The paths of two French mothers, Madame Ibn Ziaten and Madame Merah, converged in a Paris court this week, at the start of the trial of one of their sons, Abdelkader Merah. In March 2012, another of Madame Merah’s sons, Mohammed, shot dead seven people in southern France in the first of the Islamist attacks that are now a routine feature of European life.
Even in France, which has suffered more than most countries from this wave of terror, Merah’s rampage continues to haunt people. It wasn’t just that he singled out three Jewish children for cold-blooded execution in their school playground but that he also filmed his murders before he was killed in a police shootout. The first to die was Imad Ibn Ziaten, selected for execution because he was a Muslim in the French army. Merah ordered the soldier to to lie on the ground. He refused. ‘You want to shoot?’ Ibn Ziaten told him ‘Then go on, shoot’. Merah fired and as his victim lay dying he taunted him. ‘That is Islam, my brother,’ he said. ‘Allah is great’.
Abdelkader Merah is accused of complicity in his brother’s crimes, a charge he denies in a trial that is expected to last a month. Latifa Ibn Ziaten, Imad’s mother, is attending court. ‘I would like to look him in the face,’ she said at the start of the week. ‘To show him that I’m not afraid.’ She takes inspiration from her son, she explains, a man who died as he had lived: proud, upright, unafraid.
Latifa Ibn Ziaten raised her five children determined that they should prosper from the opportunities that she never enjoyed. Forbidden from going to school by her stepmother because ‘a girl’s place is at home’, she left Morocco for France when she was 17. She arrived in Normandy without a word of French but resolved to learn. She married Ahmed, a railway worker, and devoted herself to raising her family and integrating them into French society. Imad was born in 1981, growing into an athletic and intelligent young man, who enlisted in the army and at the time of his death was a sergeant in the parachute regiment. The family were proud of Imad and he in turn, says his mother, ‘was proud to serve the Republic.’
In the five years since her son’s execution, Madame Iban Ziaten has visited hundreds of schools, community centres and detention centres, warning youngsters about the wickedness of the Islamists’ ideology and explaining that Merah was a cold-blooded killer and not the ‘martyr’ that some Muslims proclaim. She has been awarded the Légion d’honneur and this week a film about her life opened in French cinemas.
But Madame Iban Ziaten is no political puppet. She talks with honesty and emotion, and has taken the French state to task for an education system that nurtures the gifted and neglects the average. But nor does she have time for the cult of victimhood that some of her faith embrace. Rather, she makes clear, it’s the responsibility of all French people to work together to defeat the Islamists’ ideology, particularly parents who must teach their children love and not hate.
There wasn’t much love in the Merah household. According to a third brother, Abdelghani, their Algerian-born parents ‘hated France and everything that embodies its diversity’. They lived in Toulouse and like the Ibn Ziaten household money was tight. ‘I experienced the same hardship as Mohamed,’ said Abdelghani. ‘But from the age of 10, I chose to resist my parents’ message of hatred’.
Abdelkader did not. He became a Salafist and it’s alleged he introduced Mohamed to the hardline ideology in the 2000s. He said at the time of his brother’s death that he was ‘proud of the way he died in combat’, and this week in court he reiterated his love for his sibling. He’s been less forthright on other subjects, refusing to disclose if he respects French laws and declining to say if he believes his brother is in hell or paradise. Accused of proselytising in prison, Abdelkader Merah claimed he couldn’t answer because he didn’t know what the word meant.
Madame Zoulikha Merah (who is remarried and goes by the name Zoulikha Aziri) has been in court to support her son. ‘What Mohamed did wasn’t good, I didn’t agree with it, but Abdelkader is innocent,’ she told reporters, adding that the family isn’t extremist but ‘just normal Muslims’. Not it would seem her daughter, Souad, who has spoken of her pride in her murderous brother and three years ago took her four children to Syria. The only ‘normal’ member of the Merah family is Abdelghani but he was ostracised years ago for falling in love with a Jew. ‘My mother always said that the Arabs are born to hate Jews’, he explained.
The two mothers reflect the two faces of France’s Muslim population. As Madame Ibn Ziaten has said, ‘no child is born a terrorist’; they become one. And while alienation and deprivation can play a part in radicalising an immature mind, it requires more. It requires an ideology, imparted by someone close, which spews hatred for for the West, for Jews and for Muslims considered apostates because they were proud to serve their country.