Last month, on 16 October, an 18-year-old Moscow-born Chechen refugee, Abdullakh Anzorov, shocked the world by beheading the French teacher, Samuel Paty. This act of terror has both galvanised France and led to increased international tensions.
France has suffered many and more bloody terror attacks. On 14 July 2016, in Nice, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel deliberately drove a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day. His attack ended after an exchange of gunfire, during which he was shot and killed by police, but not before he had killed 86 people.
The single deadliest attack was on 13 November 2015, when Islamic State staged three coordinated suicide attacks. A bomber struck outside the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, during a soccer match. There were then mass shootings and a suicide bombing at nearby cafés and restaurants. Gunmen carried out another mass shooting and took hostages at a concert in the Bataclan theatre, leading to a stand-off with police. The attackers were either shot or blew themselves up when police raided the theatre. The result was 131 dead and more than 400 wounded.
Then there were the attacks on the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015 and 2020, the killing of a priest, the murder of a teacher and three children at a Jewish school, and more than a hundred other incidents.
A turning point?
Each of these caused an eruption of popular sentiment — then French President François Hollande called the 2015 attacks an “act of war”. But each time, the moment passed and was gradually displaced by a sentiment — an official sentiment, anyway — that the problems of Islamist terrorism should not be exaggerated. Charlie Hebdo would again be criticised for being insensitive.
Such a sense of resignation may come about again, but early signs suggest that French opinion may have reached a turning point. The fact that Samuel Paty was a teacher and was killed for what he taught in class may be one factor, since this implicated the French state itself. President Emmanuel Macron stated that Paty had been killed because he “embodied” the values of the French republic.
Paty was teaching a class about free speech and had used the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as illustrations of the issue — but only after first telling the class that those who did not want to watch could step out of the class without penalty, or they could simply not look.
It was precisely Paty’s defence of free speech that led to his death. It also emboldened Macron. He conferred on Paty the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest award. The police conducted dozens of counter-terrorist raids. A pro-Hamas group, the Cheikh Yassine Collective, was dissolved for being “directly implicated” in the murder. The group’s founder, radical Islamist Abdelhakim Sefrioui, was held by police for publishing a video on YouTube that insulted and threatened Paty. The government promised to create a new criminal offence that would punish anyone who endangers another person by publishing their details online. Cabinet ministers discussed a fight against “cyber-Islamism” with social network leaders.
Though it all, President Macron has been admirably outspoken. He had earlier criticised Islamist separatism, and claimed that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world.” Macron said that Paty “gave himself the task of ‘making republicans’.”
“So why was Samuel killed?,” Macron asked in his eulogy:
[A]t first I believed it to be a random act of madness, a senseless arbitrary act: another victim of gratuitous terrorism. After all, he wasn’t the Islamists’ main target, he was simply teaching. He wasn’t an enemy of the religion they exploit: he had read the Koran, he respected his students whatever their beliefs and was interested in Muslim civilization.
No, on the contrary, that’s precisely why Samuel Paty was killed. Because he embodied the republic which comes alive every day in classrooms, the freedom that is conveyed and perpetuated in schools.
Samuel Paty was killed because Islamists want our future and because they know that with quiet heroes like him, they will never have it. They divide the faithful and the unbelievers.
Macron thus portrayed Paty’s murder, not as the act of a lone terrorist attack, but as a war between Islamists and the republic. But Macron pledged: “We will not disavow the cartoons, the drawings, even if others recoil.”
As might be expected, the French President’s defiant words have attracted criticisms and insults from overseas. Pakistani Prime Minister Imram Khan accused Macron of “attacking Islam” by defending the publication of “blasphemous” caricatures: “It is unfortunate that he has chosen to encourage Islamophobia by attacking Islam rather than the terrorists who carry out violence, be it Muslims, White Supremacists or Nazi ideologists …”
Khan also wrote to Mark Zuckerberg, asking him to ban “Islamophobia and hate against Islam” on Facebook. The sickening irony, of course, is that the death and carnage caused by Pakistan’s own blasphemy laws continues. On 26 July 2020, Tahir Naseem, an American citizen, was murdered in court during a bail hearing after he was accused of blasphemy. Religious minorities in Pakistan are disproportionately accused of blasphemy and killed.
