On October 16th, in a north-western suburb of Paris Samuel Paty, a middle-school history teacher, was walking home after school when a radical Islamist beheaded him. The reason? Because he showcased caricatures of Prophet Mohammed to his class while explaining the concept of freedom of expression in France.
Paty was the kind of teacher who left his mark by his open-mindedness. While teaching history he would use contemporary examples - from Pink Floyd songs to a book by a football player on racism – to resonate with his students. He believed one studies history not to learn about relics of the past, but to learn how to be a citizen. A strong believer in lacite, the French version of secularism, Paty, like many others, was of the opinion that the French Republic was based on such fundamental ideals and that the schools were a place for nation-building.
Ideals like liberty, equality, fraternity, freedom of speech and expression and secularism are held in great regard in France – the birthplace of the Enlightenment movement. Universal in their application, ideals like freedom of expression go as far as to allow an individual or a group to criticise or mock religious symbols considered sacred. The Right to blasphemy, as it
is, has made it acceptable for the State to publish caricatures of religious figures like the Pope or Prophet Mohammed - depictions of the founder of Islam are forbidden in the Sunni branch of the faith.
Secularism in France is quite different from the Indian version. It sees no place for religion in the public sphere. And, a 1905 law explicitly bars the State from interfering in with private religious affairs. France has a ban on showcasing of any religious symbols in public space especially, in schools and government offices, buildings. This has resulted in a ban on full-face burqa for Muslim women, turbans for Sikh men and the wearing of the crucifix for Christians, among other things.
The cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in question were published by the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. This magazine was at the centre of a terrorist attack by Islamic fundamentalists in January 2015 that killed 12 individuals.
Samuel Paty was attempting to initiate a civil and logical dialogue on the impact and extent of the freedom of expression using these caricatures. Considering that the school was located in a diverse neighbourhood and was attended by students from different religious backgrounds, he had asked his students to leave the classroom or cover their eyes if they would feel offended or violated before showing them the cartoons.
A student offended by this incident informed their parents. The father then published a video criticizing Samuel and revealing his personal information. Witnesses say the killer, later identified as an 18-year-old of Chechen origin who came to France as a refugee, shouted Allahu Akhbar. “I have executed one of the dogs from hell who dared to put Muhammad down,” he wrote in a message briefly posted on Twitter, with a photo showing Paty’s severed head. Within minutes, the police tracked down the killer and shot him dead.
The gruesome murder has cracked open a deep schism, that is rarely far from the surface in France. At issue is how the country’s nearly 10% population - 5.7 million Muslims, the largest Muslim population in the European Union, assimilate, or not, in a country whose constitution is based on an unyielding principle of secularism and which has seen multiple terrorist attacks by jihadists since 2015. Islamic leaders fear it will precipitate a crackdown that will deepen the divide between moderate and radical worshippers.
French President Emmanuel Macron awarded Paty with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian honour, and led a national tribute to him at the Sorbonne University, a location chosen by Paty’s family.
“The Sorbonne is the symbolic monument of the spirit of enlightenment and French cultural, literary and educational influence,” according to an official.
Macron and the “Crisis of Islam”
Macron had tackled the issue of Islamic extremism two weeks before this attack. In a speech on October 2nd, Macron had argued that for an “Islam of Enlightenment”. He declared that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis today all over the world”, “plagued by radical temptations and by a yearning for a reinvented jihad which is the destruction of the other”.
He spoke of an “Islamist separatism” within the country, and the need to counter it through the rules and values of the Republic, to build a French version of Islam, an “Islam of Enlightenment” that would integrate French Muslim citizens better with the French way of life.
Although he should have talked about different strands of separatist ideologies, he focused solely on Islam.
According to Macron French secularism was not the problem. It was the “conscious, theorised, politico-religious project, which materialises in repeated deviations from the values of the Republic, often results in the constitution of a counter-society, and whose manifestations are children dropping out from school, the development of sporting and cultural community practices that are the pretext for teaching principles not in conformity with the laws of the Republic. It is indoctrination through the negation of our principles, equality between women and men, human dignity”.
Macron called it an attempt to create a parallel order, by inculcating different values and developing alternate organisations of society, separatist at first, but whose final goal is to take control of the Republic.
Throughout the speech, Macron sought to assure Muslims that he’s not targeting the entire religion of Islam, saying things like, “let us not fall into the trap laid by extremists who aim to stigmatize all Muslims.”
“I don’t think we need a form of French-style Islam,” he said. “We need to free Islam in France from its foreign influences.” France has historically had imams that have been trained in Arab countries such as Algeria, Turkey and Morocco, and preach in foreign-funded mosques.
During the speech, Macron announced a controversial “anti-separatism” bill to crack down on Islamic radicalism that will be introduced in Parliament in December. The proposed law would:
Strengthen controls and dry up funding for organizations that promote radicalism under the guise of sports or leisure
Make it easier for the state to intervene when public servants show signs of radicalization
Create a certification for French imams
Make school mandatory from the age of three and ban home-schooling to prevent the formation of Islamic schools, though children with health issues would be exempt
Emphasis oversight of language schools.
Promote the teaching of Arabic in public schools to draw children away from unregulated classes in mosques or other settings.
Monitor funding to religious groups from foreign countries, and ban projects “incompatible with the values of the Republic”
Set aside 10 million euros to support high-level Islamic studies, and create a scientific Islamology institute
Improve the low-income housing in the suburbs around Paris
Accepting the faults of the State, Macron added that the problem of radicalisation was partly a product of the "ghettoisation" of French cities and towns where a new separatism took root.“We have concentrated populations based on their origins, we have not sufficiently created diversity, or ensured economic and social mobility” in segregated areas, he said. Radical Islamists have swooped in, taking advantage of “our withdrawal, our cowardice,” he added.
He also acknowledged the colonial past of France when it ruled over several North African nations with a Muslim majority and the atrocities that it committed. This was added so that he is not perceived as an Orientalist who looks at Islam and Arabs as backward, uncivilised and dangerous.
Although Macron sees his Islam of the Enlightenment, divorced from foreign influence, as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, France’s recent experiences with terrorism challenge that assumption. The perpetrators of the vast majority of attacks weren’t foreign infiltrators but French nationals, and more often had a history of petty crime than religious zealotry. Many would-be terrorists are radicalized online or outside of religious settings; experts have consistently pointed to a home-grown violent Salafism that shutting France’s borders to foreign imams will do little to solve.
The speech, and Macron’s pronouncements after the killing of Paty, have infuriated many Islamic countries, with Turkey and Pakistan taking the lead in denouncing the French President as Islamophobic. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long-standing rows with France and Macron — over gas reserves off Cyprus, in Nagarno-Karabakh, and in the wars in Libya and Syria — questioned Macron’s mental health after the speech. Several Islamic countries have declared they will boycott French goods.
As the backlash over France’s reaction widened, European leaders, rallied behind Macron. “They are defamatory comments that are completely unacceptable, particularly against the backdrop of the horrific murder of the French teacher Samuel Paty by an Islamist fanatic,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s spokesman Steffen Seibert said.
Macron also faces the first round of the French presidential elections in April 2022, and his challenge will come from the security-minded right, either the centre-right Les Républicains or the far-right Marine Le Pen, with whom he is neck and neck in the polls. The french leader is ill-suited to the current battle, as he is perceived as a stalwart of liberalism and international cooperation; and not someone who is tough on terrorism.
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Rishabh Ahuja is an undergraduate student of Cluster Innovation Centre, University of Delhi. He is interested in International Relations, Public Policy and Philosophy. (Ris.firstname.lastname@example.org)