An anti-terrorism vigil for the death of Samuel Paty. Credit: by Kiran Ridley/Getty

October 19, 2020   7 mins

Samuel Paty’s lesson for 13 and-14 year-old pupils on tolerance and freedom of speech is a lesson for the whole of France. It’s a lesson for all of us.

The facts are appalling. They are grindingly familiar and disturbingly novel – a collision between the murderous certainties of fundamentalist Islam; a well-meaning school lecture; and the mendacious, conflagratory power of the internet. On October 6, Mr Paty, 47, a much-liked history and geography teacher in a dull Paris suburb, produced for his middle school civics class a pair of the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed which provoked the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine five years ago.

How can publishing such cartoons be justified, he asked the teenagers, if they offend people of the Islamic faith? Where does the freedom of expression end and respect for others’ feelings begin?

These questions are not easy, Mr Paty explained. That is why fundamental principles exist in democratic states such as France to help people of different faiths and opinions to get along without murdering one another (as they have in not-so-distant parts of French history). The complexities are the lesson. But this lesson cost Mr Paty his life. Ten days later he was dead – decapitated by a 19-year-old Chechen refugee to France as he walked home from school.

One of the pupils, a 13-year-old Muslim girl, had given her father a misleadingly lurid account of the lesson – from which she was absent. The father, with the help of a radical imam, started a campaign on the internet to have the teacher sacked. The lesson – or a false and inflammatory account of the lesson – became a cause celùbre on radical Islamic sites on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Parents at the school received as many as 10 messages day, some from Algeria and other Islamic countries, calling Mr Paty a “criminal”, a “thug” and a “paedophile” and demanding that he should be sacked.

The murderer, Abdullakh Anzorov, was a Chechen Muslim, born in Moscow 19 years ago. He did not know Mr Paty or the school. He lived in Evreux in Normandy, 60 miles away.  It is likely — but not certain — that he acted alone, enraged by the lies that he had read on the web.

Anzorov followed Mr Paty as he left the CollĂšge du Bois d’Aulne in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, north west of Paris last Friday evening. He attacked him with a 12-inch butcher’s knife, stabbing him in the arms and abdomen and then beheading him. Anzorov was shot dead by police a few minutes later.

Twelve people have been arrested, including his father, grandfather and brother and the parent and imam (apparently unknown to Anzorov) who started the hysterical hue and cry online.

I happen to know Conflans-Saint Honorine. I used to go to a LycĂ©e close to the CollĂšge du Bois d’Aulne to talk to their English classes about journalism, football, France and Britain. Conflans is not the sort of the troubled inner Paris suburb where poverty and crime is rampant. It is a pretty village now encased in a concrete commuter belt for the modestly well-off of several different origins and  religions. The kids I met there were always polite and curious.

A large, shocked crowd of pupils, parents and other well-wishers which gathered outside the school on Saturday included many Muslims. “Something like this, here? It’s unthinkable,” said Brahim, a local man who is running a campaign to build a mosque (without any opposition).

In the grim litany of islamist terror attacks in France in recent years, the killing of one teacher may seem relatively unimportant. It will soon be the five-year anniversary of the Bataclan and associated attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 which killed 130 people. Nine months earlier, in February 2015, 17 people died in the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercacher supermarket – for which 12 alleged associates of the terrorists are currently on trial.

But forget the numbers. Mr Paty’s lone murder has struck a raw and angry nerve in France – and not just because of the appalling manner of his death. Tens of thousands of people turned out to mourn and honour the teacher in demonstrations in Paris and other French cities on Sunday.

Secularism is France’s state religion, the soil in which French democracy grows. The state guarantees a freedom to believe, and a freedom not to believe. It must otherwise be neutral on all religious questions. Teachers in state schools, though poorly paid and often criticised, are regarded as a front-line infantry, or secular priesthood, which passes on these Republican values of tolerance, freedom of expression and secularism to new generations.

The fact that Mr Paty was brutally murdered precisely for trying to explain these principles has made him into a kind of Republican martyr. There is talk of him being buried in the Panthéon, the secular cathedral on the Paris left bank which is the last resting place of great French men and women.

Mr Paty, though, was not the only target of last Friday’s attack. Anzorov also left a garbled message for the President, posted moments after the murder: “To Macron, leader of the infidels, I have executed one of your dogs of hell
Calm down others like him or we will inflict on you a severe punishment.”

This was obviously influenced by the furious response in parts of the Islamic world to a speech Macron had given in Les Mureaux two weeks ago. Les Mureaux is a more troubled, multi-racial, outer suburb of Paris in the Seine valley 20 kilometres west of Conflans. In the speech, the President proposed new action to prevent French Muslims from becoming a separate community who give their allegiance wholly to the Koran rather than French laws or values.

