A Beheading for the Prophet and a Reckoning for France

26 October, 2020
Montpellier's city hall  projects images of slain schoolteacher Samuel Paty and satirical cartoons he shared with his students (Photo: Vincent Pereira/Midi-Libre)
Mont­pel­lier’s city hall projects images of slain school­teacher Samuel Paty and satir­i­cal car­toons he shared with his stu­dents (Pho­to: Vin­cent Pereira/Mi­di-Libre)



Jordan Elgrably


France and its Mus­lims are at log­ger­heads over the hor­rif­ic behead­ing of school­teacher Samuel Paty and the nation­al response, which has put Islam on alert.

On Octo­ber 16, Paty was cor­nered out­side his school in Con­flans, a Paris sub­urb. He was behead­ed by an 18-year-old Chechen Mus­lim who was heed­ing a fat­wa that con­demned Paty for dis­play­ing satir­i­cal car­toons of the Prophet in a class dis­cussing free­dom of expression.

A few days lat­er, two women in hijab near the Eif­fel Tow­er were report­ed­ly stabbed by two French women shout­ing epi­thets, includ­ing “dirty Arabs.”

On Sun­day, calls to burn down the Ar-Rah­ma mosque in Béziers were launched on Face­book and police set up secu­ri­ty around the mosque.

As the Wash­ing­ton Post’s James McAuley not­ed today, “In the week since the attack in the Paris sub­urb of Con­flans-Sainte-Hon­orine, Macron’s gov­ern­ment has ordered a crack­down on Mus­lim orga­ni­za­tions it accus­es of foment­ing ter­ror­ist vio­lence, and defend­ed the car­i­ca­tures of Muham­mad as emblem­at­ic of the French val­ues of sec­u­lar­ism and free expres­sion, even if they are deeply offen­sive to many of France’s Mus­lim cit­i­zens, among its largest minor­i­ty populations.”

samuel paty photo ville de conflans-sainte-honorine.jpg


France is home to the largest Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion in Europe, and main­tains at times strained rela­tion­ships with for­mer colonies, Lebanon, Alge­ria, Tunisia and Morocco.


Samuel Paty was a 47-year-old mid­dle school teacher who had sought out sen­si­tiv­i­ty train­ing to learn more about Islam and his Mus­lim stu­dents. Along with a num­ber of like-mind­ed col­leagues, he spent Novem­ber 7, 2019 in a day-long sem­i­nar for teach­ers at the Insti­tut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Insti­tute) in Paris, where he made an impres­sion on the Insti­tute’s staff.  On a memo­r­i­al page for Paty on the insti­tute’s web­site, they write, “The IMA team remem­bers a man who was pas­sion­ate and full of ques­tions about the Arab world. Fol­low­ing his vis­it [last year], in Jan­u­ary 2020, he had request­ed a vis­it by one of our ani­ma­tors at his col­lege to present his stu­dents with an edu­ca­tion­al con­cert mix­ing Arab-Andalu­sian music from the Maghreb and the music of 13th cen­tu­ry trou­ba­dours in France.” 


Why push the envelope? 


We know how Islam­ic rad­i­cals react­ed to French week­ly Char­lie Heb­do’s satir­i­cal car­toons when they shot up the mag­a­zine’s offices in Jan­u­ary 2015, killing 12 and injur­ing 11. They con­tin­ued their ram­page in what would become France’s 9/11 when, a few months lat­er, 130 were killed at the Bat­a­clan The­atre and oth­er Paris locations.


The ques­tion is, why do peo­ple work­ing in the French media con­tin­ue to behave with such insen­si­tiv­i­ty — why con­tin­ue obdu­rate satir­i­cal attacks on Islam by choos­ing to por­tray the Prophet neg­a­tive­ly, or por­tray him at all? One won­ders how Amer­i­can Evan­gel­i­cals would react to porno­graph­ic depic­tions of Jesus? Would Jews sim­ply take it in stride if car­toons of Abra­ham or Moses depict­ed naked fanatics?


More to the point — what is the sense in sat­i­riz­ing sacred reli­gious fig­ures, if what you want to do is open a crit­i­cal dia­logue on a par­tic­u­lar religion?


There is an argu­ment to be made that free­dom of expres­sion includes the right to crit­i­cize reli­gious dog­ma and skew­er sacred cows, but it seems provoca­tive to con­tin­ue satir­i­cal salvos on the Prophet Muhammed when they have engen­dered fat­was and ter­ror­ist attacks that have killed hun­dreds of peo­ple across Europe.


