While the attention of many people has understandably been focused on Turkey in the last few days, it’s worth looking at how the French government and the media in France and Britain are talking about Nice, because it’s bizarre and disturbing.
It remains unclear what motivated Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel to kill dozens of people. But the Guardian reports that, according to his father, he “had undergone psychiatric treatment in the past, and was unstable and sometimes violent.” (It’s worth saying that very few people experiencing mental distress become violent.) There are reports that he was “known to the police” for various offences, including domestic violence (here we should note that Omar Mateen, who carried out the shooting in Orlando, also had a track record of domestic violence). No one has found any connection between Lahouaiej-Bouhlel and religion, let alone faith-based groupings in the Middle East such as Isis – it seems that he never went to mosque, drank alcohol and took no interest in religion. It may be that religion or racism played some part in his motivation, but there is so far no evidence for this.
However, President Hollande is under attack from the right over Nice, for not taking enough action against Muslims – Le Pen complains that he has not deprived people of French nationality, not closed certain mosques. And so Hollande, speaking at 4am, just after the attack, states that “All of France is under threat from Islamist terrorism”. The determination of the French government to believe that they are dealing with Islamist terrorism is echoed by the Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. In the absence of any evidence for what is now called “radicalisation”, Cazeneuve asserts that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel must have been “radicalised very quickly” – so quickly that there was no time for him to appear on the radar of French intelligence services, or indeed for any traces of the process to be left as evidence. While French politicians make hypocritical calls for national unity, it seems that a person’s being of Arab ethnicity is all the evidence they need – so it’s not clear whether “national unity” includes France’s 3.5 million Arab citizens or excludes them.
If the French government is running scared of the right, with presidential elections nine months away and Hollande’s ratings a disaster, there is no need for the liberal British media to fall into the same trap – of asserting that we’re dealing with Islamist terrorism when there is no evidence of this. Yet the Guardian headlines an article “Nice truck attack: Islamic State claims responsibility”. Well, Isis has every motivation to make such a claim, to exaggerate its own worldwide reach – but that is no reason to accept it at face value. Nor is there any justification for printing an article by leading French journalist Christine Ockrent which begins with the hyperbolic claim that “we are at war. We have been for more than a year now” when there is no evidence (unlike with the Charlie Hebdo shooting or the attacks in Paris) that the Nice atrocities form part of a “war”.
Finally, there is a broader problem here. Isis are reactionary and revolting, but their behaviour fits with Islamophobic stereotypes which western governments and media have developed as part of justifying their disastrous interventions in the Middle East. So, Isis atrocities are reported, while other atrocities (such as the mass murders committed by the Assad regime) are not. This only encourages Isis to feel important, and to commit more atrocities to outrage the west. Both sides have in their own ways become dependent on a stereotype of Islamist terror – so dependent, it seems, that the stereotype has now taken on a life of its own, despite the lack of any evidence in the case of Nice to justify it.