The murder last week of a teacher who used images of the Prophet Muhammad in lessons about freedom of expression — by a teenage Muslim refugee — has sparked a solidarity movement in France and reignited the debate over Islam’s role in the country.
History and geography teacher Samuel Paty, 47, brought scrutiny this month when he showed his 12- to 14-year-old students two caricatures of Muhammad published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo — the same images that in 2015 inspired jihadists to kill 11 staff members at the magazine and six others in Paris. Parents and teachers at the school, located just 20 miles outside the capital, said Paty gave his Muslim pupils the opportunity to leave the classroom or look away so as not to anger them.
Idolatry is forbidden in Islam, and many devout Muslims believe any depictions of Mohammed, or any revered prophet, to be taboo. But many also found the Charlie Hebdo drawings particularly offensive not just because they depicted the prophet, but because they did so in a way that some critics said perpetuated racist, bigoted stereotypes of Muslims.
A weeks-long uproar ensued. One student’s father called for a “mobilization” against Paty — including his firing — and posted the school’s address and the teacher’s name on social media. An Islamist militant even accompanied upset parents to the school to push for the instructor’s ouster.
But the situation turned deadly last Friday when Abdoullakh Abouyezidovitch, an 18-year-old refugee from Chechnya, beheaded Paty with a butcher knife as the teacher made his way home. French authorities said the suspected attacker, who lived about 40 miles away from the school, asked students to identify Paty moments before killing him. The teenager was shot dead after he tried to stab and shoot back at authorities who closed in on him.
Police found a Twitter account suspected of belonging to the attacker since he posted a picture of the severed head along with a message: “I have executed one of the dogs from hell who dared to put Muhammad down.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, who on Saturday visited the site of the murder, said the beheading appeared to be an “Islamist terrorist attack” committed because Paty “taught freedom of expression.” He added that the terrorist sought to “attack the republic and its values,” further noting “this is our battle and it is existential. They [terrorists] will not succeed. … They will not divide us.”
On Monday, police raided numerous homes across France as part of its probe into Paty’s killing. About 15 people have been taken into custody and 51 Islamic organizations are under investigation, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said on Monday. The “enemies of the Republic” won’t be given “a minute’s respite,” he told the Europe 1 radio station.
It’s no surprise France is taking the suspected terror attack very seriously. Since the Charlie Hebdo assault in 2015, the last few years have seen high-profile knife attacks, strikes against police on the Champs-Élysées, and a coordinated assault in Paris that killed 130 people and injured hundreds more.
But Friday’s killing strikes at the core of two of France’s most turbulent debates, which of late have somewhat fused together: whether there should be limits on freedom of speech, and how Muslims should integrate into French society.
And it’s a conversation that could continue to roil the nation’s politics for years to come.
France and “Islamist separatism”
“What we must attack is Islamist separatism,” he told the nation, saying extremists preyed upon desperate Muslims in desolate neighborhoods, basically creating anti-French enclaves by spreading their radical Islamic “ideology” and “project.”
“We built our own separatism ourselves,” he continued, arguing French authorities made such a situation possible by huddling immigrants together in areas apart from good-paying jobs or French public schools. To solve the problem, he offered some reforms, like within four years forbidding foreign-trained imams (Muslim religious leaders) to preach in France. Instead, all imams must be certified in the country in order to lead a congregation.
It was clear 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. Still, his speech, and the thinking underlying it, received mixed reviews.
Some said his statements — namely, “Islam is a religion that is in crisis today, all over the world” — were incendiary, not measured. They also accuse Macron, who is up for reelection in 18 months, of trying to garner some right-wing bona fides by taking a tougher stance against Islamic extremism. “The repression of Muslims has been a threat, now it is a promise,” tweeted Yasser Louati, a French Muslim activist.
Others, like the Atlantic Council think tank’s Benjamin Haddad, said the speech and Macron’s views on the issue set the right tone.
“It underlined the urgency to fight separatism,” Haddad, who has defended Macron’s policies in Washington, DC, since 2017, told me. “It’s really more about certain neighborhoods and areas that aren’t necessarily violent … but will progressively socialize radical ideology as French republican ideals can’t get through anymore.” It’s more than an ideological fight, he added. “We’re talking about losing territory.”
“If you go to Paris, everyone will tell you there’s a problem. It’s one of the deepest societal problems in France today,” he concluded.
But what the disagreement over Macron’s speech underscores is how France has struggled to accept Muslims as they come. For example, the country has banned headscarves in public schools and for government employees while at work. The government says such measures are meant to help Muslims integrate with France’s secular culture, while critics say the focus on Islamic garb stems from bigotry.
This issue burst out into the open after the terrorist attack following the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Local debate roiled over whether outlets should refrain from producing images of Mohammad, as Islamic teaching forbids, or whether doing so is a celebration of France’s history of criticizing all religions. After all, the magazine often lampoons religious leaders like the pope.
Thousands took to France’s streets to defend that history. On Sunday, they rallied in major cities like Paris, Lyon, and Marseille in defiance of the attack, in Paty’s memory, and to bolster the notion that freedom of expression in France has no limits — even if that leads one to show images of the Islamic prophet.
“We are the result of our history: These values of liberty, secularism and democracy cannot remain just words,” a demonstrator in Paris told French media. “We have to keep them alive, and being here helps do that.”
Politicians who attended the rallies made similar comments. “I want teachers to know that, after this ignoble act, the whole country is behind them,” French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Sunday. “This tragedy affects each and every one of us because, through this teacher, it is the republic that was attacked.”
Importantly, the number of racist attacks in France, including against Muslims, has dropped in recent years. Such statistics offer hope that the potential scapegoating of Muslims in the coming weeks and months may not lead to a rise in hate crimes.
But Macron’s policies and the aftermath of the attack indicate that Muslims are once again under a national microscope. That, at the very least, won’t help with the assimilation problems the country aims to solve.
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