To throw fur­ther oil on the fire, in con­nec­tion with cer­e­monies mourn­ing the death of Paty, the may­ors of Toulouse and Mont­pel­li­er, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the gov­ern­ment in Paris, went ahead and pro­ject­ed a por­trait of Samuel Paty along with car­i­ca­tures of the Prophet on their city halls. Among them were car­toons Paty had shown his stu­dents, pub­lished on the cov­er or inside Char­lie Heb­do, includ­ing the image of the Prophet with a rab­bi and the cap­tion, “faut pas se moquer” or “do not make fun of.”

We will not give in, ever.
We respect all dif­fer­ences in a spir­it of peace. We do not accept hate speech and defend rea­son­able debate. We will always be on the side of human dig­ni­ty and uni­ver­sal values.

— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) Octo­ber 25, 2020

Right now a great deal of pres­sure is com­ing down on French Mus­lims, who again are tak­ing the heat for the rad­i­cal extrem­ism of one out­raged Mus­lim, but ask your­selves, do whites in the U.S. feel they have to apol­o­gize each time a white suprema­cist shoots up a syn­a­gogue or a Black church? Why should the many have to apol­o­gize for the crimes of the few; why should an entire reli­gion or race be scape­goat­ed? Human­i­ty has been down this road too many times in the past not to have learned these harsh lessons.


There are some who say that Macron’s heat­ed rhetoric against Islam in Europe is fan­ning the flames of intol­er­ance, but over the week­end the French pres­i­dent dug in his heels. “We will not give in, ever,” Macron tweet­ed. “We respect all dif­fer­ences in a spir­it of peace. We do not accept hate speech and defend rea­son­able debate. We will always be on the side of human dig­ni­ty and uni­ver­sal values.”

Europe’s hos­til­i­ty towards Mus­lims and efforts to ‘dis­ci­pline’ them is insep­a­ra­ble from the increas­ing­ly wide­spread hos­til­i­ty towards Islam, Turkey and our pres­i­dent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

— Fahret­tin Altun (@fahrettinaltun) Octo­ber 25, 2020


But ten­sions between the French gov­ern­ment and the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty con­tin­ue to esca­late. After inte­ri­or min­is­ter Gérald Dar­manin not only called for shut­ting down a num­ber of Islam­ic char­i­ties and anti-Islam­o­pho­bia asso­ci­a­tions, but sug­gest­ed that he would like to remove the Ara­bic eth­nic food sec­tions from French super­mar­kets, boy­cotts of French prod­ucts have been declared in Kuwait, Jor­dan and Sau­di Ara­bia. Where will all this end?


To make things worse, over the week­end Turk­ish pres­i­dent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Macron need­ed to see a shrink over his mis­guid­ed remarks about Islam after Paty’s behead­ing. (Last year Erdoğan called Macron “brain-dead” in response to the lat­ter’s remarks about NATO.) Writ­ing in Le Point, French pun­dit Luc de Barochez notes that “the burn­ing Fran­co-Turk­ish antag­o­nism proves that the strug­gle against rad­i­cal Islam in France can­not be detached from its inter­na­tion­al con­text.” Mean­while, Turkey’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor, Fahret­tin Altun, tweets: “Europe is an increas­ing­ly dan­ger­ous place for Mus­lims. The dog whis­tle pol­i­tics of offen­sive car­i­ca­tures, accu­sa­tions of sep­a­ratism against Mus­lims, and mosque raids isn’t about free­dom of expres­sion.” He adds, “Europe’s hos­til­i­ty towards Mus­lims and efforts to ‘dis­ci­pline’ them is insep­a­ra­ble from the increas­ing­ly wide­spread hos­til­i­ty towards Islam, Turkey and our pres­i­dent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.”


To return to the behead­ing of Samuel Paty for a moment, his attack­er, Abdoul­lakh Anzorov, was brought to France from Chech­nia by his father when he was six. That means almost the entire­ty of his edu­ca­tion was in the French pub­lic school sys­tem, which empha­sizes sec­u­lar­ism, or laïc­ité. How did he get so rad­i­cal­ized, won­ders Anass Kassem, an agnos­tic Syr­i­an Mus­lim who has made his home in Mont­pel­li­er since 2005. “Anzorov’s father is alleged­ly a Russ­ian refugee sup­pos­ed­ly per­se­cut­ed for being a Mus­lim by the Rus­sians. So France gives them shel­ter and pro­tec­tion, a free sec­u­lar edu­ca­tion for his son and yet he cuts off the head of the poor pro­fes­sor — whose fault is this? Is it the Rus­sians’? the French sys­tem’s? the Amer­i­cans’ who helped and sup­port­ed the Chechen rebels in order to stymie the Rus­sians? Or is it just Islam’s fault?” 


