(JTA) — Four weeks before he murdered seven people in Toulouse, a cheerful Mohammed Merah was filmed laughing and showing off his skiing skills to friends at a popular Alpine resort.
The footage, televised on March 6, formed the opening sequence in a controversial documentary about the 23-year-old, French-born jihadist who murdered three soldiers and four Jews last year in a rampage that shocked the country.
Aired by public broadcaster France 3 ahead of the anniversary of the killings, the 105-minute film, titled “The Merah Affair — The Itinerary of a Killer,” was billed as the definitive investigative work on Merah. More than 2 million viewers tuned in.
But the film also has exposed a rift between those who view Merah’s actions as the product of deep anti-Semitic currents among jihadists and others who believe Merah was driven largely by emotional problems stemming from a difficult childhood and possible psychiatric illness.
“Very early on after the killings, we saw an objectionable tendency to view Mohammed Merah as a victim,” Richard Prasquier, the president of the CRIF, France’s main Jewish umbrella group, told JTA. “Regrettably, the film amplifies this view.”
Merah was a petty criminal from Toulouse who was jailed for theft in 2007. While in jail, the film reports, he was teased and seen as a buffoon. He tried to commit suicide by hanging himself in his prison cell, according to a prison psychologist.
Merah seemingly took comfort in Islam, growing his beard long and immersing himself in religious texts. Following his release in 2009, he traveled to several Middle Eastern countries, including Pakistan, where he received weapons training at a terrorist encampment.
On March 11, 2012, Merah approached an off-duty French Moroccan paratrooper on a Toulouse street and shot him in the head. Four days later he killed two uniformed soldiers and injured a third at a shopping center in Montauban, about 45 minutes to the north.
Then, on the morning of March 19, Merah arrived at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse and opened fire, killing Miriam Monsonego, the 8-year-old daughter of the Jewish school’s principal, along with Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his two young sons, Arieh and Gavriel. According to a police officer interviewed in the film, Merah knelt beside one of the children and shot the victim in the head.
In the film, Merah is portrayed as a troubled and aggressive youth, the youngest of five siblings raised by a single mother. At 9 he was placed at a state-run institution for at-risk youths after a social worker determined he wasn’t attending school regularly and lacked the necessary support at home. Five year later, a teacher wrote, “He is offensive to girls. Every day we intervene on a fresh aggression, theft, conflict or attack committed by Mohammed, who will not accept the authority.”
Merah’s mother, Zoulikha Aziri, who in the film spoke to the French media for the first time, could provide no explanation for her son’s actions, but said he once told her, “There’s a man in my head and he keeps talking to me.”
“Our objective was to understand Mohammed Merah, to study the context in which he grew up,” Jean-Charles Doria, the film’s director, said in an interview with the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. “We found a banal setting: a broken family, absent father, powerless mother, late religious discovery and a disturbed character.”
It is precisely this focus on Merah’s psychological profile that critics charge grossly misrepresents not only the nature of Merah’s crimes but the essence of jihadist hatred.
The filmmakers declined to include the testimony of Merah’s brother, Abdelghani, who said last year that Mohammed was “raised to be an anti-Semite because anti-Semitism was part of the atmosphere at home.” Nor did they note the 90 anti-Semitic incidents that occurred in the 10 days following the shootings — part of a 58 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2012.
The thought that a French Muslim “could go skiing and then murder soldiers and children is too frightening for France 3,” Veronique Chemla, a Jewish media analyst and investigative journalist, told JTA. “So instead of examining how Merah was ideologically transformed, the film speculates on Merah’s sanity.”
Pierre Besnainou, a former president of the European Jewish Congress and president of the FSJU social and cultural arm of the French Jewish community, said “the film demonstrates a total misconception of the true nature of jihadist indoctrination.” And the CRIF’s Prasquier said the Jewish community must fight the tendency to portray Merah in a sympathetic light.
“The shootings were first and foremost part of radical Islam and its dangers,” Prasquier said.
The film’s producers did not respond to JTA’s request for comment. But in his Le Nouvel Observateur interview, Doria denied that the film portrayed Merah as schizophrenic, merely as “inept at social relations and mostly isolated.” He added that Merah had sought legitimacy from Islamic preachers for actions he already had planned.
"We see clearly in Merah a collection of naive religious sentiments, not real faith or ideology,” Doria said.
The film also devotes many minutes to reviewing the failures of French authorities, who had flagged Merah as a person of interest back in 2010, the year he traveled to the Middle East. It also revealed that after Merah had been identified as a suspect in the murders, he managed to shake off a police detail and slip undetected in and out of his apartment mere hours before a French SWAT team surrounded it and killed him.
While critics praised the film for exposing these failures, Besnainou said they are a red herring.
“The way to beat the Merahs of the world isn’t just more security, it’s education and social mobilization against their ideology,” he said. “This film makes this harder to achieve.”