The murders committed on the 11, 15 and 19 March in Toulouse and Montauban, as well as their fall-out, are a striking illustration of the barbarity engulfing the present system.
According to President Sarkozy, Mohamed Merah, the young Toulousain who carried out these crimes and was executed by the French police, was a “monster”. This raises some questions:
What is a ‘monster’?
How could society create such a ‘monster’?
Monsters good and bad
If the cold-blooded killing of completely innocent people, people you don’t even know, makes a human being into a monster, then the whole planet is ruled by monsters because many chiefs of state have committed similar crimes. And we are not just talking about a few ‘bloody dictators’ like Stalin or Hitler in the past, Gadaffi or Assad in the present period. What are we to think of Winston Churchill, the ‘Great Man’ of the Second World War, who as early as summer 1943 ordered the bombing of the German cities of Hamburg and Dresden, which took place 13-15 February 1945? These bombings took tens, probably hundreds, of thousands of civilian lives, 50% of them women and 12% children. What are we to think of Harry Truman, president of the great American democracy, who ordered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945? These also killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, the majority of them women and children. Those killed were not the ‘collateral damage’ of operations aimed at military targets. The bombings were expressly aimed at civilians and in particular, in the case of Germany, those who lived in working class areas. Today the leaders of the ‘democratic’ countries are constantly covering up the bombing of civilian populations, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza or elsewhere.
In order to exonerate the political and military leaders, we are told that all these crimes are the price that had to be paid for winning the war against the ‘forces of evil’. Even reprisals against civilian population are justified in this way: these acts of revenge had the aim of ‘demoralising’ or ‘dissuading’ the enemy. This is exactly what Mohamed Merah said, if we are to believe the policemen who talked to him prior to his execution: by attacking soldiers, he wanted to “avenge his brothers in Afghanistan”. By attacking children who went to a Jewish school he wanted to “avenge the children of Gaza” who have been the victims of Israeli bombings.
But perhaps what made Mohamed Merah a ‘monster’ was that he himself pulled the trigger of the murder weapons? It’s true that the leaders who order massacres are not usually in direct contact with their victims: Churchill did not fly the planes that bombed German cities and did not have the opportunity to see the agonising deaths of the women and children that they killed. But wasn’t that also the case with Hitler and Stalin, who were also rightly seen as sinister criminals? What’s more, the soldiers who, on the ground, murder unarmed civilians, whether following orders or acting out of the hatred that has been put into their heads, are rarely treated as monsters. Sometimes they even get medals and are considered ‘heroes’.
Whether we are talking about the leaders of states or ordinary people enlisted into a war, there are many ‘monsters’ in the world today, and they are above all products of a society which is indeed ‘monstrous’.
The tragic trajectory of Mohamed Merah clearly illustrates this.
How to become a monster
Mohamed Merah was a very young man, a North African immigrant, brought up by a single mother, a failure at school. When still a minor he committed various violent crimes which got him into prison. He was unemployed on a number of occasions and tried to join the army, which rejected him because of his prior convictions. While this was happening he moved towards radical Islamism, apparently under the influence of his older brother.
Here we have a classic journey that many young people have been through. Not all these young people end up as killers. Mohamed Merah was a particularly fragile personality, as can be seen by his attempted suicide when he was in prison and the time he spent in a psychiatric institution. But it is significant – as shown by attempts to set up websites that glorify him – that Mohamed Merah is already being seen as a ‘hero’ among many young people in the banlieues, just like the terrorists who blow people up in public places in Israel, Iraq or London. The move towards violent, extremist forms of Islam is especially strong in Muslim countries and can take on a mass character – witness the success of Hamas in Gaza for example. When it involves young people born in France or other European countries it is, in part at least, the result of the same causes: the revolt against injustice, the product of despair and a feeling of exclusion. The terrorists of Gaza are recruited mainly from the young in a population which for decades has been living in poverty and unemployment, which has been colonised by the Israeli state and is constantly subjected to Israeli bombing raids.
As Marx famously put it in the 19th century: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature. It is the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Faced with an intolerable present and the absence of any future, populations find no other consolation or hope than a flight to religion, which promises them a paradise after death. Playing on irrational feelings, since they are based on faith and not on rational thought, religions are the perfect soil for fanaticism, for the outright rejection of reason. When they contain the ingredient of ‘holy war’ against the ‘infidels’ as a way of entering paradise (as is the case with Islam, but also with Christianity), added to poverty, despair and daily humiliation, they can easily be converted into a celestial justification for violence, terrorism and massacres. In the autumn of 2005 the wave of violence which swept through the French banlieues was a symptom of the malaise and despair infecting a mass of young people who are the victims of unemployment and the lack of any future, in particular young people from a North African or Sub-Saharan background. The latter suffer from a dual burden: as well as the exclusion that unemployment itself brings, there is the exclusion that comes from the colour of your skin or your name: starting with equal talents, a Joseph or a Marie has a much better chance of finding a job than a Youseff or a Mariam, especially if the latter wears a veil or a headscarf in deference to her family’s wishes.