Meanwhile, there were demonstrations against France in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iraq, and Turkey, and calls for boycotts of French goods in Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, Libya, Syria, and Gaza. The Iranian newspaper Vatan-e Emrooz claimed that “French extremists” were burning copies of the Qur’an.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also entered the fray with his customary lack of diplomatic tact. Not content to criticise, he quickly moved to insult. In a speech he asked, “What’s the problem of the individual called Macron with Islam and with the Muslims? … Macron needs treatment on a mental level.” France, in response, recalled its ambassador to Turkey and advised French citizens abroad to be especially cautious.
Parallels with the “Danish cartoons”
These events have troubling echoes of the furore surrounding the “Danish cartoons” published by Jyllands-Posten, the largest newspaper in Denmark. After their publication, there were killings, riots, boycotts, and protests. Many people now assume that these events erupted spontaneously after the cartoons appeared, but that was not the case. The cartoons were published in September 2005, and were largely met with silence or mild protest. Some Danish Muslims peacefully demonstrated outside the office of Jyllands-Posten, saying that the newspaper should not have published the cartoons and that they should apologize.
The protests and terror attacks that erupted in Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the wider Middle East came in January and February 2006 — four or five months after the event. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, comprised of some 56 countries and territories, changed the agenda of their January 2006 meeting in Mecca; rather than address the scourge of terrorism, they discussed instead insults to Islam. Out of that meeting came a plan of action which involved boycotts of Danish and other products, demonstrations, and protests. Many of these protests spiralled out of control, leading to violence and killing.
There is no doubt that Muslims are genuinely hurt by and do become angry in response to perceived insult or blasphemy. But, in the vast majority of cases, if there are widespread demonstrations and deaths, it’s usually because some governmental figures, or other powerful people, want that to happen and stoke the resentment and anger.
In the case of Erdoğan, Turkey and France were already at odds. On 29 November 2019, long before the latest controversy, Erdoğan told Macron, “You should get checked whether you’re brain dead.” Macron, for his part, has criticised Turkey’s interventions in Syria. In the eastern Mediterranean, France is opposing Ankara over hydrocarbon reserves and maritime boundaries, and supporting Greece and Cyprus in their rejection of Turkey’s expansive claims. Turkey has challenged the French navy at sea. France has even deployed fighter jets to the region.
In 2006, Turkey parlayed its criticisms of Denmark over the Jyllands-Posten cartoons into concessions from NATO, and later used the cartoons as bargaining chips in negotiations with the United States in order to gain leverage for two high level Turkish appointments to NATO. Turkish pressure now could include a similar drive to use religion for political leverage in the disputes in the Mediterranean.
Whatever the international manoeuvrings, Emmanuel Macron is generally to be commended for his refusal to mince words, for his preparedness to call an ideological battle for what it is, and for the way he has urged France and free societies throughout the world to grasp the importance of defending their freedoms. As the late Abdurrahman Wahid — former President of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organisation, and former President of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country — insisted, coercively applied blasphemy laws:
narrow the bounds of acceptable discourse … not only about religion, but about vast spheres of life, literature, science and culture in general … Rather than … encourage Muslim fundamentalists in their efforts to impose a spiritually void, harsh, and monolithic understanding of Islam upon all the world — Western authorities should instead firmly defend freedom of expression …
Here, at least, Muslims and non-Muslims should be able to find common cause.
Read in “Australian Broadcasting Company()”:https://www.abc.net.au/religion/emmanuel-macron-is-right-to-stand-for-free-speech/12906566?fbclid=IwAR1K0xtSjdZWdi2bjdjBLnIvTIxekEwdKVnLj2fFtEup0T1vdND5s285ENE