Another terrorist attack there calls to mind Charlie Hebdo and the extent to which Muslim youths feel alienated from French society.
The gruesome murder of a French history teacher earlier this month, five years after the deadly terrorist attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, has all of France talking about the value of free speech. According to currently available information, the teacher, Samuel Paty, had “outraged” Muslim students in his classroom when he’d shown them the caricatures of the prophet Mohammed that sparked Islamist rage against Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
The teacher’s defense of free speech hadn’t gone down well with his students, four of whom have been held by police on charges of aiding the killer. Two have since been shown to have accepted €300 from the killer to identify the teacher before the murder. The perpetrator himself has been identified by police as 18-year-old Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, a Chechen refugee, allegedly motivated by Islamist views. He had stabbed and beheaded Samuel Paty on his way home from work, a few hundred meters from the school where he taught, then posted the pictures on a Twitter account that has since been suspended. The teenager himself was shot and killed by police after he had fired at them with an Airsoft rifle.
From there, the story deepened. Parents of Muslim pupils had previously demanded the resignation of Paty for showing the caricature of Mohammed, and posted videos on social media that brought more attention to the school and Paty himself. It has also become clear that the killer had been in close contact with the father of a pupil who had engaged in the witch hunt against Paty. In addition to the two students, four adults have been charged with aiding the killer.
Since the beheading, more incidents have occurred, as the hostility of radical Muslims against France has increased. A now-presumed terrorist attack in Nice killed three people, while an attacker in Avignon was shot dead by police after threatening law enforcement.
This adds to the terrorism statistics: between the first attack perpetrated by Mohammed Merah, in March 2012, and the most recent beheading, there have been 54 acts of Islamist terrorism in France that have claimed the lives of 290 people.
France’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin has said that further investigations into radicalized groups are being conducted, with 51 of them under surveillance. Calling Islamists the “enemies of the Republic” and likening radical Islam to the threat of Nazi Germany has some labeling Darmanin as a radical. In its coverage of the terrorist attack, the New York Times describes Darmanin as “the hard-liner interior minister” and refers in the same sentence to “so-called radicalized Muslims.” Certainty seems to be a one-way street in that newsroom.
That is not to say the attack hasn’t brought out a set of more unconventional policy positions, which are, in essence, very French. In a TV interview, the same minister said that “capitalists” (meaning companies) have a responsibility to be “patriots.” Darmanin alluded to the fact that banks embolden communitarianism (cultural echo-chambers) by providing loans to certain organizations, and that retailers worsen the problem by focusing on specific customers, for instance by selling halal food.
While Macron’s interior minister seems to believe that halal chicken causes ghettoization, other political factions find their own culprits. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon blames the Chechen community, which were welcomed “because the then government disliked Mister Putin.” Within its own ranks, the left continues to have disagreements between those who oppose Islamism and those afraid that a crackdown on these organizations will deepen civil unrest and hate crimes. Former prime minister Manuel Valls attacked the far left in a radio appearance: “I think that in their discourse, in their strategy concerning radical Islam, there is complacency, there is ambiguity in any case. I think it’s an Islamo-leftist discourse.”
Meanwhile, “Citizenship Minister” (there is such a thing in France) Marlène Schiappa is implicating social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter for rising hate speech and emboldening of Islamism, and has summoned them for a discussion. Within the government, it’s been suggested that a closer look should be taken at banning anonymous accounts online.
One political figure who stands to benefit from the attack is Marine Le Pen, likely future presidential candidate for the National Rally (formerly the National Front). In a video statement, Le Pen said, “As terrorism is an act of war, it deserves legislation of war.” Demanding special surveillance and prisons, Le Pen is framing herself as the law and order candidate ahead of the 2022 presidential elections. As most opposition parties to Emmanuel Macron are weak and disorganized, Le Pen is currently the favorite to square off once again against the incumbent Macron.
While politics is divided over policy prescriptions, civil society is dealing with the real fallout from the attack. Five years after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, “Je Suis Prof” (“I am a teacher”) is trending on Twitter, as the country mourns another attack on free speech. The divide between religious Muslims and the broader public is deepening—before 2015, most French regarded Charlie Hebdo headlines and caricatures as an unnecessary provocation, though most later supported the decision of the magazine to publish the cartoons. Back in September, Charlie Hebdo republished all its old cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Meanwhile, 70 percent of French Muslims think publishing the cartoons was wrong.
The number of effective terrorist attacks has declined in Europe since 2015. However, it does not take much for a lone wolf or a small network of outraged radicals to plunge a country into a divisive debate. The Samuel Paty murder is likely to open conversations on how French civics courses clash with the convictions of some of their pupils. Many politicians ardently support what the French call “the Republican school,” understanding that the institutions of the state should regulate the hearts and minds of its students.
However, they are also likely to experience the limits of what the state is able to do. According to an IFOP poll from September this year, 66 percent of French Muslims believe that the Charlie Hebdo publishers should be prosecuted under the law, while 18 percent said they would not condemn the attack, which killed 12 people and injured 11 others. For young Muslims, the rate is even higher at 26 percent. Forty percent of French Muslims regard their personal religious views as more important than the rule of the law of France.
After years of “Republican” and secular education, little effect has been seen on the willingness to accept freedom of speech. France has reached the rough realization that Islam and French Republican values cannot be made to fit together, at least not through the methods of the state. Regulating social media, banning the entry of certain people, more surveillance—none have solved the problem, while all have shown that government is nothing but an ineffective bystander in the battle of ideas.
Individuals make a difference in this cultural rift. The French people should lead by example by selling the virtues of a free society, not as just another set of ideas, but as a better set of ideas. Islamism is obscurantism, not substantially different from the medieval inquisitions or the desolate rule of the absolute monarchy. Europe can be blamed for many things, but it has done well to separate itself from those ideologies that reject the principles of a free society. Islamism deserves the same treatment, and so do its apologists.
Pictures are Creative Commons.
This article was first published by The American Conservative.
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