Yet another not-so-pious al-Qaeda terrorist

Yet another not-so-pious al-Qaeda terrorist

This week’s news from France was most atrocious. Three small children and their teacher at Ozar Hatorah, a Jewish school in Toulouse, were killed by an unidentified gunman. Soon, the identity of the murderer became apparent: Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old French citizen of Algerian origin, who claimed to be member of al-Qaeda before he was shot by the police besieging his apartment.

As a response, first, let me condemn this barbarism against the French Jewish community – as well as the three French soldiers of north African descent who are also believed to have been killed by Mohammed Merah before them. My condolences go to the families of all the victims.

Then let me focus on the inner life of the hunted terrorist. If he was indeed a follower of al-Qaeda, as his recent trip to Kandahar also seems to suggest, what should we conclude? Should we think that this young man was a very pious believer in Islam whose religious zeal made him a religiously-inspired terrorist?

Let’s see. Reports note that, during his hours-long negotiations with the French police, Merah said he was acting to “avenge Palestinian children” and to protest against French military intervention in Afghanistan. Besides, in the video he apparently recorded before his crimes, he reportedly swore: “You kill my brothers, I kill you.” His “brothers,” apparently, were Palestinians and Afghans killed by Israeli or French forces. It is also reported that Merah was enraged by the French ban on the full veil as well.
Now, please note that none of these motivations are religious, in the proper sense of the term. Merah, for example, did not say, “if you disobey Allah, I will kill you,” or “if you keep on sinning, I will slay you.” Such statements would derive from a purely religious zeal, whose first and foremost goal would be to impose religion — in this case, Islam — on the infidels.

What we see is something else: Merah seems to have been motivated by his reaction to the political traumas of the religious community that he subscribed to. His zeal seems not to be against godlessness or impiety, but to occupation and humiliation. 

To me, this motivation is more nationalist then religious — the nation being the umma, the global Muslim community. It is not too different from a Kurdish terrorist (that of the PKK, for example) bombing civilians in the middle of Istanbul to avenge his “brothers” killed by Turkish security forces. An even better parallel would be the secular terrorists bred by the Palestinian plight— such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, founded by the late George Habash, a secular Palestinian Christian.

Since al-Qaeda represents such a militant Muslim nationalism, one does not have to be very pious, mosque-going Muslim to be inspired by the organization. Mohammed Atta, the apparent mastermind of 9/11, was a frequenter of nightclubs — places that don’t match too well with traditional Islamic piety. Interestingly enough, one of the friends of the Toulouse shooter, a young man named Samir, also said to BBC that he had seen Merah “in a Toulouse night club only last week.”

None of this means that al-Qaeda’s rhetoric is not filled with religious elements — such as the duty of jihad and its rewards in paradise. However, these are not the core motivations, but mere catalysts. The core motivation is political. No wonder al-Qaeda disregards all the traditional concerns for sparing non-combatants in jihad, and engages in wanton killing that is quite unprecedented in mainstream Islam. 

Which takes us to the bottom line: “The war on al-Qaeda” should be carried out with the awareness that this more of a political issue than a religious one. As with all political troubles, the ultimate solution needs to be sought in politics.