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Merah and Breivik: two sides of Europe's identity crisis

Identity politics, jamming people into ever-smaller groups, helps create the conditions for bloodbaths like the one in Toulouse this month.

One piece of the puzzle of the Toulouse killer, Mohamed Merah, that has rarely been discussed is an apparent contradiction in his motivations for the wave of violence.

Before being killed on Thursday, Merah told police that he had shot an adult and three children at a Jewish school after failing to find a soldier whom he had planned to kill.

The killing spree originally and mainly targeted those he took to be "traitors": French Muslim soldiers who had served in Afghanistan. Merah videotaped his attacks and, according to reports, can be heard saying to one soldier: "As you killed my brothers, I will kill you," before shooting the man in the head.

Later, during the siege at his apartment, he told police that he had intended to avenge the killing of Palestinian children by Israeli soldiers.

Note that Merah's justification was different for each attack: in the beginning, when targeting soldiers, he saw himself as a soldier, dispensing violence against Muslims to punish and warn other Muslims against attacking their co-religionists in Afghanistan.

Then, after the shooting of children, he switched justifications, claiming he was targeting Jews because of the actions of their co-religionists in Israel.

Merah seemed to shift easily between the two rationales. This is initially puzzling. Merah, it seems, did not need a single, clear motivation for murder. In that case, why did he believe so strongly that he was willing to commit violence?

The key to understanding his actions lie in the narrow identity politics by which he defined himself.

Social groups have always been defined by shared characteristics - most often race, gender, class, religion or culture. Now, in multicultural societies, that tendency has been exaggerated especially in politics.

Before Merah, there was another European killer who justified his rampage with reference to a narrow worldview, a man who saw himself as a lone soldier in a long war. That man, Anders Behring Breivik, murdered 69 people, mainly young adults, last year on the Norwegian island of Utoya.

Like Merah, Breivik started his killing spree targeting those he saw as traitors. His mercifully brief "war" was fought against his own countrymen, targeting members of Norway's ruling Labour Party for its immigration policies.

It was identity politics that led him there: an excessive focus on identifying only with smaller and smaller groups of people, ending with the view of himself as a lone soldier, and the only one able to comprehend and deal with the "threat" to society.

Merah and Breivik are two sides of the same European coin. The rise of identity politics has constructed ever smaller boxes of identities. With individuals so confined according to narrow identities, it becomes almost impossible to create ties across different groups.

At the same time, national politics have failed to construct overarching identities that work for modern, multicultural states, meaning narrow identities trump national ones. Particularly in western Europe, national identities have not been well defined.

Governments have contributed to this process, whether it is the Labour Party in Britain courting Muslims to secure a bloc vote, or the French president Nicolas Sarkozy blaming Muslims for riots among poor Parisian suburbs in 2005.

Politics has succoured identity politics, while at the same time failing to deal with the root causes that lie behind actual grievances. Many poor white Europeans have turned to the politics of the new far right; many poor people from immigrant communities have turned to jihadi politics. On both sides, corrosive politics have created a swamp that sustains radicals like Breivik and Merah.

The victims of Merah's murder campaign were not only Muslims and Jews, they were French like him. It was identity politics that allowed him to dehumanise them for falling outside of his narrow exclusion zone. This is even clearer with Breivik, who was able to dehumanise young Norwegians who, in many respects, were so like himself. Yet his victims too fell outside his narrow exclusion zone, and were thus "legitimate" targets.

The tendency for violence to be used against "traitors" is indicative of the narrow ideological constraints that motivated the killers. The natural result of identifying with smaller and smaller groups, to the exclusion of all others, leaves only one: the lone soldier.

For some, the crimes of Breivik and Merah deserve no discussion: they were mad men bent on murder and their justifications are secondary, regardless of what those justifications are.

Yet this reading is incomplete at best; it misses that such extremism has root causes. Breivik did not merely spend years nursing his grievances alone; he spent those years with his prejudices being fed online. The same is true with Merah - already speculation has turned to the sermons of a preacher called "The White Emir". Even lone wolves are part of a spectrum of belief, at the edges of which are those willing to kill. But they could not exist without the swamp of narrow identity politics.

It is this process that explains how Merah could switch justification for his crimes so easily. What he believed in wasn't his justifications, but his role. In his mind, he was a lone soldier, inflicting violence for a noble cause. What that precise cause was didn't matter as much as his mania that he alone understood it. Alone in his circle of belief, he saw everyone outside as a legitimate target.



On Twitter: FaisalAlYafai

Updated: March 27, 2012 04:00 AM



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