Regard­less, on Fri­day, Kuwait announced its boy­cott against French prod­ucts as a social media cam­paign against France went viral in the Arab world. Two days lat­er, accord­ing to Reuters, in “Sau­di Ara­bia, the Arab world’s largest econ­o­my, a hash­tag call­ing for the boy­cott of French super­mar­ket retail­er Car­refour was the sec­ond most trend­ing on Sun­day.” French prod­ucts are com­ing off the shelves in Jor­dan and Qatar as well. 

Kuwait supermarket removes French products from its shelves.
The plot thickens


The French-Moroc­can fire­brand Zineb El Rha­zoui — a for­mer jour­nal­ist at Char­lie Heb­do who cov­ered Islam and who describes her­self as an athe­ist — con­tin­ues to receive death threats for being a con­stant crit­ic of Islam. She leaves her Paris home under armed guard. After Inte­ri­or Min­is­ter Gérald Darminin said he planned to shut­ter the Col­lec­tive Against Islam­o­pho­bia (CCIF) for giv­ing suc­cor to French Mus­lim extrem­ists, El Rha­zoui spoke out on French tele­vi­sion’s TF1, say­ing she reserves the right to crit­i­cize Islam or Islam­ic rad­i­cals with­out being called a “racist,” which she argues is how the CCIF frames its oppo­si­tion to every­one who lev­els crit­i­cism against Islam.


She says that the CCIF, “the flag­ship of the Islamist arse­nal in France, has been mil­i­tat­ing for years against a ‘crime’ that is not a ‘crime’ in French law; I am refer­ring to this seman­tic impos­ture called ‘Islam­o­pho­bia’. The CCIF’s tac­tic is to place itself under the ban­ner of the fight against racism, the def­i­n­i­tion of which is framed by law, in order to ben­e­fit from the same legal pro­tec­tions. Any­one who crit­i­cizes Islam is auto­mat­i­cal­ly treat­ed as a racist, a legal black­mail that it is high time to make ineffective.”

Thanks to shame­less Islamist pro­pa­gan­da relayed crim­i­nal­ly at face val­ue by Anglo-Sax­on main­stream media such as the @washingtonpost and the the @nytimes, fat­was against free­dom of speech in France are mush­room­ing in cer­tain parts of the Mus­lim world#Ter­ro­rAc­com­pli­cies https://t.co/qbARnfRIyn

— Zineb El Rha­zoui (@ZinebElRhazoui) Octo­ber 25, 2020


In El Rha­zoui’s view, call­ing crit­ics of Islam “racist” is akin to call­ing pro­po­nents of the Boy­cott Divest­ment Sanc­tions move­ment against Israel’s apartheid sys­tem for Pales­tini­ans “anti-Semit­ic.” Not one to pull her punch­es, on Sun­day El Rha­zoui crit­i­cized the Amer­i­can media. She tweet­ed “Thanks to shame­less Islamist pro­pa­gan­da relayed crim­i­nal­ly at face val­ue by Anglo-Sax­on main­stream media such as the @washingtonpost and the @nytimes, fat­was against free­dom of speech in France are mush­room­ing in parts of the Mus­lim world.”


Oth­ers in France who are work­ing to mend fences or build bridges between Mus­lims and the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion find them­selves under height­ened scruti­ny, and some have received death threats — from both French rightwingers and Islam­ic extrem­ists. Anthro­pol­o­gist Dou­nia Bouzar, author of The Temp­ta­tions of Extrem­ism, argues that she’s ded­i­cat­ed her life to strength­en­ing rela­tion­ships between Mus­lims and non-Mus­lims, yet has been called an “Islamo-col­lab­o­ra­tor” on one hand and on the oth­er, a trai­tor to Islam, her Alger­ian father’s religion.


Cer­tain­ly as the tem­per­a­ture ris­es among the French and French Mus­lims, (not to men­tion among Mus­lims world­wide), arts orga­ni­za­tions that are devot­ed to pro­mot­ing cross-cul­tur­al entente, such as the Insti­tut du Monde Arabe in Paris and the Fes­ti­val Arabesques in Mont­pel­li­er, will tru­ly have their work cut out for themselves.



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