Attack on teacher in France revives debate on freedom of expression and Islam

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The assassination last week of a teacher who used images of the Prophet Muhammad in classes on freedom of expression – by a refugee Muslim teenager – sparked a solidarity movement in France and reopened the debate on the role of Islam in the country.

Samuel Paty, 47, a history and geography teacher, did an in-depth exam this month when he showed his students aged 12 to 14 two caricatures of Muhammad published by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – the same footage that in 2015 prompted jihadists to kill 11 staff. members of the magazine and six others in Paris. Parents and teachers at the school, located just 20 miles from the capital, said Paty gave his Muslim students the option of leaving the classroom or looking away so as not to anger them.

Idolatry is prohibited in Islam, and many devout Muslims believe that any portrayal of Muhammad, or any revered prophet, is taboo. But many also found the Charlie Hebdo cartoons particularly offensive not only because they portrayed the Prophet, but because they did so in a way that some critics said perpetuated racist and sectarian stereotypes of Muslims.

A tumult lasting several weeks ensued. One student’s father called for a “mobilization” against Paty – including his dismissal – and posted the school’s address and teacher’s name on social media. An Islamist activist even accompanied upset parents to school to lobby for the removal of the instructor.

But the situation turned deadly last Friday when Abdullakh Abouyezidovich, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee, beheaded Paty with a butcher’s knife as the teacher was on his way home. French authorities said the suspected attacker, who lived about 65 km from the school, asked students to identify Paty moments before killing him. The teenager was shot after attempting to stab and shoot at authorities who approached him.

Police have found a Twitter account suspected of belonging to the attacker since he posted a photo of the severed head with a message: “I executed one of the hellhounds who dared to shoot Muhammad . “

French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited the scene of the murder on Saturday, said the beheading appeared to be an “Islamist terrorist attack” committed because Paty “was teaching freedom of speech.” He added that the terrorist was seeking to “attack the republic and its values”, further noting that “this is our battle and it is existential.” They [terrorists] will not succeed. … They will not divide us.

Police raided numerous homes across France on Monday as part of their investigation into Paty’s murder. About 15 people have been arrested and 51 Islamic organizations are under investigation, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Monday. The “enemies of the Republic” will not have “a minute’s respite”, he told Europe 1 radio.

It is not surprising that France takes the alleged terrorist attack very seriously. Since the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, the past few years have seen high-profile knife attacks, police strikes on the Champs-Élysées, and a coordinated assault in Paris that killed 130 people and injured hundreds of people. ‘other.

But Friday’s murder strikes at the heart of two of France’s most turbulent debates, which have merged a bit in recent times: whether there should be limits on free speech and how Muslims should fit in. in French society.

And it’s a conversation that could continue to rock the country’s politics for years to come.

France and “Islamist separatism”

For more than a year, Macron has promised to detail his perspective on the role of Islam in French secular culture. On October 2, he finally delivered this speech.

“What we need to attack is Islamist separatism,” he told the nation, claiming that extremists were preying on desperate Muslims in desolate neighborhoods, essentially creating anti-French enclaves by broadcasting their radical Islamic “ideology” and “project”.

“We have built our own separatism ourselves,” he continued, claiming that the French authorities had made such a situation possible by regrouping immigrants in areas other than high-paying jobs or French public schools. To solve the problem, he proposed reforms, such as the four-year ban on foreign-trained imams (Muslim religious leaders) from preaching in France. Instead, all imams must be certified in the country in order to lead a congregation.

It was clear that Macron, who has long called for an “Islam of France” that seamlessly integrates Muslims into the country’s society, aimed to distinguish between extremists and all Muslims. Yet his speech and the thinking behind it received mixed reviews.

Some have said that his statements – namely, “Islam is a religion in crisis today, all over the world” – were inflammatory, not measured. They also accuse Macron, who is to be re-elected in 18 months, of trying to muster right-wing good faith by taking a tougher stance against Islamic extremism. “The repression of Muslims has been a threat, now it’s a promise,” tweeted Yasser Louati, a French Muslim activist.

Others, like Benjamin Haddad of the Atlantic Council think tank, said Macron’s speech and views on the issue set the tone.

“It underscored the urgency of fighting separatism,” Haddad, who has championed Macron’s policy in Washington, DC, since 2017, told me. “It’s really more about certain neighborhoods and areas that aren’t necessarily violent … but which will gradually socialize the radical ideology because the French republican ideals can no longer pass. It’s more than an ideological fight, he added. “We are talking about losing territory.”

“If you go to Paris, everyone will tell you there is a problem. It is one of the deepest societal problems in France today, ”he concluded.

But what the disagreement over Macron’s speech highlights is how France has struggled to accept Muslims as they come. For example, the country has banned the wearing of headscarves in public schools and for government employees at work. The government claims such measures are aimed at helping Muslims integrate into French secular culture, while critics claim the emphasis on Islamic clothing stems from sectarianism.

This question came to light after the terrorist attack that followed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. A local debate has revolved around whether the media should refrain from producing images of Mohammad, as Islamic teaching prohibits, or whether this is a celebration of critical French history of all religions. After all, the magazine often blames religious leaders like the Pope.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets of France to defend this story. On Sunday, they gathered in big cities like Paris, Lyon and Marseille in defiance of the attack, in memory of Paty, and to reinforce the idea that freedom of expression in France has no limits – even if this leads to showing images of the Islamic Prophet.

“We are the result of our history: these values ​​of freedom, secularism and democracy can only remain words,” a protester in Paris told French media. “We have to keep them alive, and being here helps to do that.”

Politicians who attended the rallies made similar comments. “I want teachers to know that after this despicable act, the whole country is behind them,” French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Sunday. “This tragedy affects all of us because, through this teacher, it is the republic that has been attacked.

Above all, the number of racist attacks in France, including against Muslims, has fallen in recent years. These statistics give hope that the potential Muslim scapegoat in the weeks and months to come will not lead to an increase in hate crimes.

But Macron’s policies and the aftermath of the attack indicate Muslims are once again under a national microscope. That, at the very least, will not help solve the assimilation problems that the country intends to solve.


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