Saturday, March 24, 2012

Toulouse-who will profit? Sarkozy's gambits

Even before Mohammed Merah-a 23 year old French punk and part time garage mechanic turned jihadi—died in a hail of bullets in Toulouse, the horrific affair had already become the focus of France’s current heated presidential campaign.

No one benefited more from the crisis than President Nicholas Sarkozy, for whom law and order has always been a calling card. But after acting admirably presidential during the most ghastly moments of the crisis, calling for national unity and a temporary halt to electioneering, once Merah had been disposed of, Sarkozy abruptly reverted to the erratic manner that has also been his hallmark over the years.  
He announced his intention to present legislation to the French parliament making it a crime for people to travel abroad for terrorist indoctrination or consult jihadist Web sites.

Predictably Sarkozy’s tough proposal immediately drew fire from a wide range of critics.

As I argue in another blog, the president’s proposals are precipitous, and, above all, a dangerous threat to French civil liberties. Punishing people who –for whatever reason—choose to read the contents of certain proscribed Internet sites, would, in effect, oblige France to create a new category of law enforcers—very much akin to the  “Thought Police” so terrifyingly portrayed by George Orwell in 1984.  
France already has enough laws on the books to deal with the terrorist threat without crippling its democratic traditions.
Another tack taken by Sarkozy, this time to hobble his opponents on the left, is to wrap himself in the national flag and maintain -as Sarkozy immediately did--that it is despicable for anyone to blame French society for the outrageous actions of Mohammed Merah and the obscene rampage in Toulouse.
Sarkozy’s challenge is a blatant attempt to sweep France’s enormous social problems—particularly the integration of the country’s 5-6 million immigrants of Islamic origin--under the carpet, at least during the election campaign.  It was also a bet that, with the French,  outraged by the events of the past few days,  would turn against any attempts by Sarkozy’s opponents to take up the issue of integration at this time.
Indeed Sarkozy’s theme was immediately amplified by four deputies from his UMP  who called for revision of the French Code of Nationality. They’re after regulations that would make it easier to dispatch the hordes of delinquents and trouble-makers in the banlieues, like Mohammed Merah, (“scum” Sarkozy once famously called them) back to the lands of their forefathers.
After all, the UMP deputies argue, the only thing about Merah “ that was French were his identity papers”.
The statement is absurd. As the leftist  “Liberation” editorialized this morning,
“Merah is certainly a monster, but a French monster and monsters also reveal the fabric of a country. For how many generations can a child born French be sent back to his Algerian origins, and for how many generations will the origin of his ancestors make him a foreigner in the country that is his?”
For further background, readers might be interested in other recent blogs I’ve written over the past few days on Mohammed Merah and the slaughter in Toulouse.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Toulouse Aftermath: Is It really?

Mohammed Merah, a teenage loser, a petty thief and unemployed garage mechanic, who achieved instant worldwide notoriety as the latest symbol of Islamic jihad went down in a hail of bullets early this morning.
He leaves a string of unanswered questions and paradoxes in his wake.
Such as, to what degree was this beardless, hash-smoking, lacoste-wearing  young tough actually linked to al-Qaeda, as he claimed to police and reporters?  To what degree was he really a self-declared jihadist, acting almost entirely on his own?  An individual target, rather than part of an organized cell, a target much more difficult for police in France and throughout Europe to deal with.
--Another paradox, mentioned in my previous blog, but well worth repeating, because it leads to a further question:
France has chosen to spend hundreds of millions of dollars sending troops to Afghanistan to support Nato and the U.S.  The presumed theory being to prevent that country from remaining a breeding-ground for terrorists to attack France and Europe and the U.S.
But it’s almost certain that Merah, like hundreds of young would-be jihadists throughout Europe of Muslim descent, was drawn to Afghanistan, exactly because French troops had joined in the invasion of that Islamic country.
Which brings up another irony (and question for Mohammed Merah.)   
Why, if he was such a rabid jihadist, did Mohammed Merah attempt in 2010 to enlist in the French military, specifically the Foreign Legion? For some reason—either because he was rejected straight off, or got cold feet—he never wound up in uniform.
If he had, the young man who became an overnight symbol for the Clash of Civilizations, might with—just a slight twist of fate--have joined French troops in Afghanistan battling Islamic militants.
Another question: what impact will this bloody national trauma have on the presidential elections, the first round due next month. Difficult to say at this point, but many commentators think that—despite attacks from the far right that he has not been tough enough on radical Islamists—the speedy resolution of the affair will only bolster an embattled President Nicholas Sarkozy.

