By Rabbi François Garai
The assassination of French Muslim and Christian military personnel and French Jewish civilians two weeks ago in Toulouse and Montauban has rocked France. Yet beyond the fears that this act has stirred among both French Jews and their Muslim compatriots, the desire for co-existence prevails.
Many of us European Jews, confronted with the horror of children being murdered at a Jewish school, were above all rendered speechless. Images of World War II came to mind – images of soldiers pointing their guns at women carrying their children.
However, this is something else. It appears the primary motivation of Mohammed Merah, the Frenchman who claimed responsibility for the attacks, was not anti-Semitism, given that his first victims were French soldiers, Muslims and Christians. And the reason Merah gave for the murder of these French Jewish children – the suffering of Palestinian children – may only hide a deeper reasoning for this barbaric act.
Merah’s original intention was to kill other French soldiers with names akin to his. As Olivier Roy, the French political scientist and expert on Islam in France, said in Le Monde on 26 March: “In killing French Muslim soldiers, Merah killed his own (brethren).”
The word order of “French Muslim” is not accidental. For Merah, the soldiers were soldiers first, those who had been or could be sent to Afghanistan to fight other Muslims. And the victims were specifically chosen for their supposed affiliation with Islam. The killer wanted to eliminate those he considered traitors, as he explained by telephone to a reporter from France 24. The choice to attack a Jewish school was a secondary choice. He was unable to accept others, neither those similar to nor different from himself.
Why this hatred? How can we understand such an unjustifiable act? What does it mean for France? Most children of immigrants from North Africa have integrated within the French community – and I deliberately use the term “community”. Living together is not only mingling on the bus or in the market, it is participating in a common destiny, even if this does not encompass the whole of a person –as each of us keeps a part of ourselves private, as is perhaps the case with religion. Participating in a common destiny involves taking charge of a society’s future by assuming roles as citizens with rights and duties.
A petty thief, with no strong community framework, it seemed Merah was angry and found a conduit for his rage in an extremist misinterpretation of Islam learned in part on French soil, especially during a stay in prison.
To prevent others from this same fate, it is essential that civil and religious Muslim leaders, supported by the entire political and civil society community, regardless of religious affiliation, staunchly oppose the barbarism and denial of others that underlies any form of extremism, and stand solidly behind the idea of a common French existence.
Merah’s actions led a united France to demonstrate publicly. They led French Muslims to condemn this savage cavalcade, and Muslim clerics have done so with determination. To express their outrage, French Muslims joined the demonstrations commemorating the victims. Thus, for the first time on French soil, French atheists, Christians, Muslims and Jews stood side by side.
In the presence of the president of the French Republic and the leading presidential candidates, in front of television cameras, we saw the funerals of the killed soldiers, Muslims and Christians, alongside those of the Jewish victims. It is this image that will be adopted: the Republic’s recognition of all its citizens, while respecting their religious affiliations.
Hopefully what will be remembered, above all else, is that French people of all persuasions and all religions came together to collectively pay tribute to all the victims – the soldiers, the rabbi and Jewish children – and that the national fabric became stronger for it.
Rabbi François Garai grew up in France and is currently Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Community in Geneva.