Toulouse (“Islam” & “Israel”)

Please let me give this a try. But it already seems to be that now we know that the Toulouse shooter was Muslim, everybody can line up on either side of the great divide as people seek to find an “explanation” for what happened. On the one hand, we are already seeing Islamophobes argue that it was all because of Islam, that Islam is the problem, while anti-Zionists and anti-Semites will argue it’s because of Israel, Zionism, and Gaza, which are the real problem. On the other hand, some of these same people, and they will be joined by others, will claim, weighing in from their respective corners, that Islam or Israel have nothing to do with it.

As per usual, “Israel” and “Islam” will continue to serve as convenient or lazy placeholders or pretexts for people with political axes to grind on either the left and the right.

For what it’s worth, I’ll say from my own corner what I think the Toulouse shootings were not about. I don’t think they were about “Islam” or “Israel.” I don’t think Israel or Islam had anything to do with it as an immediate, direct causal force –which is not to say that Israel and Islam are unimportant subtexts to the murders, post hoc.

I will venture to say that I think it’s probably best to set aside the search for any political, social, or even psychological “cause” or a set of “causes” that would in some way “explain” the “act.” Such explanations always fall too short of the goal they seek to attain, namely an “understanding” of the event in question.

The problem, I think, with attempts to find a “cause” for such a thing is that they explain in a top-down causal chain an “act” viewed as consequent to it.

But the fact that the murderer was a Muslim whose victims included both Jews and Muslims should scramble everything. The intentional shooting of French soldiers of North African and Caribbean descent combined with the murder of a rabbi and his small children and the chasing down and shooting of young girl seem incommensurate to any political explanation. I don’t see what the murder of three off-duty French Muslim soldiers had to do with Israel and Palestine. I don’t see how the murder of a rabbi has anything to do with Afghanistan or the French ban on the veil. I find it impossible to fit the murder of children into any genuine political scheme. None of this makes sense or holds together.

That attempts to identify a motivating cause in this particular case are problematic has something to do with the nature of “explanations in general. “Explanations” work like a hinge, connecting act and cause. And that’s the problem, because I think the Toulouse shootings reflect a more general and complete “unhinging” of things. What strikes me is the disconnect, the incoherence between the actual act and any real motivating cause.

I’m not sure how to proceed.

When the news first broke, everyone suspected a neo-Nazi. That would have been easier to make sense of. But it became quickly evident that the shooter, Mohammed Merah, was a Muslim. He had travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan where he claimed to have received training from Al Queda. Maybe he was lying about the operational training. Who knows? From the looks of it, he was a more or less normal, disaffected 23 year old kid of average intelligence from a broken home in a working class, immigrant suburb with a record of petty crime, who did not grow up especially religious. To me, none of this or the stated political grievances explain the cold and calculated nature of a violent act, especially the deliberate murder of children. Is this supposed to reflect rage and fury? I’m guessing there was no real psychological depth behind the acts he committed. All I see is a smirking void, a basic absence of human sentiment and sympathy, with both general-ambient and individuated features.

On its own, I don’t know if there is anything to “explain,” because I don’t think there is a clear causal explanation for why Mohammed Merah murdered these people. Because of “Israel” or because of “Islam”? That makes no sense to me. I cannot help but think that the act itself is just its own terrible thing without any genuine rational structure, and with nothing more that might help us understand it.

It’s tempting to place this act and the human void it reflects within the context of a global unhinging or ungluing at work all over the world today. Perhaps this has a lot to do with the sense everywhere that the center has frayed, with no legitimate public, institutional, international structures and brakes holding things in place. In the case at hand, a psychological vacuum was conditioned and shaped by general ambient disorder in tandem with more particular political calculations and ideological convictions, including anti-Semitism and radical Islam, which are the conscious intentional drivers, and which maybe had a tenuous something to do with Israel and Palestine. All of this is extremely vague, and impossible to pin down, which I think is precisely the point.

The best we can do then from the ground up is what? A lot of people are going to double down on their prior ideological commitments when a little teshuvah might be more in order. At the very least, we can remember that the dead include both Jews and Muslims and respect their memory with dignity and tact; try to help develop better, more capacious, more finely grained, and less divisive modes of discourse and social structure; stop talking about Jews and Arabs, Islam and Israel in wide overarching, totalizing arcs, which is what fanatics and imbeciles do.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Toulouse (“Islam” & “Israel”)

  1. ysara says:

    yup… I relate. Unhinged and unhinging. Seems at least as close to Columbine as it does to Palestine. There’s truth in all the explanations, but they ultimately act more to perpetuate ideologies than transform the discourse into acts of bridge-building .

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