[The French and American authorities will presumably also have to explain the fact that Mohammed Merah was reportedly also on the U.S.  "no-fly" list.] 
Ironically, it was a similar tense standoff  in 1993 that first brought Sarkozy to the national spot light:
He was then the mayor of Neuilly, a tranquil community just outside Paris. when a gunman wearing a dynamite belt burst into a local school and demanded ransome to reslease eight hostages. 
With incredible aplomb, Sarkoy talked the gunman into releasing one child and—with the TV camers rolling—walked out of the classroom with the youngster in his arms. 
After 46 hours of talks, the gunman was finally killed by police sharpshoorters. The seven remaining hostages were freed unharmed. Sarkozy was launched.
The similar bloody denouement of Toulouse notwithstanding, whoever becomes France’s next President will continue to face enormous problems—and threats.
How many other Mohammed Merah’s are out there? 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Toulouse: The Nightmare is not over

The horrific chain of 7 murders in Toulouse, France that have stunned this country, could have been lifted directly from a television thriller. In fact, this whole terrible affair has been a nightmare scenario that, for decades, has haunted authorities in France, Europe—and the United States. 
And the nightmare is far from over.
Mohammed Merah, a 24 year-old French man of Algerian origin, a few years ago gets involved with a Salafist network in France. According to the little that is known so far, Merah then heads off to Afghanistan where he links up with al Qaeda. In 2007, he is arrested for planting bombs and jailed for three years by the Afghans, but he  escapes in a Taliban-led breakout. He is later picked up by Pakistan authorities in 2010 and released.
Mohammed returns to Toulouse where his family lives and bides his time. Then last week with the most deadly aplomb, he kills three French soldiers and four days later rides his stolen motorcycle to the entrance of a Jewish school near his home and methodically shoots down a rabbi and three Jewish students.
And, in the age of You Tube and the Internet, to ensure that his gruesome act will some day be witnessed by all, around his neck he wears a video camera.
Islamic leaders in France have made clear how horrified they are that anyone—including Merah himself –would attempt to link his vicious acts with Islam. French President Sarkozy is calling for national solidarity. The leader of the Jewish community in Toulouse has declared himself “immensely relieved” by the news that the killer has been caught.
But the crisis highlighted by Merah is far from over.
The problem, of course is that Mohammed Merah is just one of between five to six million French, most of Muslim descent living in France. A large number reside in shabby, banlieues of the country’s major cities, where housing is dilapidated, unemployment high, and bitterness rampant.  
Meanwhile, the current political storm--about public street prayer, permitting new mosques, banning burkas, and controlling hallal butchers--that has roiled this country has ensured that many Muslims feel even more marginalized.
There is also a considerable burden of history. Incredibly, last night—around the same time as police were planning how to apprehend Mohammed Merah in Toulouse—my wife and I were watching a gripping movie on French TV depicting the courageous attempts of a young Algerian girl brutally tortured by French troops in Algeria as her country fought a bloody struggle for independence. (Was Merah watching the same flick? )
But what counts far more than colonial history to young French Muslims, is the fact that France chose to join Nato and the United States in invading Afghanistan. Thus, Mohammed Merah’s calculated targeting last week of four French soldiers. Ironically, three of them were also of North African origin, but, in his Salafist eyes, that probably made their “treachery” even more condemnable.
The ghastly, methodical slaughter of the rabbi and three Jewish school children four days later were—Mohammed Merah has already told the French police —revenge for the young Palestinian children killed by the Israeli army in Gaza.
(Did he realize that, in fact, the four people he murdered at the Jewish school were all Israelis?)
The bottom line is that there is no way that, knowing these facts, anyone can credibly write off these events as another despicable case of anti-Semitism: the same kind of deeply embedded racial hatred that has come down through the ages; the virulence that fueled the Holocaust and the dispatch with which French police rounded up Jews for the Nazis during World War II.
Mohammed Merah’s anti-Semitism was probably not driven as much by ancient loathing —but more by the actions of Israel over the past few decades--the expulsion of the Palestinians, the rampant expansion of West Bank settlements, the invasions of Lebanon, the massive attacks on Gaza, take your pick.
To prove the point, the various upsurges of anti-Semitic attacks in France have corresponded precisely with each upsurge in the bloody conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians.
Whether Israel’s defenders feel the country’s actions are justified or not is almost bedside the point: those actions are regarded as outrageous in the eyes of millions of European Muslims, who watch the graphic coverage on TV and the Internet of all these grisly events—including the regular statements of Jewish leaders in France and elsewhere that they fully support Israel’s actions.
As outspoken Israeli commentator, Uri Avnery, one of the most acerbic critics of his country’s policies, has pointed the irony that Israel, created as a haven from anti-Semitism for Jews around the world, has instead, by its actions, become the greatest promoter of anti-Semitism around the world.
So, what to do?
Beef up anti-terrorism efforts even further? It turns out that Mohammed Merah was already on a “watch list” in the Toulouse region of some 600 people, from Islamic radicals to right-wing bigots. Which is how the police, through some keen detective work, finally managed to run him down. He was on that list because Pakistani police had notified French authorities after spotting the young man in 2010.   
We can be assured that anti-Terrorist units in France and across Europe have infiltrated Salafist groups and have their own watch-lists.  So why not take action?
Because if there were indeed 600 names in Toulouse, then across France and Europe, we’re talking thousands—perhaps tens of thousands --of such people. There is no way to keep them all under round-the-clock surveillance.
Then expel them all.  French citizens?  
Arrest them.
On what grounds? On whose evidence? 
Of course, anything is possible as we’ve seen in the U.S. since 9/11, and we can be sure in the current super-heated political climate in France, we’ll hear the most extreme demands.
You can also be sure that that any massive crackdown will only further increase the alienation of young Muslims. 
And, in the end, there will almost certainly be plenty of bloody-minded young men and women who will slip through the net.
How about dealing with the root problem? Launch massive programs to really integrate deprived Muslim communities in France and throughout Europe: housing, schools, jobs, etc. In fact, President Sarkozy has been making an important effort to provide better housing, but a few years of effort can not overcome decades of  prejudice and neglect.
In my view, a much more immediate way of at least alleviating the issue would be for France to pull out of Afghanistan. The adventure has cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars, and some eighty-four dead soldiers, including four recently murdered by an Afghan soldier they were supposedly training. The Afghan campaign has been a disaster for all concerned.  The U.S. is headed for the doors, seeking only a seemly way to exit.  The French could show the way.
You can be sure, however, that there will be many who will cite the Toulouse killings to argue just the opposite: that the fact that Mohammed Merah may have received some terrorist training in Afghanistan is proof of the threat that jihadis operating there still pose to Europe. Thus, the imperative need to persevere until the Taliban and their allies and defeated, the threat totally liquidated.
But the problem is that, as the past decade has brutally demonstrated,  despite a huge investment in treasure and blood by the U.S. and its allies, such a military victory is not in the cards. The only way out is some kind of deal with the Taliban and their allies—a deal whereby they take a share of power, with the understanding that any attempt to turn their country again into a training ground for terrorists targeting Europe or the U.S. will be dealt with by drones and special forces, not massive troops interventions. 
Indeed, there is a strong argument that the American and Nato presence in the Muslim world have done more to ignite the outrage of young Muslims elsewhere than any ragtag training camps. Why would Mohammed Merah have gone to Afghanistan if it were not for the presence of French troops in that Muslim country?
Which brings us to Israel and Iran.
Some militant Israelis—and their backers in the U.S.—will use the Toulouse attacks to bolster the case for bombing Iran. The argument: just imagine if that Al Qaeda killer in Toulouse and others like him throughout Europe and the U.S., just imagine if they had access not just to a 45 pistol and a Kalashnikov, but to a nuclear weapon, furnished by Iran.
One would hope however, that the Toulouse attack would give Israeli hawks pause. In assessing the risks of bombing Iran, Israeli intelligence analysts have been speculating about the kind of retaliation their country might face.
It’s clear now that not just Israeli citizens would be at risk.  
In fact, compared with the 191 people killed and 1,800 wounded when al-Qaeda inspired terrorists bombed the railway in Madrid in 2004, and the 52 people killed and 700 injured in coordinated suicide attacks on the London Underground in July 2005, France so far has had it easy.
Imagine the incredible mayhem if, one day, terrorists like Mohammed Merah decided to target The Chunnel linking Paris and London?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Toulouse Killings-When do we download the video?

