly everyone.  To Jews in France and worldwide, the confirmation of the suspicions that the killings of three children and a rabbi were motivated by radical Islam and anti-Semitism must have been sickening.  To Muslims in France, the news meant that soon there would probably be a backlash against France’s Muslim minority, already the targets of widespread prejudice.  For anyone in France, of any heritage, that values peace, tolerance, pluralism, and understanding between religious and cultural groups, this was a tragedy afflicting not only the families of the victims but the society as a whole.  But there was one group in France that had reason to celebrate the news that these heinous acts could be put under the heading of “Islamic terrorism”: the campaign team working to re-elect Nicolas Sarkozy in next week’s presidential elections.

Location of Toulouse, France

For months, Sarkozy had been polling badly against his Socialist oppenent, François Hollande.  Then, earlier this month, he decided to take a different tack.  Hollande was capturing the center, so the only place Sarkozy had to go to find new votes was on the far right.  He began engaging in angry, anti-immigrant, nationalistic rhetoric that is traditionally the trademark of the anti-Semitic, racist, neo-fascist National Front party.  For Sarkozy, who sailed to the presidency in 2007 on a campaign promise to “power-hose the scum out of the ghettoes,” this strategy was quite congenial to him.  First, he threatened to withdraw France from the European Union’s passport-free zone if Italy did not shut the door more firmly on refugees from Libya, Syria, and elsewhere amid the ongoing Arab Spring revolutions.  Next (as reported on in this blog last week), Sarkozy whipped up anti-Muslim feeling with a shamefully disingenuous concocted scandal over French butchers selling halal meat to non-Muslims.  (Halal is the Muslim equivalent of kosher and requires ritual slaughter of animals that sometimes includes procedures otherwise criminalized as inhumane.  Some butchers in France slaughter all their animals according to halal rules to save the costs of two separate production lines.)  Ah, yes, Sarkozy the long-time animal-rights advocate.  Anyway, it all worked.  Sarkozy’s poll numbers spiked, even exceeding Hollande’s in some surveys.

Nicolas Sarkozy, born-again animal-rights champion

When the Toulouse shootings occurred on March 19th, it must have been a nervous moment for Sarkozy’s reelection campaign.  Would the killer turn out to be some ethnically-French National Front wacko out to kill Jewish children?  Would it be someone who, once caught, would spout hysterical, anti-minority, jingoistic phrases lifted from Sarkozy’s speeches?  No, it was a Muslim.  Whew.

Nicolas Sarkozy

We still know little about Merah.  Raised in France by a single mother from Algeria, he turned to petty crime in his teens, then was exposed to Islamist extremism in prison (as if any more demonstration were needed that disproportionately heavy sentences imposed on Muslim youth in France actually feed terrorism).  Suspicious-looking trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan put him on the United States’ “no fly” list and made him a target of official French surveillance as well.  He bragged of links to al-Qaeda, which may or may not have been just bluster since, if nothing else, he was clearly deeply mentally disturbed.  In any case, the horrors of the shootings (Merah had also killed three French soldiers of Algerian extraction) fit neatly into the prevailing narrative of Sarkozy’s campaign, and increasingly of center-right politics in Europe more generally.  I guarantee the next polls will show Sarkozy ahead.  And he may just win.

Mohammed Merah

At least one European politician tried to change the narrative, but in a regrettably ham-fisted way, and the resulting controversy just adds to the general air of division in European society.  On March 19th, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, an English peeress who is the E.U.’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy—i.e., in one sense, western Europe’s highest-ranking foreign-policy voice—said, “When we think of what happened in Toulouse today, when we remember what happened in Norway a year ago, when we know what is happening in Syria, when we see what is happening in Gaza and different parts of the world—we remember young people and children who lose their lives.”  At one level, those remarks can be read as an attempt to put this Muslim-on-Jewish violence in a wider, human context that transcends specific groups, by invoking Islamophobically motivated Christian-on-Christian violence (Norway), Muslim-on-Muslim violence (Syria), and Jewish-on-Muslim violence (Gaza).  However, Lady Ashton ought to have known better.  The public seized on the implicit equation between Merah’s terrorist, anti-Semitic killing spree and Israeli Defense Forces (I.D.F.) soldiers who inadvertently kill Palestinian children—though usually as a predictable collateral effect of the I.D.F.’s aggressive forays into Palestinian civilian areas (including, earlier this month, as reported in this blog, two Gaza teenagers killed by Israeli bombs aimed at Islamic Jihad assassins).

Baroness Ashton of Upholland.
How do you translate “Open mouth, insert foot” into 27 different languages?

Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s right-wing, hawkish prime minister, was quick to seize on the remarks, condemning what he saw as an equation of “intentional massacre of children and an execution-style killing of an 8-year-old with the I.D.F.’s defensive and surgical actions meant to harm terrorists who use children as human shields.”  Netanyahu was right to pick up on a disturbing undercurrent in Ashton’s remarks, whether intended or not.  Progressive political opinion in Europe (Ashton is from the United Kingdom’s Labour Party) has shifted strongly toward sympathy with Palestine in the past couple decades, and this has nudged awake some dormant anti-Semitism in western Europe and dovetailed with not-so-dormant anti-Semitism in eastern Europe.  Some European politicians, in a kind of diplomatic version of Tourette’s syndrome, just can’t stop themselves from casting every atrocity against Jews anywhere in the “context” of Israeli war crimes against Palestinians—with an unnerving “they’re asking for it” subtext.  Some, sickeningly, even do this when talking about the Holocaust.

Binyamin Netanyahu

Nonetheless, it’s a sad fact that, at a moment when the Israeli Prime Minister should be able to speak to the world as the conscience of the Jewish people on a day of tragedy, he was instead so easily maneuvered into ascending a podium to defend the killing of children.  (Still, if you have to get someone to defend the killing of children, Bibi is definitely the man for the job.  He has lots of practice.)

No one knows what the social and political repercussions of the shootings will eventually be.  The vast majority of Europeans and Middle Easterners regard the crimes as horrifying, inexplicable, and an occasion for mourning, impotent anger, and sad reflection.  But so far, of those who have grabbed the microphone to politicize this tragedy, no one looks good.  No one.

[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it in spring 2013.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

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