New York Times Paris correspondent Scott Sayare reported from a predominantly Muslim slum in Toulouse, France on Thursday, following up on the massacre earlier this year by Mohammad Merah, a resident of the projects, of three soldiers, a rabbi, and three Jewish children. Sayare suggested that societal "forces of rejection and discrimination" against young Muslims wre at least partially to blame for the rampage, and sought out "understanding" for the massacre among Merah's former neighbors in "Neighborhood Is Torn Over a Killer’s Legacy."
In the spring, shortly after her son’s murder, Latifa Ibn Ziaten took a taxi to Les Izards, a hard-up immigrant neighborhood here, hoping to understand. She approached a group of young men to ask, “Do you know Mohammed Merah?”
Mr. Merah, a 23-year-old French-Algerian who claimed to have ties to Al Qaeda, had killed Ms. Ibn Ziaten’s son Imad, a sergeant in the French Army, with a gunshot to the head. Before dying in a police raid in March, Mr. Merah admitted that killing and those of two other soldiers, a rabbi and three Jewish children. He spent much of his short life in Les Izards.
“Mohammed Merah, you know, he’s a hero, he’s a martyr of Islam,” the men said, Ms. Ibn Ziaten recalled. “You haven’t seen what it’s like to live here?” they continued, gesturing toward their neighborhood of beige housing projects and gravelly concrete. “At least he showed the French what power is.”
Other residents of this depressed place say the same, though most do not celebrate Mr. Merah’s crimes. He committed the unconscionable, they say, but he was one of them, shaped by the same forces of rejection and discrimination that they say they know and resent. They understand, to a degree, and they will not denounce him.
To much of France, Mr. Merah was a terrorist, a determined killer who reviled this country, who set out for Afghanistan and Pakistan for training in jihad. In Les Izards he was, and remains, simply Mohammed. The gap between those images, both true but neither complete, seems only to have deepened the sense of alienation in the neighborhood.
“We’re still a bit in shock,” said Frédéric Mercadal, 37, who heads the local soccer club and knew Mr. Merah well. He had his troubles, Mr. Mercadal said, and was frequently childish and needy. But he could also be “courteous and kind,” even “filled with joie de vivre.”
Like Mr. Merah, many local youths identify with the Palestinian cause, said Younouss Zeroual, 17, whose closely trimmed black hair peaks in a meticulous ridge. During his standoff with the police, Mr. Merah told negotiators that he had targeted soldiers who were fighting Muslims in Afghanistan — like Ms. Ibn Ziaten’s son — and then chose to shoot Jews, when a separate target failed to appear, to avenge Palestinian deaths.
Sayare made time to sympathize with the neighbors who have mixed feelings about the massacre.
In his violence, Mr. Merah has left the area feeling under siege, too, residents say, from the police and the news media, which descended en masse after the killings, and from politicians who have made Les Izards a watchword for violence and hate. In response, there has been a sort of closing of ranks. Residents discuss Mr. Merah among themselves, they say, but consider it a betrayal to discuss him with outsiders.
“I think the neighborhood has had enough of being stigmatized,” said Martine Croquette, a deputy mayor in Toulouse.
This is not the first time Sayare's reporting has focused on the killer, Mohammed Merah, rather than his innocent victims. His March 28 story on the massacre, "After Killings in France, Muslims Fear a Culture of Diversity Is at Risk," suggested the top concern to come out of the tragedy was not the tragic murders, but local Muslim fear of rising tensions. Then as now, the young Muslims Sayare talked to kept any sympathy for the victims well-hidden, preferring self-pity.