The cold-blooded killing of a rabbi and three students at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France yesterday have left the French shocked—and dismayed. What was driving the killer? No one knows. What is clear is that he went about his grisly work with the cold-blooded aplomb of an executioner, or someone who had once been professional military.
Apparently, he also carried a video camera around his neck. Will we shortly see his victims terrified faces posted on You Tube, in the pages of Paris Match--or on one of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of sites that regularly spew racial venom across the Internet. More on that to come.
But first, what brand of venom?
Many commentators have already decided the killer was driven by the same brand of rabid anti-Semitism that fueled the Holocaust. One Italian journalist, a regular columnist for an Israeli newspaper, citing the rising number of anti-Semitic incidents in France and much of Europe, spoke apocalyptically of a new Shoah, warning all Jews to flee not just France but all of Europe for safety in Israel before it is too late. 
The problem with the theory that the killer was solely driven by anti-Semitism is that, in two other previous attacks last week, apparently the same assassin shot to death three French paratroopers and seriously wounded another. The soldiers were all Arab or black, and appeared to have been targeted specifically, witnesses said.
In other words, judging by his victims--Jews, Arabs, blacks--peoples of other racial origin, who the French right have traditionally regarded as not being truly French, no matter how many generations their families may have lived in this country. It is this sentiment that drove the French police to do much of the dirty work for the Nazi’s deportation of Jews in France during World War II.
It is this spirit, unfortunately, that also underlies the mounting resentment in France and across Europe of the continent’s growing Islamic population. That resentment is further fueled of course by the fear that, as their inroads on traditional culture increase, they will actually take over Europe.
Indeed, over the past years, violent attacks on Muslim targets in France—assaults,  insults, destruction of mosques and cemeteries,  have also seen an alarming increase-up 31% just last year. “France for the French” and “Arabs Out” were slogans recently sprayed across gravestones of Muslim soldiers who had fought for France in World War I.
Such racist sentiments are widespread among all classes in France, as messages approvingly forwarded to myself and my wife by educated, middle-class friends and acquaintances make clear.
Unfortunately, Nicholas Sarkozy himself has played a shameful role in fueling French xenophobia: the view of us and them.
This despite the fact that, he immediately rushed to the site of the slaughter in Toulouse, and spoke movingly of how the slain children were “our children, they are not just your children.”
There is no reason to think Sarkozy ( son of a Hungarian father and Greek half- Jewish mother ) is not sincere.  But since taking office, and increasingly over the past few months, as elections approach, the President has been pandering to the right and virulent anti-immigrant feelings.
He has threatened to suspend France’s participation in Europe’s 25-country open border agreement, unless other states do more to block illegal immigrants and refugees from entering Europe. He has also, however, attacked legal immigration.
That’s for starters. Rather than concentrating on basic issues like providing more jobs for the French, Sarkozy has lately taken on the thorny question of the way French meat is slaughtered.
As the New York Times editorialized just a couple of days before the Toulouse massacre, “In a particularly vile gambit from a man who already brags about banning the burqa in public, Mr. Sarkozy now pledges to protect consumers from unknowingly eating halal meat. He called for legislation requiring meat labels to note the slaughtering methods used. This proposal originally came from Marine Le Pen, presidential candidate of the xenophobic National Front. Mr. Sarkozy first called it frivolous. Then adopted it.

