It would not be too much to say that France had stopped breathing for few days after a mysterious gunman shot dead three soldiers and four members of the Jewish community (including three children) to the extent that the presidential campaign was even suspended. Yesterday was probably and paradoxically the end and the pinnacle of this episode as the French elite police had besieged the main suspect, a 23 years old French man at three in the morning. Since then, pretty much every TV channel has been broadcasting live from Toulouse, hardly any conversation is left without a mention of the tragedy and security measures in Toulouse have been raised at their maximum. Needless to say that the atmosphere in the country in general and in the city in particular is charged with fear, especially as the shadow of Al Qaeda is hovering over the case.
Politicians, 'experts' and journalists are now taking turn to analyse the situation, trying to figure out what led this young man to choose this deadly path. The main narrative is the story of a self-radicalised individual, a 'lone wolf' who became acquainted with religious and political violence on the internet and who then travelled twice to Waziristan in order to train, coming back to France as a 'sleeper agent'.
This event comes at a very crucial moment. In effect, many in France were denouncing the political exploitation of the Muslim community by certain candidates but also while the French antiterrorist strategy was being more and more vocally denounced. Just few days before the siege, a press conference was held in Paris to denounce the way French justice is handling the case of Adlene Hicheur, a French-Algerian physician detained in pre-trial custody over terrorism charges while, according to human rights figures, including a Nobel prize and a UN Human Rights Commission vice-president, no element have been brought forward to justify it. On the opposite side, many highlight the “shortcomings” of the investigation, the mystery around the testimony of a man in Algerian custody, the mistranslation of certain conversations and the super-power of the investigative judge.
This comes after the Tarnac case which exposed what many call the manoeuvres of the antiterrorism institutions in France. In 2008, a dozen of white left wing militants were arrested after the sabotage of train lines and charged with “criminal association with a terrorist undertaking”. Very soon, many voices, including MPs, denounced the abusive use of pretrial custody, the political manipulation of the case to criminalise dissidents and the biased investigation of the instructing judge. Their profile allowed them to obtain a large platform in the media and a wide support from the public which suddenly realised that terrorism could possibly be fabricated by the French authorities. The manipulations decried by many Muslims accused of terrorism suddenly found a voice which was heard, even though the gravity of their allegations against the French legal system was far worse than those in the Tarnac case: psychological and physical violence to obtain confessions, utilisation of torture evidence, complicity of torture or extraordinary renditions…
However, it seems that this awakening could be abruptly stopped by the emotion created these last days. The wise analysis of an unjust legal system which was started might suffer from a hot-blooded reaction to an individual act, as often after such an extraordinary event. The newly challenged French antiterrorist legislation is very likely to be revived, ignoring its deep and systematic violations of fundamental rights to favour a short-sighted response. Hence, president Sarkozy has already announced the creation of a series of new “terrorist” incriminations. Rapidly after the death of Mohammed Merah, the alleged killer, Nicolas Sarkozy declared:
“Any individual who regularly consult terrorist apologist websites or which calls to hatred or violence will be criminally punished”
Such a law would come just after a series of controversial measures already adopted facilitating the profiling of the general population in France. Questions already arise as for the consequences of such a text. What impact could it have on the privacy of French citizens, Muslims especially? What mechanisms would be use to monitor them? Moreover, it would be very surprising to learn that those websites are not already supervised by the security forces.
“Any individual traveling overseas to enroll in workshops of indoctrinating ideologies leading to terrorism will be criminally punished” .
Finally, he said
“The propagation and the apology of extremist ideologies will be repressed by an offense in the penal code with the means which are already the means of the antiterrorism”.
In reality, all those cases are already covered under the French legislation and there is no legal need to create new laws.
Nevertheless, those measures clearly display a willingness to “prevent” violent acts by attacking what is perceived to be the cause of this violence, ie a certain ideology.
But the question remains: what is this ideology? Is it the promotion of the killing of non-combatants or is it the opposition to the invasion in Muslim lands? It is of utmost importance since Mohammed Merah, the alleged killer, explained that his murders were an act of retaliation to the French military campaign in Afghanistan and to the killings of children in Gaza. Those demands are indeed shared by many while the majority would strongly disagree with the means used to be heard. Sarkozy’s announcements should be seen as superficial as they clearly ignore the root of this sort of violence: the French foreign policy in Muslim lands.
In fact, the equation has been posed in very simple terms by Mohammed Merrah himself.
He allegedly said to one of the soldiers he shot dead:
“You kill my brothers, therefore I kill you.”
Truly, the only way to prevent such disasters is not to start a depthless witch hunt but to assess and review the unjust and colonialist stance western countries have adopted in Muslim countries. Alienating even more people who disagree peacefully with the French authorities could only encourage some of them to engage in violent actions which would perpetuate a further cycle of this violence. Now is the time for dialogue and reflection, not disproportionate responses which target communities.