Watch: In the Aftermath of Nice Attack, Rampant Racism and a Right-Wing Ready to Capitalize on the Tragedy
I don’t know anyone who didn’t stay up all night on July 14. In the beginning, it was for all the usual right reasons: summertime, the holidays, celebrations, and fireworks. Then, as the first videos began to trend on social media, the mood turned from celebration to panicked questions about what was happening in Nice — then to feeling of concern, sadness and finally, the surrender to anger and the sheer outrage of once again watching people die by the dozens and watching the crowd of vultures hover over the dead, eager to exploit the latest atrocity.
On July 14, 2016, a crowd of revelers was plowed down by a truck manned by a homicidal driver, killing 84 people, including 10 children. At the time of writing nearly 20 are still under intensive care. Within 18 months, over 200 people were killed by the murderous madness of a handful who made no distinction between their victims.
The driver behind the rampage, Mohammed Lahouaiej, was a 31-year-old man from Tunisia with psychiatric issues and was cut off from all his relatives. His ex-wife, who described him as mentally unstable, had left him after accusing him of abuse. In 2004, he was treated for severe depression and according to the recent testimony of his father, had stopped taking his medication and had become more and more violent over time. After his wife left him, his acquaintances recalled him saying, “she will soon hear from me.” No one knows whether he was referring to the attack he was going to visit on the city of Nice, or something else. This clearly deranged killer’s actions and his first name, Mohammed, were nevertheless sufficient to convict him as a terrorist, not just another psychopath, who wanted to commit suicide and take as many lives with him as possible.
The night that we counted the dead in Nice, and while my friends and I placed frantic calls to our relatives to ask if they were safe, our national media turned the tragedy into a competition for ratings, rushing to baselessly describe the attack as an ISIS operation. At other points, reporters could be seen shoving a microphone in the face of a survivor in a state of shock and asking him how he felt while he was seated beside his dead mother.
The disgraceful coverage culminated with the inevitable “expert” on terrorism, who hammered home the message that there was a Muslim threat in France and that the goal of this attack, as supposedly demanded by ISIL, was to kill as many French non-Muslims as possible. It’s as if the driver knew the religion of the people he was plowing down at 60 miles per hour. After the crime scene was reconstructed, it turned out that the first person he deliberately targeted was a veiled Muslim woman standing on the curb.
Over the phone, my relatives were giving few reassuring news. But once their safety was confirmed, I had to worry about their mental health. One of them, Jonathan, informed me that he knew several of the victims, including his best friend’s mother. Another, Feiza Ben Mohammed, was on the Promenade des Anglais while the truck was mowing people down like blades of grass. She informed me that she too knew many of the victims. Several hours passed before hearing that the crime scene was secured and that rescue teams could do their job.
Given the events in France since January 2015 and the multiple terrorist attacks that have targeted French citizens, there were unavoidable questions. How could attack have been possible right under the state of emergency which has been in full effect and which was expanded since November 2015? Despite all the extraordinary powers given to the executive branch of power, the powers stripped from the judiciary, the passage of a law allowing mass surveillance without warrants, and despite the operation known as Sentinelle that dispatched 10,000 military men and women across the country, and even the 1400 surveillance cameras covering the city of Nice, the question lingered: How could a truck drive unchecked to the Promenade des Anglais where 20,000 people were watching the Bastille days celebration and plow the crowd down for over a mile? This was the same truck had made several trips to the future crime scene even as trucks were prohibited in that part of the city.
Failures are obvious but they are not only safety related. The fact is that not one lesson was learned by our political elites from the terror attacks in January and November 2015. If one wanted to make people believe that France was waiting for a spark to turn it against itself, he would have done exactly as they had.
The political class, true to its own habits, did not hesitate to capitalize on the tragedy. On the “Les RÃ©publicains” side, the right-of-center former president Nicolas Sarkozy accompanied MP’s Eric Ciotti and Christian Estrosi, both barons of the southern right, paraded around at the local church. In the same church, the far right was represented by a member of the Le Pen family who came to pray before the cameras.
On the left side of France’s political spectrum, President Francois Hollande and his two lieutenants, Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Minster of Interior Bernard Cazeneuve, rushed to Nice to deliver boilerplate speeches on the united French Republic. Perhaps this time, as the crowd met Valls with a chorus of boos, this government took recognition of how discredited it had become in the eyes of the public, and how fed up average French citizens are with their imperious political class.
