This afternoon, a French court acquitted Bouchra Bagour, a 35-year-old resident of the southern town of Sorgues, on charges of defending terrorism after sending her three-year-old son, Jihad, to a nursery wearing a T-shirt bearing the phrase "I am a bomb" on the front and "Jihad, born on September 11" on the back.
The case pitted free-speech advocates against conservative politicians and has come to serve as something of a parable for France’s troubled relationship with its Muslim minority. Prior to the ruling, Sorgues mayor Thierry Lagneau, a member of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement, told the Washington Post that he saw the T-shirt as an unacceptable provocation, and that the mother’s actions required the authorities to at the very least explore criminal action.
"I said to myself, we can’t let that go by," Lagneau told the Post. "I didn’t know what was behind it, but we could not let that go. We have to impose limits."
Prosecutors declined to charge the mother and her brother Zeyad Bagour (Zeyad bought the T-shirt for young Jihad, whose birthday is, in fact, Sept. 11) under terror statutes and instead prosecuted them under a 1981 law forbidding apology for a crime. The mother conceded that the shirt had been tactless and her brother said it had been intended as a joke, telling the Post that he had read the phrase "I am a bomb" as the equivalent of "I am a real looker."
But that phrase tapped into a primal fear among the more xenophobic elements of French society about Muslim youth taking up arms against the ethnic French majority. High-profile attacks by homegrown Islamic terrorists — most famously the 2005 London transit bombing — have made relations with Europe’s minority Muslim population fairly toxic in recent years. And France has had particular trouble in this regard, with Muslim immigrants from its former colonies often chafing at the country’s ham-handed attempts to impose its secular values. The backlash against the T-shirt may have also been connected to widespread concern about declining birth rates for the ethnic French population and comparatively high birth rates for the Muslim population one day leading to France becoming a Muslim-majority country.
The specter of terrorism clearly hung over the case. When Bouchra Bagour and her brother were brought in for questioning, authorities asked both of them whether she had induced labor in order to have Jihad’s birthday fall on Sept. 11. Police asked Zeyad Bagour whether he was an observant Muslim, whether he found Islamic terrorism interesting, and whether he had recently been to Afghanistan.
If anything, today’s ruling is a victory for tolerance in France. The judge in the case ruled on narrow legal grounds, finding that prosecutors had not managed to produce evidence that Bouchra Bagour and her brother had offered an "unequivocal" defense of terorrism, as the law specifies.
"I am delighted, it was a discerning and legally justified decision that should put an end to this unfortunate affair," Gaele Guenoun, Bagour’s lawyer, told Agence France-Presse.
But the sentiments driving prosecutions like these remain. Lagneau, the mayor behind the case, told AFP that the ruling "gives the impression that everything is allowed" and that "the law does not reflect reality as it is seen by citizens." Lagneau’s conservative UMP party is currently at risk of being outflanked by the National Front, an extreme right-wing party that has had great success preaching an intolerant brand of anti-immigrant politics. A lawsuit like this one helps Lagneau protect the party’s right flank.
And all this over a three-year-old’s T-shirt.