In the spring, shortly after her son’s murder, Latifa Ibn Ziaten took a taxi to Les Izards, a hard-up immigrant neighborhood here, hoping to understand. She approached a group of young men to ask, “Do you know Mohammed Merah?”
Mr. Merah, a 23-year-old French-Algerian who claimed to have ties to Al Qaeda, had killed Ms. Ibn Ziaten’s son Imad, a sergeant in the French Army, with a gunshot to the head. Before dying in a police raid in March, Mr. Merah admitted that killing and those of two other soldiers, a rabbi and three Jewish children. He spent much of his short life in Les Izards.
“Mohammed Merah, you know, he’s a hero, he’s a martyr of Islam,” the men said, Ms. Ibn Ziaten recalled. “You haven’t seen what it’s like to live here?” they continued, gesturing toward their neighborhood of beige housing projects and gravelly concrete. “At least he showed the French what power is.” [...]
Other residents of this depressed place say the same, though most do not celebrate Mr. Merah’s crimes. He committed the unconscionable, they say, but he was one of them, shaped by the same forces of rejection and discrimination that they say they know and resent. They understand, to a degree, and they will not denounce him.
To much of France, Mr. Merah was a terrorist, a determined killer who reviled this country, who set out for Afghanistan and Pakistan for training in jihad. In Les Izards he was, and remains, simply Mohammed. The gap between those images, both true but neither complete, seems only to have deepened the sense of alienation in the neighborhood.