While Christian and secular France reflected and mourn their dead, France’s Muslims were ignored. A few hundred meters away from the crime scene, the Ennour Mosque which opened to the public less than two months ago despite staunch opposition from then Nice mayor Christian Estrosi, spent the whole week organizing funeral prayers. Not one official showed up for the ceremonies nor to show support. According to the testimonies from attendees, several families of victims were pressured to have the ceremonies held in other places of worship.
Muslims have been left to pray alone for their dead. When Muslims showed up at the Promenade des Anglais for the public commemoration, some sons and daughters of victims were assaulted by members of the crowd. The hatred of Arabs and Muslims has become so normalized in the city of Nice that many of its inhabitants actually expressed joy at seeing them among the lifeless bodies on the pavement.
What can we say about the assaults of bereaved family members who were identified as Arab or of Muslim descent? What can we do about the shocking videos showing the daughter of one victim pleading, “My mother was killed! She can’t be both a victim and responsible!” When ISIL preaches the destruction of the gray zone where Muslims and non-Muslims peacefully coexist in the West, the impulse of racists across the Atlantic has been to fuel this criminal mafia’s belief that it can spark a civil war in France.
What can we say about the Prime Minister of France who couldn’t refrain from belting out his worn-out rhetoric about an Islamist threat in France even before the first elements of the investigation into the Nice attack were made available? ISIL is not a band of idiots. Its leadership is desperate to claim credit for any spectacular act of violence that takes place in the West, even if it had no role, and so it claimed responsibility for Nice. Two days after the attack, reports revealed that Nice culprit Mohammed Lahouaiej was bisexual and engaged in sex work. Will ISIL back off its claims of credit as it did when it heard that Omar Mateen, the mentally disturbed killer of 47 at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, lived a gay double life?
As French sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar wrote, the case of Nice mass killer Mohammed Lahouaiej has more to do with psychiatry than with ideology. The claims made by ISIL without any proven link with the culprit “give a franchise to act under for unstable people.” But such analysis by an expert in criminal psychology complicates the official narrative and introduces political inconvenient facts. The country needs a culprit, and since this one is dead, his first name is sufficient to point the finger at Muslims. In a time of national hysteria like this, only the most courageous are willing to speak with levity against the braying mob.
As during the November attack and the ones before it, Muslims were not only refused the right to grieve, they were denied the right to speak for themselves. The absence of the average Muslim citizens from the public sphere perpetuated their dehumanization and further legitimized the Islamophobia they have dealt with on a daily basis.
A few days after the Nice massacre, I visited the city so I could speak directly with the local Muslim community and let them speak for themselves. After two long days and several emotionally intense conversations with mosque attendees, community leaders and the local Imam, I left the city with the feeling that this country is only waiting for a spark to set itself ablaze.
Everyone I interviewed described racism running rampant in Nice. They pointed to its anchor in a system that resembles apartheid and characterized by rundown project buildings, disgracefully high rates of unemployment, discrimination and public hate speech, social exclusion and rejection by the local elites. On the other side of Nice there is the Promenade des Anglais, its blue waters, its fancy hotels and postcard landscape which, a few blocks away turns out to be a mirage when poverty and exclusion become visible.
When asked to put words to the feelings they have experienced since July 14, those I spoke to in this video responded with "fear," “anxiety” and “state of shock.” For them, being Muslim deprived them of the right to feel what humans are supposed to feel in the aftermath of a tragedy. Regardless of the staggering proportion of Muslim victims — over 30 out of 84 — and even if the first victim to be killed was a veiled Muslim woman named Fatima, France’s Muslim citizens are more than ever seen as a suspect community.
While walking along the Promenade des Anglais, a man came to me and insisted on expressing his condolences because he thought I was “that young man who was crying next to his dead mother.” When I told him it wasn’t me, he continued to share his feelings on his fear of tomorrow. He told me that a devout Catholic man, he found strength in prayer but nevertheless. Sadly, he confessed that he didn’t believe France could do any better. At least, not with such uninspiring and unimaginative leaders, he said.
But what if everyday people stand together and acknowledge that a trap is being set by ISIL and the likes and that our governments are not helping? The bombing of civilians as France and the U.S. did in Manbij, Syria that killed 167 people, the fueling of the narrative of a clash of civilizations back at home that is tearing our societies apart, and the endless state of emergency have all failed to bring security. It may not be long before regular French citizens who have been the target of so much violence begin to look beyond their fear-mongering elites and search among themselves for a way out of the trap that has been set for them.