Few observers of contemporary Europe would doubt that many young people of Muslim origin are deeply alienated and often angry, and that a sizable number show themselves sympathetic to radical agitation. Western Europe may indeed have a social and political crisis on its hands. But we need to be cautious about making a further leap, in assuming that violent actions by the Muslim young necessarily have religious or extremist motivations. In some cases, young Muslims do adopt the hard-line Islamist positions offered by groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir; yet in others, religion provides a convenient label for more generalized disaffection that in slightly different circumstances could easily have been expressed in terms of class or race.
Many examples illustrate the difficulties in deciding the motivation of an act. One of the most wrenching instances of violent crime in modern France involved the 2005 murder of a young Israeli named Ilan Halimi, who was kidnapped by a gang who themselves claimed the apt title of the Barbarians. The gang held him in the suburb of Bag-neux, south of Paris, while attempting to win ransom money from his family or the local Jewish community—and many neighbors were aware of his presence. Halimi was tortured, repeatedly stabbed, burned, and attacked with acid, so that he ultimately died of his wounds. The Barbarians were led by Youssouf Fofana, from a Muslim family derived from the Ivory Coast, and Islamist literature was found in the home of one gang member. In one telephone call to the family, a kidnapper "recited verses from the Koran while Ilan was heard screaming in agony in the background."48
The murder attracted international outrage, as a symbol of brutal anti-Semitic violence, orchestrated by fanatical young Muslims. This was the interpretation offered by Jewish and Israeli media and also by the American conservative press. The Jerusalem Post spoke of "a terrorist gang of French Muslims," while the Wall Street Journal commented that in his death, Halimi became "a symbol of this Continent's failures in dealing with its poor and maladjusted Muslims." Yet other observers read less ideological significance into the murder. Fofana's confederates included "the children of blacks from sub-Saharan Africa and the
Caribbean, of Arabs from North Africa, of at least one Persian from Iran, and of whites from Portugal and France." And while Fofana had definitely decided to target Jews for abduction or extortion, that was because he had decided that French Jews were likely to be richer than non-Jewish whites. In his confession, he declared simply, "It was done for financial ends."49
Whether stressing or underplaying the role of religious bigotry in the attack, a number of ideological agendas were at work. For American conservatives as for Jewish observers, such an outbreak of vicious anti-Semitism demonstrated the hypocrisy of French or European claims to moral superiority and any right to criticize the United States position in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East. The crime, and its official neglect, recalled European hostility or negligence toward Jews in bygone years, most notoriously during the 1940s. To quote the Jerusalem Post again, "today, as seventy years ago, the Jews are disserved by poor and weak leaders who refuse to see the dangers." The Jewish World Review headed a story about the case, "From 1933-1945, The Enemy Was Nazi Germany. Today, It's Political Islam." Such commentators had a vested interest in making the murder seem as religiously motivated as possible, while French officials had just as strong a motive in depoliti-cizing it, in making it seem a regular crime. Both approaches had obvious policy consequences. If French Jews lived under the pervasive threat of racist violence, that would of itself demand a response by police and government, possibly extending to adjusting official policies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If, on the other hand, the crime was "mere murder," then it remained a limited matter for the criminal justice system.50
Ultimately, it is all but impossible to tell the real origins of the crime. To think of an analogy, imagine an American Jew robbed and murdered by a gang of African-American youths. One might interpret this as a manifestation of antiwhite prejudice, or of black anti-Semitism, or perhaps of class resentment; but it would also be quite plausible to understand it as a straightforward crime. Barring detailed insight into the minds of the perpetrators, we will not know which of these interpretations is most plausible.
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