“Samuel Paty was killed because the Islamists want our future,” the president said, adding “they will never have it.”
The ceremony, marked by a moment of silence and Paty’s posthumous award of the highest legion of honor in France, capped a wave of sorrow and anger following Paty’s death near the Parisian school where he was working.
Paty’s death rocked the nation in part for its sheer brutality, but also because it attacked what many French people consider sacrosanct – the country’s public schools as centers of critical thought and free expression, as well as his convinced credo of secularism, or secularism.
Yet with flowers, marches and tributes – including mass rallies in major cities that have brought together tens of thousands – the country is witnessing a fractured response to its latest terror attack, which mixes up appeals. to the war against Islamist extremism and fears that the country may be pushing its secular ethos too far.
“There is a political culture that has problems with Islam, and that is secularism,” said sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, a specialist in radical Islam. “And secularism is a major problem.”
Cartoons of Prophet Muhammad
Paty was killed on his way home from school last Friday in apparent retaliation for showing the controversial caricatures of the Prophet of Islam Muhammad to his students during a free speech class. Authorities said seven people, including two minors, would appear before an anti-terrorism judge.
At a press conference on Wednesday, anti-terrorism prosecutor François Ricard said Paty’s assassin, 18-year-old Chechen immigrant Abdullakh Anzorov, gave students at the school in Paty, in the Paris suburb of Conflans -Sainte-Honorine, money in exchange for the identification of the teacher.
Two agreed, and Anzorov followed and killed Paty after class, posting his gruesome act on social media. Shortly after, police shot dead Anzorov, an ethnic Chechen who had been granted asylum and later residency status in France.
The assailant was apparently motivated by a social media campaign against the teacher for showing the controversial cartoons. The campaign was started by a disgruntled parent, although the man’s daughter apparently never attended the free speech class.
The parent and an alleged Islamist activist, who helped spread the social media campaign against Paty, are among those appearing before a counterterrorism judge. Also appearing are the two students, aged 14 and 15, who told investigators that Anzorov said he intended to humiliate and beat Paty, but not to kill him.
The French authorities quickly responded to the murder, announcing the expulsion of more than 250 Islamic radicals suspected of foreign origin. They also launched dozens of raids against suspicious groups this week, closing a mosque and promising to dissolve several organizations allegedly linked to extremism.
Among them, the Collective against Islamophobia in France, or CCIF, an NGO that receives state funding, but which, according to critics, is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Earlier this week, Home Secretary Gerald Darmanin denounced him as an ‘enemy of the republic’, accusing him of supporting the disgruntled father’s fatwa or ruling against Paty – a claim rejected by Chief Jawad Bachare of CCIF.
“The government has not been able to protect its people and it needs someone to blame – and that is us,” Bachare said in a phone interview, describing the CCIF as apolitical and not religious.
The father had contacted CCIF for legal support, he added, but the group advised him to immediately remove his social media posts while he investigated his complaints.
Paty’s murder was the second terrorist incident here in less than a month. A previous stabbing attack in Paris that seriously injured two people was also triggered by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. With a pending lawsuit over the 2015 attacks on the satirical newspaper, they are once again putting the spotlight on France’s Muslim community, which is the largest in Western Europe.
Prominent Muslim leaders have rushed to denounce the attacks, even though they fear Muslims may be unfairly stigmatized.
“This is the moment, and we support our president and our government and the Minister of the Interior to go really fight Islamism, to really go and look for them in their cellars, on their websites, where they are hiding”, said Paris-zone Imam Hassen Chalghoumi during a commemoration ceremony for Paty.
Secularism at stake
Members of the French far right and several center-right leaders say the government has not gone far enough.
“Terrorism being an act of war, it needs legislation of war” against radical Islam, said Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National party, demanding broader changes, including new restrictions on immigration.
Macron’s centrist government plans to unveil so-called anti-separatist legislation in early December, which is expected to largely focus on radical Islam.
“Laicité is the glue of a united France,” Macron said, announcing the bill last month.
But others suggest that secularism – or at least the official interpretation of it – is part of the problem. From banning Muslims Burkinis on beaches to religious symbols in schools, this fuels divisions, they warn, and paradoxically risks pushing some conservative Muslims to extremism.
Khosrokhavar describes conducting several interviews with middle-class French Muslim men, many of whom said they were not particularly religious.
“The majority is deeply alienated, because it is targeted by this secularism, which becomes a symbol of neocolonial rule and a denial of their dignity,” he declared.
Paty’s death also rocked educational institutions across the country. At rallies and commemorations, teachers came in droves, waving banners defending free speech. In interviews, they describe the tensions that teach secularism to an increasingly diverse student body, especially those of Muslim origin.
“There is a penetration of a religiosity which structures more and more the students and nourishes a radical vision”, declared to French radio Iannis Roder, professor of history in the Paris region of Seine-Saint-Denis, very immigrant. “It manifests itself in really basic things, like some students refusing to listen to music during Ramadan.”
Another teacher at Seine-Saint-Denis high school told VOA that teaching tolerance takes time.
“Fight against free expression by showing images of the prophet [Muhammad] – we have to weigh the consequences, ”said the teacher, who refused to be identified because she had not received permission from her school to speak to the media.
Instead, she takes a less confrontational approach, taking her predominantly Muslim students on school trips to Holocaust memorials and other sites – and making connections to their own origins. Slowly, she says, the lessons are fading.
“The former students come back to mentor the young people,” she said. “It makes a huge difference.”