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The risk of ignorance
We cannot and must not associate Islam with terrorism
At the end of a 32-hour siege outside the apartment in the residential quarter of Côte Pavée, the Toulouse killer Mohamed Merah died during the blitz of France’s special police forces on the morning of March 22. Merah, 24, of French-Algerian background, had described himself as an Al Qaeda militant, claiming responsibility for the deadly attacks in Toulouse and Montauban. In a meeting with Jewish and Muslim leaders the president of the French Republic Nicolas Sarkozy, reiterated: “terrorism won’t divide our national community” and before this tragedy “we must remain united, we mustn’t give in to confusion or revenge”. Also the chair of the Mosque of Paris, a pre-eminent Muslim leader in France, urged “not to associate Islam with the attacks in Toulouse”. Maria Chiara Biagioni, for SIR Europe, interviewed father Christophe Roucou, director of the Service for Relations with the Muslims of the French Bishops’ Conference, on the delicate situation in France.
Does an Islamic matrix characterize the attack in Toulouse? What has been your reaction?
“It was a reaction of sadness. I restate the request of religious authorities not to associate this person with the Muslim majority in France, which according to rough statistics, represents a community ranging from 3.5 to 5 million people, over 60% of whom are French citizens. The image of a foreign Islamic immigrant belongs to the past, since two thirds of Muslims in France are born here, they have a French nationality and the majority want to live their Muslim faith as French citizens. Having clarified this point, we must also add that over the past years Muslim communities have been marked by situations of closure, notably in low-income neighbourhoods and in suburban areas. An ideological recovery of Islam is gaining grounds in low-class environments with social problems”.
What are the reasons for this sectarian self-closure?
“We’re trying to identify the reasons, which are themes for reflection. However, we realise that all across Europe people are destabilized by globalization. In recent years the economic crisis added up to this situation, bringing with it social precariousness. There are several factors that add up and which are the object of study and debate – all of which involve a delicate and urgent question: the question of unfulfilled integration. It would be wrong to say that Europe is lacking integration. However, its form of integration isn’t very successful. The current situation clearly shows that some people, notably young people, feel excluded by society, and that they are seeking a strong identity. But as they don’t find this identity in a normal social situation they seek it in religion”.
The killer is a 24-year-old young man. This isn’t the first time that the youth are protagonists of acts of terrorism…
“It is obviously necessary to know more about this young man. But it’s true that while in the past in the face of precariousness or social failure young people undertook different paths, today they decide to go to Afghanistan, Pakistan, where they find in religious motivation the ways to oppose what they describe as the domination of the Western World, or of the rich world. What most worries me is that the youth who wish to develop their knowledge of Islam obtain scholarships in Saudi Arabia, owing to the lack of formation centres for Islam in France. They stay there for a couple of years and when they return they are sure they know all about their religion. Another difficulty is religious ignorance, which, to say the truth, is registered among young Catholics and young Muslims alike. But extremisms exert greater appeal on ignorance. This isn’t a feature found in the majority of Muslims of course, but it should be acknowledged that extremist and Salafist fringes do exist”.
Is it a failure?
“No, it’s not a failure. It’s an ordeal. Tragedy, like the one in Toulouse, highlights ignorance. As also John Paul II said, there are still people who carry out deeds that have nothing to do with God in God’s name. It’s a perversion of religion. The greatest danger, which we must avert, is that people may say that dialogue is useless. Conversely, I believe that episodes such as the one in Toulouse are an obligation to step up our efforts for mutual understanding and openness. Self-closures can only make things worse. Today France is afraid. Also the aggressive tones marking political and media discourse over the past 3-4 years are reason for concern. When you’re afraid you stop thinking. There is a responsibility not to pour oil on the fire”.
How can we exit this state of fear?
“There are no miracle solutions. The only way out is that we must meet again, open our doors to the families, communities and places of worship, namely, our churches, synagogues and mosques. In order to exit from fear we have to tear down ignorance and promote encounter”.