He promised a law on “secularity and liberty” to combat extremist Islamist indoctrination by forbidding the teaching of children at home after the age of three and by ending the “importation” of foreign-financed imams. Mosques will be placed under greater surveillance. State funding will be available to mosques which sign a charter on secularism and democracy.

Macron rejected calls to ban or restrict French Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public. He recognised that many of France’s Muslims had been let down by successive governments. He admitted that France had created its own social and economic “separatism” by dumping poorer people in suburban ghettoes with poor housing and few jobs.

The speech was – with some quibbles — generally well-received by moderate Muslim organisations in France. It produced a storm of fury amid more radical French Muslim groups and some governments of Islamic countries, including the Chechen one. It was also savaged by some successful and well-integrated Muslims in other European countries, including Britain. They accused Macron, inter alia, of racism, insulting Muslims and trying to create a “caliphate” or “French Islam”.

Much of this criticism was rooted in ignorance of French history and the principle of state secularism. France is not a ‘Catholic country’ but the state owns all the churches and rents them to ‘The Church’. Creating a similar system of state aid to support a moderate Islam with a French accent does not, in that context, seem so outlandish.

France has, proportionally, the largest Muslim population in Europe – between five and six million, or just under tenth of its people. Many – probably as many as a half – are non-practising. The great majority are law-abiding and accept the primacy of national laws. But there has been a shift in the last 20 years, even among moderate muslims, towards a more overt expression of their faith and sense of Islamic identity.

There has also been a rise in home-grown Islamist terrorism. Most of the atrocities committed in the name of Islam in France in recent years — from the attack on the jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, to the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacking in 2015 and the Nice truck attack in July 2016 — have involved French-born or long-term French domiciled Muslims.

Macron’s speech, clumsily worded in places, offered no snap solution. It offered a long-term strategy to create a barrier between the majority of the French Muslim population and a minority of extremists. This approach has been attacked, in the wake of Paty’s murder, by the Right and Far Right in France as a feeble response to the Islamist threat. Marine Le Pen of Rassemblement National called for a “real war against the poison of radical Islam
a real war to eradicate it finally”. Bruno Retailleau of the centre right Les RĂ©publicains said that “Islamism” must be “thrown out of the country by force”.

These are largely meaningless words. What sort of force exactly? What kind of real war? Most of France’s muslims are French and French born. They are not going anywhere. Any violent attempt to isolate an extremist but often submerged minority could prove disastrous.

The attitude of some Muslim intellectuals is equally obtuse. Their criticism of Macron’s speech seemed to float in a moral  vacuum in which events like the Bataclan or 9/11 or Manchester Arena for that matter – never occurred. Anti-muslim feeling exists in France — and did so before radical terrorism. But to minimise Islamist violence, and dismiss all attempts to contain it, as products of  endemic, European  “Islamophobia” is disingenuous or dishonest. A section of the French Left – certainly not all – has also been complicit in this intellectual dishonesty.

Some supposedly moderate Muslims reacted to the attack by blaming France and the French culture of free speech. Roshan Salih, editor of the British muslim news site Five Pillars, tweeted on Saturday: “Charlie Hebdo must be shut down immediately by French authorities. This racist, Islamophobic rag is causing community relations to completely break down with its repeated provocations.”

Salih and others say that Charlie Hebdo is clearly “islamophobic” because it would never similarly attack the Catholic church. Oh no? The magazine once published a front page cartoon in which the Bible, the Torah and the Koran were shown as giant toilet rolls. Charlie Hebdo is religiophobic. It is also frequently crude and unfunny — and in French law and according to the French cultural tradition, it has the right to be so.

Macron’s long game to remove the extremist influence from Islam in France isn’t without its flaws. But if not this approach, then what? Separating the great majority of moderate, hard-working, law-abiding French Muslims from the violent, anti-western propaganda of the extreme is in their interests. Their lives are already complicated by every Islamist atrocity. They would suffer most from the kind of ill-formulated civil war that Ms Le Pen contemplates.

There are reasons for hope, however. Extremist anti-western Islam has tried to foment retaliatory violence against the Muslim community — and thereby push more of them towards their own destructive misreading of Islam. Overall, that strategy has failed. The radical strategy was also to bring to power in France, and other western countries, a generation of hard-line politicians who would pursue anti-Muslim policies — not just anti-terrorism policies. That has not happened yet either.

But simple-sounding responses and explanations, whether offered by French politicians or by radical Muslim intellectuals, are not the solution. They are part of the problem. We should heed Mr Paty’s lecture to the 13 and 14-year-olds of Collùge du Bois d’Aulne at Conflans-Saint Honorine.We should cling to the principles of tolerance and freedom which western societies have evolved from their own dark centuries of intolerance and violence. The principles are often muddled and confusing. But that is the lesson. Complexity is the lesson.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.