When mutual respect and sovereignty both matter


Dear Partners in thought,

The beheading of Samuel Paty, a French history schoolteacher on 16th October in Greater Paris was horrible and cannot be excused by any religious belief whatever the offense felt by some extremists. This was an awful crime. Full stop.

The story was well reported given its dreadful features. A French history schoolteacher taught civics to his class that involved free speech, which is a tenet of French democracy. To make the point, Samuel Paty showed a couple of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that had been published in the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo before the well-known January 2015 terror attack, one of which was in poor taste while both not respecting the Muslim religion that forbids any picturing of its Prophet. In doing so, Samuel Paty made the point that pupils of the Muslim faith, who could be offended, could avert their eyes or, some said, leave the classroom. Following the teaching on free speech, some parents of Muslim pupils complained to the school while others posted strong messages on social media (one with the assistance of a radical Islamist known to French intelligence), calling for administrative and more drastic reprisals against the teacher. The school undertook a review of the case and cleared Samuel Paty of any wrongdoings based on the rules and regulations of the ministry of education and the laws of the French Republic. On 16th October, an 18-year old Chechen, who had lived for ten years in France and whose family had been granted political asylum, made an 80 km trip to the school where Paty taught. He found him, beheaded him and posted the severed head on social media before shooting at and being killed by police officers on the scene.

While some may think that some sensitive subjects should be avoided as they offend a minority of extremists who do disservice to their own faith and fellow believers, France is an independent country where laicity and free speech are all but enshrined. Societies based on freedom should allow matters to be discussed respectfully among all individuals, while naturally being sensitive to some offensive aspects of any debate. It is clear that it is not easy to define where freedom of speech ends (something that a Charlie Hebdo has arguably tested to its limits) so as not to offend religious belief so the manner freedom of speech is used and its objective, like in that classroom two weeks ago, is key. The fact that France is definitely ruled by its own laws and historical values and is not a theocracy is also obviously a key element to consider.

One could argue that freedom of speech does not provide a passport to offend, at times gratuitously, just because anything can be said and printed. Charlie Hebdo paid a very heavy price in 2015 for sticking to its trademark of shocking audiences on the altar of the freedom of speech. One could argue that anti-Semitic rants would not be allowed (actually in this case by French law) in spite of the freedom of speech rule so one could also be more measured about not offending the faith and principles of Muslim believers frontally. And if they did, which may be their legal right, they might face retributions as Charlie Hebdo did. It seems a very sad lose-lose game whereas sensible self-restraint on what could be said and printed without losing any freedom of expression on all matters could be achieved. One should not gratuitously and carelessly offend, paving the way for irrational violence while one should also respect freedom of expression while abiding by the laws and values of the countries where they reside. In the case of Samuel Paty, there was no intent to offend but only to sensibly educate, making any opposition to his actions, not to mention his gruesome murder, indefensible on any grounds. And again, murder cannot be condoned under any circumstances whatever the beliefs-based offence

The condemnations by Turkey, its “anti-UAE ally” Qatar, Kuwait and now Iran, the theocratic paragon, and Pakistan (and oddly some criticism in one of the New York Times’ editorials) of the strong French response to the murder, however measured and targeted, aimed at President Macron were ill-thought as France could never tolerate murder of that kind and indeed the potential rise of gradually accepted violent intolerance within its midst, regardless of offences felt by religious extremists. Taking Turkey and aside of the challenging relations with its otherwise French ally (like in the Mediterranean), it could be said that such condemnations and boycotts had a domestic angle to them so some citizens of these countries could think less about their own leaderships and living conditions (seeing the current cost of living problems created by the sliding Turkish Lira and a lesser domestic appeal for Erdogan in large cities). Criticizing an “uncivilized” Macron whom he argued targeted Muslims and Islam for the crime of “one angry individual”, recent former Malaysian PM, 95-year old Mahathir Mohamad, went as far as arguing that, even if they would not follow an eye for an eye approach, the Muslims technically “had the right” to kill millions of French as the French had killed millions, many of them Muslims, in the course of their history, a strange and irrational comment that was widely condemned on social media the world over (the man has an established reputation for outrageous rants against Jews and the LGBT community). One would also have thought that fighting murderous extremism, religious or otherwise, and fostering mutual respect in all key societal matters should ideally be the objective of all governments even if some are less democratic than others.

The Muslim religion or any religion is not targeted in France, indeed the country of “the rights of men” (“and women”). The strong decisions by President Macron are not to stigmatise the French Muslim population or Islam in general. Their laudable objective is to fight unacceptable terrorism whatever its roots. It should be clear that the large Muslim population living in France (many of them not practising) is also made up of citizens who have nothing to do with terrorists and should feel at home in the country that is fully theirs. It is in their interest that terrorism be targeted and local spots and sources of extreme radicalism leading to terror be eradicated. Otherwise the main beneficiaries will be the extreme right parties, such as the National Rallye, which may one day gain power at the voting booth and will not be measured and discriminate in their handling of the matter if unsolved.

It is key that any individuals living in France or any country abide by the laws and regulations of that country, which will supersede any religious beliefs and teachings unless that country is indeed a theocracy, this whatever the faith involved. While France is arguably a culturally Catholic country, the Pope and his edicts do not rule the day. The laws of the French Republic, ultimately based on the will of its people, do. This key aspect should not prevent mutual respect and ensuring that non-Muslims respect the faith of a minority of its own people and act with sensitivity when addressing matters of faith, though without curtailing their own identity and values that have made their nation what it is. A modus vivendi needs to be found.

To the risk of shocking, there seems to be an unwitting and contrarian alliance of circumstances today between Western populists and Islamists, the former using the political religious extremism of the latter, and indeed their unacceptably violent ways, to foster its messages aimed at lawfully gaining power. The combination is a win-win for obscurantism and desolation. As discussed in another Interlude about the enablers of populism, un-education and social media (the latter as seen in the Paty murder) are also not helping to elevate the debate and find common grounds, this again regardless of perfectly acceptable religious beliefs at hand. While making no concession on what France is as a country, one of the ways to help gradually killing that “unholy” alliance and indeed reduce overall extremism is to improve the conditions of French Muslims and to keep integrating them better into French society as a project law in mid-December on Islam and freedom and subsequent associated measures will be aimed at.

Macron is right in saying that the whole matter surrounding the Paty murder is an existential threat to what France is, something that most countries should realise for themselves too, even if not sharing the inner laicity of the old, sovereign and tolerant Gallic country. France needs to ensure its values and laws are respected and that no more abhorrent events keep happening, a step that needs to be taken strongly and swiftly if only witnessing the copycat multiple terrorist murders in Nice so as to stop a mindless cycle of violence with terrible long-term consequences. In parallel it would be wise to adopt of a saner and more respectful approach to the civil discourse and its objectives, this without infringing upon fundamental rights and values that make us who we are.

Warmest regards,