French free speech faces terror

On 16th October, French teacher Samuel Paty was attacked and beheaded near his school by 18-year-old Jihadist Abdoulakh Anzorov. This, understandably, caused the French nation to recoil in horror, not only because of the exceptionally gruesome murder, but because since 2015, 250 people have been killed at the hands of Islamic radicalism. The attacker justified his attack on the same premise as the Charlie Hebdo attack- caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed were shown- something blasphemous to the Islamic faith.

To make matters more severe, on the 29th October, information about another horrific event of this kind unfurled throughout the day as three French nationals were attacked and one “virtually beheaded” at the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice.

In both of these instances the attackers shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is greatest) before attacking their victims. Aside from the clear fact that these innocent victims suffered at the hands of two individual men, the incidents are replicas of a rising tide of incentivised radical Islamist violence across Europe.

Samuel Paty, a history and geography teacher, was attacked because he used images of the Prophet Muhammad in a school lesson about free speech. Whilst he advised some Muslim students to turn away, thus acknowledging the potential sensitivity of the issue, he showed them regardless. This comes after he reportedly faced complaints for similar displays previously.

Using images of the Prophet Muhammad as an instrument of projected free speech currently resonates in France more than ever. Indeed, the trials for the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack began this month- the price of free speech has impressed the French conscience for five years since the attack.

Nonetheless, they have met these attacks with a resilient grasp of their constitutional ideals in defence of free speech and secularism. Since, there have been thousands of people protesting with signs stating; “Je suis enseignant” (I am a teacher) and “Je suis Samuel” (I am Samuel) to emphasize collective solidarity with Mr Paty, but more importantly perhaps, with the French nation as a whole.

To begin to understand the ideological friction that helped birth the fanatical incentive behind these medieval-style executions, we have to look to the negative real-life ramifications of the French ideal of laïcité. This concept has framed French education since the country’s 1789 Revolution, and, signed into law in 1905, depicts the absolute separation of the state and religion, as the latter must be entirely omitted from public schools.

It is clear, however, that perhaps the employment of this secular ideal within education in France’s public schools behaves more as a feigned omission of religion. By this, I mean that as much as using religion as a tool for education is a clear indication of religious persuasion, perhaps avoiding religion in education also makes a strong religious statement.

By using the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his lesson as an example of free speech, mostly  attempting to avoid their deeply blasphemous nature, Mr Paty could be seen as performing an anti-Islamic act.

That certainly does not seem to have been his intention; many former colleagues and students have praised his open-mindedness and warmth. However, France’s defence of his actions as an employment of free speech has sparked much resentment amongst the wider Muslim population. Turkey and Kuwait, while condemning the violence, argue the images of the prophet Muhammad should not be shown.

The argument has been made, however, that the attackers involved here are, in small part, products of the model of the French education system that Mr Paty represented. The former French senior national education official Jean Pierre Obin has stated that public schools lead to “the cultural assimilation and political integration” of immigrant children. Ten percent of France’s population is Muslim, the highest in Europe.  Yet, it seems the French education style does not cater to this minority as cases of discrimination against Muslims are frequent.

Therefore, while these attacks are still morbid and exceptional examples of the Muslim faith, it seems that France has been a focused victim of radical Islamism due in part to its existing practice of secularism to the point of excluding its Muslim minority, which in some cases has born the fruits of fanaticism and indoctrination of Jihadist ideals.

Image: Yvan-7 on Flickr

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