In this context, the retreat into ‘identity’ or ‘communitarianism’, as the sociologists call it, can only get worse, and religion is its main glue. And this kind of communitarianism, above all in its most violent and xenophobic forms, has been further fuelled by the international situation, in which the state of Israel, the Jewish state, is seen as the ‘enemy’ par excellence.
The roots of anti-Judaism
According to the information provided by the police, it was because he couldn’t find any soldiers to shoot on 19 March that Mohamed Merah turned to the Jewish school where he killed three children and a teacher. This horrific act was just the extreme point of the very strong anti-Jewish feelings harboured by many Muslims today.
However, anti-Judaism is not a historical ‘specificity’ of Islam, on the contrary. In the Middle Ages, the situation of the Jews was better in the countries dominated by Islam than in the countries dominated by Christianity. In the Christian west, the persecutions of Jews, accused of being the murderers of Christ, their use as scapegoats in periods of famine, epidemic or political turmoil, came at the same time as good relations and cooperation between Jews and Muslims in the Arab-Islamic empire. In Cordoba, the capital of Al-Andalus (Muslim Andalusia in Spain), Jews were university teachers and diplomats. In Spain the first massive persecutions of Jews were carried out by the ‘Catholic kings’ who expelled them as well as the Muslims during the ‘reconquest’ of 1492. After that, the situation of Jews would be much better to the south of the Mediterranean than in the Christian countries, whether Catholic or Orthodox. The word ‘ghetto’ originally referred to a small island in Venice where Jews were compelled to live from the early sixteenth century. The word ‘pogrom’ (literally ‘destruction’) comes from nineteenth century Russia. It was in Europe, in response to the pogroms in the east and the wave of anti-Semitism linked to the Dreyfus affair in France, and not in North Africa or the Middle East, that we saw the development of Zionism, the nationalist ideology born at the end of the nineteenth century and advocating the return of the Jews to Palestine and the creation of a state based on Jewish identity in a land mainly inhabited by Muslims.
After the First World War a ‘Jewish national homeland’ was created in Palestine under a British mandate that came into force in 1923. During the 1930s many victims of Nazi persecution emigrated to Palestine and this marked the real beginning of antagonism between Jews and Muslims. But it was above all the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, whose objective was to provide a home for hundreds of thousands of survivors of the Shoah, people who had lost everything, which was to feed and aggravate the hostility of many Muslims towards the Jews, especially after 750,000 Arabs fled to refugee camps. The various wars between Israel and the Arab countries, as well as the creation of Jewish settlements in the territories occupied by Israel, further inflamed the situation and provided more oil to the propaganda machine of the governments of the region, who have found that Israel’s colonial policies serve as an excellent way of channelling the anger of populations which these governments have kept in poverty and oppression. The same goes for the rhetorical or armed ‘Crusades’ by the American leaders and their western and Israeli allies in or against Muslim countries such as Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of the struggle against ‘Islamic terrorism’.
Born out of the barbaric history of the twentieth century, right at the centre of a crucially important region from the economic or strategic point of view, the state of Israel and its policies can only feed tensions in the Middle East and hatred of Jews among Muslims.
What is the perspective?
Mohamed Merah is dead, his body riddled with bullets, but the causes behind his tragic itinerary are not about to go away. With the deepening crisis of a capitalist system in its death throes, with the ineluctable growth of unemployment, of precariousness and exclusion, especially among the young, despair and hatred as well as religious fanaticism have a bright future ahead of them, offering the little chiefs of the drugs game or ‘jihad’ plenty of opportunities for recruitment. The only antidote to this slide into barbarism is the massive, conscious development of proletarian struggles, which can offer young people a real identity, a class identity; a real community, that of the exploited and not of the ‘believers’; a real solidarity, the solidarity that emerges in the struggle against exploitation, uniting workers and unemployed of all races, nationalities and religions; a real enemy to fight and overcome –not the Jews, but capitalism. And by the same token it is the same workers’ struggles which alone will allow the Middle East to come out of its current state of permanent warfare, whether open or hidden, when Jewish and Muslim proletarians, those on both sides of the ‘Wall of Shame’, understand that they have the same interests and have to be in solidarity with each other against exploitation. By developing in all countries, the workers’ struggle will have to take up the only perspective that can save humanity from barbarism: the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of a communist society.