The beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, the 16th of October 2020 in the Parisian suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, sowed confusion and anger—and generated a wave of determined resistance—in France. The target of this barbaric act was simply performing his duty as a teacher of history and geography who, as part of a syllabus dealing with morals and civics, illustrated the principle of freedom of expression using cartoons previously published in the satirical review Charlie Hebdo, drawings which are now part of French history. However, this attack was not totally unpredictable. A dishonest parent of a pupil claimed that Paty had tried to exclude Muslim students from the classroom, when in reality he had simply given permission for anyone who might be offended to leave the room temporarily. This parent, along with a radicalized Imam, endangered Paty’s life by denouncing his actions publicly and loudly, however harmless. Furthermore, the school administration did not support Paty fully, and he was thus left without protection.
On the 21st of October, French president Emmanuel Macron, of whom I am not at all a fan, delivered nevertheless an eloquent homage to Samuel Paty, declaring that Paty had been targeted because he had chosen to teach, assassinated because he had decided to prepare his pupils to become citizens. “Samuel Paty was killed because the Islamists want our future and they know that they will never have it as long as we have unassuming heros like Samuel.”
The Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, for his part, denounced the “intellectual complicity with terrorism” of certain political parties and associations which he accused of “islamo-leftism,” that is, that propensity of the “left” to display an alarming complacency with respect to political Islam.
For Djemila Benhabib, recipient of the 2016 Condorcet-Dessaules Prize awarded by the Mouvement laïque québécois and of the 2012 Prix de la laïcité awarded by the organization Comité Laïcité République (France), and who now continues her secular activism in Belgium, this atrocious murder is not an isolated incident. Rather, it is the simple continuation of the Mila affair, which was itself part of a long history going back to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo on January 7th 2015, then back again, in Europe, to the assassination of Theo van Gogh (great-grand-nephew of the painter Vincent van Gogh) on November 2nd 2004, then further back to the Muslim world which saw the mass murder of independent thinkers.
So many intellectuals, teachers, journalists, writers, playwrights, political activists and ordinary citizens, savagely assassinated by Islamist paramilitary militias, while the world looked away with indifference!
In an article published in the French magazine Marianne four days after the assassination of Paty, the editor-in-chief Natacha Polony declared that inaction is no longer an option. Polony denounces those who have recently made accusations of “racism” and “Islamophobia” as a way to silence, or to slander as far-right identitarians, those who defend the French concept of freedom of conscience. She summarized very adeptly two related problems:
On the one hand, we have a religion which, throughout the world, withdraws into its most literal and archaic interpretation. On the other had, we have a globalization of culture which imposes a communitarian vision imported from the United States, in contradiction to our history and our political organization. You only need to read the Anglo-Saxon press in order to understand that France is the target of wilfull destabilization. The New York Times or the Washington Post, with their accusations of racism made in articles having international scope, puts a target on the backs of those who attempt to preserve French secularism.
[…] for years, secularism has been opposed simultaneously by both archaic religious bigots and anti-universalist contemporaries.
[…] Today, an increasing proportion of our youth no longer understands the difference between French-style secularism on the one hand, and Anglo-Saxon tolerance, foundation of communitarian societies, on the other. Today, half of young Muslims consider that the Islamic dogma takes precedence over the laws of the Republic.
Polony ends by underlining the importance of uniting in solidarity to defend secularism and universalism against these twin forms of obscurantism: “We must finally stop allowing ourselves to be intimidated by those who would slander us with the infamous stigmata of racism and Islamophobia.”
At about the same time, two French researchers at Princeton University, B. Haykel et H. Micheron, specialists in radical Islam and the Middle East, published in Le Monde an article criticizing the bewildering blindness of Americans to the phenomenon of jihadism in France. The ostensibly left-wing American press studiously avoids any mention of the term “jihadism” and tends rather to put at least part of the blame on the victims, thus endorsing the principle promoted by Salafists that representations of the prophet are forbidden. Haykel and Micheron observe that, despite a strong political polarization in the USA, where the right is downright anti-Muslim while the left grants Muslims near-total impunity, both factions
abandon reasoned analysis in favour of a post-factual, emotional and opportunistic interpretation of events. Even more worryingly, they both grant jihadists the status of legitimate representatives of Islam, a recognition that all Islamist activists have dreamed of from the beginning.
The situation is hardly any better in Canada. It was not until some ten days after the assassination of Samuel Paty that the House of Commons finally adopted a resolution denouncing it, and then only on the initiative of a Bloc québécois MP. Furthermore, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s remarks appealing for calm reveal between the lines a similar indecent tendency to assign part of the blame to those fighting against radical Islam.
At the same time, Trudeau rejects the idea of any parallel between the beheading in France and recent events at the University of Ottawa where a professor was the target of a smear campaign for having used the French word “nègre” (roughly equivalent to the English word “negro” but perhaps more pejorative—but nevertheless much less pejorative than that other English n-word!) during a lecture, in order to explain its use in a specific non-pejorative context. (Well, at least I think it was the word “nègre” but I cannot be sure because the media refer to it only as “le mot en n.”)
Notwithstanding Trudeau’s denial, there is indeed a parallel between the two issues. In both cases, there was an exaggerated and hysterical response to something banal and harmless. In the case of the forbidden word, the fanatical response fortunately did not go so far as murderous violence. Nevertheless, in both cases, the representation of something is conflated with the thing itself, in a process of essentialization, as if the representation had become the thing represented. I was recently reminded of an old Chinese proverb: “The word dog does not bite.” Indeed, a cartoon of Mohammed is not Mohammed; it is neither sacred nor damned; it is only a drawing. In the same way, a word in and of itself is neither insulting nor flattering, because everything depends on how and in what context the word is expressed; taken alone, the word is just a word.
There is unfortunately another aspect of this parallel between the issue of so-called blasphemous cartoons and the issue of words which some would like to ban as racist: the two movements which oppose these drawings and these words—political islam and the so-called “antiracist” movement (largely a misnomer)—have some rather disturbing connections with each other. However, that is a subject for another blog.