Last 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 who besieged his apartment.
As a response, first, let me condemn this barbarism against the French Jewish community -- and, before them, the three French soldiers of north African descent which are also believed to have been killed by Mohammed Merah. My condolences go for 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, then what should we conclude? Should we think that this young man was a very pious believer of Islam whose religious zeal made him a religiously-inspired terrorist?
Let's see. Reports note that, during his hours-long of negotiation with the French police, Merah said he was acting to "avenge Palestinian children" and 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 be motivated by his reaction to the political traumas of the religious community that he subscribed to. His zeal seems to be against occupation and humiliation, not godlessness or impiety.
To me, this motivation is more nationalist then religious -- the nation being the ummah, the global Muslim community. It is not too different from a Kurdish terrorist (that of the PKK, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, for example) bombing civilians in the middle of Istanbul to avenge his "brothers" killed by Turkish security forces. An even better parallel would be 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 the 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 motivation, which is political, but mere catalysts for it. No wonder al Qaeda disregards all the traditional concerns for sparing non-combatants in jihad, and engages in a wanton killing that is quite unprecedented in mainstream Islam, as I have discussed in my book.
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 trouble than a religious one. And like with all political troubles, the ultimate solution needs to be sought in politics.