“Five million to six million Muslims now live in France, almost a tenth of the total population. It is cruel to keep family members from joining them and cruel and destructive to subject their religion to mockery. Ms. Le Pen is currently running third in the polls. Regrettably, Mr. Sarkozy has no problem being frivolous or cruel if it means he can peel away some of her voters.
Meanwhile, in Israel while the country’s leaders clarion the evils of anti-Semitism, many of their own right-wing supporters are the most rabid of Islamophobes.
For example, as the New Yorker pointed out a couple of weeks ago,
Dov Lior, one of the most important rabbis in the West Bank, extolled Baruch Goldstein—who, in 1994, machine-gunned twenty-nine Palestinians at the Cave of Patriarchis in Hebron—as “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust.”
Lior also endorsed a book that discussed when it is right and proper to murder an Arab, and he and a group of kindred rabbis issued a proclamation proscribing Jews from selling or renting lands to non-Jews. 
Figures such as Lior are not speaking from the wilderness. They are central to  Benjamin Netanyahu’s continued hold on government.
I’ll bet that, if it hasn’t already happened, that a right-wing Israeli official or editorialist will cite the vicious Toulouse attack as further justification for Israel to bomb Iran. The argument: imagine what would happened if, instead of being armed with a 45 pistol, the anti-Semite had access to a nuclear weapon. We will not wait again for the world to act!
But before Americans start feeling too smug about all this, just this past January, a  prominent New York Shi’ite mosque with a branch in Pakistan and three homes were firebombed.  No one was injured.
Another firebomb exploded inside the Al-lman School in the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Jamaica, Queens. Approximately 80 people were inside the mosque center when two or three Molotov cocktails, at least one made from a Starbucks bottle, were thrown at the building.

Those attacks came less than a week after the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) said, “We are witnessing an unprecedented increase in rhetorical and physical attacks on the American Muslim community and Islam.”

It said that mosques have been targeted in arson and attacks and by vandals in more than a dozen states, stretching from California to New York, including the Midwest and southern states.

If you have the stomach for it, plunge into the virulent currents of racial hatred that thrive in the Internet. For anti-Semitism, start with the Holocaust Deniers at For rabid Islamophobes, some of whom, like Pam Geller, are still regular features on U.S. talk shows, check out
Or, you might just examine more closely the kinds of “jokes” and emails you half-jokingly exchange with your own more articulate friends.