Should the Nice massacre be blamed on twisted devotion to religion?

Published by the i paper (18th July, 2016)

Like so many children Yannis Coviaux loved the beach, playing in the sand and the sea. His father’s solitary consolation this weekend is that his four-year-old boy died happy, clutching a toy car and contented after a blissful day with friends. Yannis was among the victims mown down by a 19-tonne refrigerated truck driven by a mass murderer.

His tale is just one of the heartbreaking stories from the Bastille Day massacre in Nice. Father Mickael Coviaux told a French paper how he pulled his wife out of the way and dived to the ground as the lorry, driven with such lethal intent, bore down on them. Then he looked up and saw his son lying still in a pool of blood. ‘When I saw him on the floor, I immediately understood,’ he said. ‘It looked like Aylan.’

Two tiny boys. Two tiny corpses. And one apparent link in that they were both victims of jihadist terrorism in their own separate ways. Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Kurd from northern Syria who fled the savagery of Islamic State only to drown in the Mediterranean amid hostility to such refugees. And Yannis Coviaux, a four-year-old French boy who died after a day spent playing innocently in the surf of the same sea.

Yannis was far from the only child to die last week in Nice. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel also killed another four-year-old named Kylian Mejri, along with his mother Olfa Ben Souayah Khalfallah; like Bouhlel, she lived in France but was of Tunisian descent. These atrocities do not discriminate between religions or nationalities, of course, since their sole purpose is to sow the utmost havoc, horror and hatred.

But we should pause to ponder whether politicians and the media are playing a part in furthering their divisive cause. The Nice killings were instantly blamed on Islamic State, fuelling fears over Muslim fanaticism. Sure enough, the terror group soon claimed Bouhlel was one of their ‘soldiers’. With the now familiar choreography of such attacks, French politicians condemned IS depravity while opponents – particularly the far-right – sought to make maximum political capital from bloodshed.

Public concerns are understandable; this was the third major attack on French soil in 18 months. Yes, we know burgers, cars and smoking wipe out far more people in the West than terrorist bombs, guns and knives. That fewer people died in recent years from terrorism than in previous decades. And that such evil slaughter is the most ignorant perversion of Islam. But cold statistics do not set racing minds at rest.

Yet was Bouhlel really a jihadist killer, dying from twisted devotion to his religion? Or merely a pathetic inadequate who cloaked himself in their cause to carry out deeds no different from those mass shootings we see all too often in America? France’s interior minister claimed Bouhlel ‘radicalised himself very quickly.’ And there is no doubt IS seeks to encourage such killings. Before rushing to judgement and inflating their cruel image, however, consider the facts.

As a boy, Bouhlel was troubled and violent – ‘he would break anything he saw in front of him,’ said his father. The delivery driver had been prescribed medication for depression. He drank, smoke, gambled and took drugs. He ate pork, enjoyed music and, although a married father of three, eyed up his neighbour’s daughters. He was a loner, estranged from his wife and probably suffering financial problems. He was known to police for theft and domestic violence, but not for links to religious extremism.

Bouhlel’s family said he did not pray or attend a mosque. His wife’s cousin said ‘he was not a Muslim, he was a shit… a nasty piece of work.’ Perhaps in the depths of despair he found solace suddenly in religion and fell in with hardliners. Possibly he was turned rapidly by the bloodstained bigots of Isis into a jihadist killer. But even if confirmed, the evidence still points to a sick individual filled with loathing, whose personal troubles exploded in the most terrible way on the wider world.

In this, he was no different to Omar Mateen, another disturbed man who last month killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Florida. Once again, he left little trail of links to religious extremists although had watched gruesome Isis videos; his only radical messages posted online came the night he carried out barbarity. He had even been followed by the FBI for months. But he beat up classmates, was a long-term steroid user and, although twice married, seems to have struggled with his sexuality.

How often do we hear these mass killers took drugs, stole and were violent before seeking infamy? And how rare the evidence they observed tenets of the religion in whose name they kill. Yet the consequences of their carnage is clear – just look at the latest Pew survey showing a rise in unfavourable views of Muslims across Europe. The proportion of British people holding such views has risen from 19 to 28 per cent since last year; in several nations from Spain to Hungary, it is far higher.

Such data must delight those seeking to drive open fissures in our society. Not just leaders of jihadist groups, but also loathsome nationalist politicians who trade in public fear. If we want to preserve our liberal democracies, we need to resist their hostility. Yet in the rush to pin a label on losers who take out their self-hatred on humanity, are we doing some dirty work for those seeking more death, destruction and division?

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