Following a radical Islamist’s cold-blooded murder of seven French citizens—four Jews, two Muslims, and one African—in the Southern cities of Toulouse and Montauban, one could deduce that homegrown Islamic terrorism has become a major threat in Europe, and that racism and anti-Semitism remain pervasive in France. After all, the perpetrator was a French citizen of Arab origin. This may describe the facts, but it doesn’t help us understand them.
The massacres occurred in the midst of a French presidential campaign, and the candidates wasted little time in trying to link them to their own agendas. On the far right, Marine Le Pen argued for a halt to all new immigration and expulsion of all immigrants who have committed crimes, as well as revoking French citizenship for those naturalized immigrants with criminal records. On the left, candidates charged that the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was responsible for fostering racial hatred—an absurd accusation against the first French head of state to appoint French citizens of Arab and African descent to major ministerial positions. As for Sarkozy himself, he touted his strong commitment to security, but he couldn’t explain how the killer was able to commit his crimes even as police were well aware of the threat he posed.
Clearly, then, the tragedy escapes party politics. It also has a meaning that goes beyond Islamism or anti-Semitism. The killing is a reminder of the perverting effect of ideology on feeble minds. Radical ideologies have always attracted people in search of simple explanations for a complex world. As Karl Popper observed, ideology is a substitute for thinking: it provides a key to open all doors. Simple minds are attracted by ideology, and those disposed to violence use ideology to justify their deeds.
In his final negotiation with police forces, the killer, Mohammed Merah, explained that he was fighting for a higher cause: to avenge Afghans for the French military intervention (with NATO forces) in Afghanistan, and to avenge Palestinians for the French support of Israel. Equipped with a simple ideology, the killer could persuade himself that he was right when most others were wrong. Islamic radicalism functions little differently than any other ideology. Bolshevism, Maoism, the French Terror of 1793—these and many other ideologies provided simple explanations for how the world should work. They also legitimized brute force. Islamist radicalism belongs to this long history much more than it does to the history of the Muslim faith. The circumstances and the discourse may change, but the impulse for all ideologies remains eternal.
Nor can the Toulouse and Montauban killings be explained by citing a rise of racism and anti-Semitism in France. The French are no more racist than any other Western society, and anti-Semitism is less pervasive than it was a generation ago. When I was growing up in France in the 1950s, anti-Semitism was considered normal. It has now become unacceptable and quite rare. As the killer himself declared, he was attacking France as such. He selected his victims based on their culture, ethnicity, and religion in order to purify French society.
What struck me as new in the killings’ aftermath was the reaction of French society. Following the government’s suggestion, teachers in all French schools dedicated half a day to discussing what happened and what it meant. A rare consensus emerged in our usually divisive nation to condemn not Muslims or immigrants, but racism. French children of various origins looked at one another more deeply, discovered their differences, and perhaps concluded that any one of them could have become a victim. It may be not the killings, but the debate that followed the killings, that becomes a defining moment for these young students.
France is not so Gallic anymore, but it remains strongly republican. All the presidential candidates (including the National Front’s) agree that the “integration” policy for new immigrants in the secular French Republic—in which cultural diversity is a private matter and only individuals, not communities, have rights—should be maintained and reinforced. The opposite of the British or Dutch communitarian model, which gives rights to self-identified communities, the French policy is widely embraced by citizens and immigrants. The Toulouse and Montauban tragedy will likely lead to greater integration, not less—exactly what radical Islamists don’t want.