The murders in Toulouse, France, electrified France and the world. The media were riveted by the brutal murders of a rabbi, his two children, and the daughter of the headmaster outside a Jewish school, and by the violent standoff that ended in the death of the confessed killer, Mohammad Merah, a French Muslim of Algerian descent and a self-proclaimed Al Qaida operative.
But some in the media could not bring themselves to describe this event as what it was: an anti-Semitic attack motivated by a distinct Islamist ideology.
As Michael C. Moynihan pointed out in Tablet, “pundits and politicians in the United States and Europe have asked incisive questions about what role racial bias played in the murder” of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a “neighborhood watch volunteer.”
“This outrage has been completely justified,” writes Moynihan, a contributing editor for Reason, a libertarian magazine. When it came to the Toulouse murders, however, many commentators seem to ignore the facts.
“Merah called French state television and explained that it was necessary to shoot Jewish children and French soldiers as a protest against the country’s ban on the veil and the French military’s presence in Afghanistan,” writes Moynihan. “He added the requisite cri de coeur against the daily injustices visited upon the residents of Gaza and the West Bank.”
To Moynihan, this would be “blindingly clear” motivation; to others it was not.
“‘Mohamed Merah stands before us like an overgrown adolescent, unemployed, at loose ends, soft-hearted but at the same time disturbed and incoherent,’” wrote Tariq Ramadan, professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University. Ramadan is a polarizing figure, whose visa to the United States was revoked by the Bush administration for links to terrorist organizations, only to have it be reinstated by the Obama administration.
Paris-based writer Diana Johnstone told an interviewer that France’s “chickens were coming home to roost” because of its foreign policy. (I wonder if Johnstone knowingly cribbed that from Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright’s condemnation of the United States after 9/11?)
Lindsey German of Britain’s Stop the War Coalition argued on the group’s website that the murders were “the terrible and disastrous outcome of the West’s war policies and anti-Muslim racism.”
“The article made no mention of anti-Semitism,” writes Moynihan.
Another blind spot was revealed in the comments of the French Defense Minister, who acknowledged that “a considerable amount of time” was wasted because the police believed a neo-Nazi ex-paratrooper – and not an Islamist — was to blame.
The Toulouse massacre also sparked a kerfuffle involving the foreign affairs chief of the European Union, Catherine Ashton. In her prepared remarks for a conference of Palestinian children, she seemed to equate the Toulouse killings with Israel killing children in Gaza, provoking strong reaction from Israel.
In France, where a presidential race is under way, politicians also ignored the shooter’s confessed motives in an attempt to score political points. Some put the blame not on anti-Semitism or radical Islam but on the “anti-immigrant” policies of the far-right or on government polices like banning the veil.
Others worried that Merah’s actions would reflect poorly on other Muslims, like a Washington Post editorial declaring, without mentioning anti-Semitism, that “discrimination against Muslim communities is hardly the right response” to the attacks.
“Never mind the raft of data showing the rise in anti-Jewish feeling in France,” writes Moynihan.
Shortly after the attacks, a New York Sun editorial summarized the evidence of anti-Semitic sentiment in France, and especially to a foreign policy that likes to lecture Israel on its policies toward Iran and the Palestinians. “[B]efore the government of the Fifth Republic has any standing to lecture the government in Jerusalem on how to protect Jews in the land of Israel,” wrote the Sun, “ it will have to show that it can protect the Jews of France.”
The questions remain. Why are some in the national and international media and some government functionaries so reluctant to identify incidents as racially or religiously motivated when it comes to Jews? And why do they tread softly when it comes to attributing hate crimes to Muslims?