France Mourns Beheaded Teacher, Vows to Fight Radical Islam

People attend a memorial march in homage to the history teacher who was beheaded last week, Tuesday, in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris. (AP Photo/Lewis Joly)

(CN) — France mourned the beheading of a 47-year-old middle school history teacher by an 18-year-old Islamic extremist with a somber and emotional national tribute at the Sorbonne University in Paris on Wednesday evening.

The killing of Samuel Paty last Friday at the hands of an Islamic extremist outraged over his decision to use controversial images of the Prophet Mohammed in his freedom of expression class has shocked France and jarringly reignited a national debate over radical Islam, Muslims in French society and the dangers of social media.

The killing also threatens to stir up hatred in France and the rest of Europe, where anti-Muslim feelings are rampant and fueling a rise of far-right politics. On Wednesday, European media outlets reported that two Muslim women were stabbed near the Eiffel Tower on Sunday in a racist attack.

Paty has become a symbol for France’s fight to rein in radical Islam and uphold the nation’s founding values and love for reason, science, the arts, freedom of expression and state secularism, which is known in France as laïcité.

“On Friday, Samuel Paty became the face of our French republic,” an emotional French President Emmanuel Macron said during the tribute at the Sorbonne as he stood in front of Paty’s coffin. “Of our desire to break down terrorist networks, to break down political Islamism, to fight against all that will hurt our nation. He became the face of our determination to further understand and learn, to continue to teach, to be free.”

Macron said Paty was not anti-Muslim but “the exact opposite.”

“Samuel Paty was murdered,” the president said, “because he embodied the French republic, the values of the French republic, he embodied the liberty that the French republic wants to give to its students through schools.”

In the wake of the killing, Macron ordered a clampdown on radical Islamists. Authorities have raided dozens of homes and Islamic groups, threatening to close them if they are found promoting hatred. The crackdown also is drawing criticism that Macron is fueling anti-Muslim sentiment.

In recent months, Macron has taken a tougher tone against radical Islamists and appears to be pursuing a right-wing agenda to fend off his most serious challenger, the far-right politician Marine Le Pen who is known for her diatribes against Muslims. He faces re-election in 2022.

“Islamists and their ideologists have the objective to turn a part of our citizens because of their religion against the French republic, and we cannot let that happen,” the president said on Tuesday.

Macron touted his government’s move to close down Islamist schools since he became president three years ago. He said those schools “didn’t deserve to be called schools” and that they “were seeking to deconstruct the republic.”

He is vowing to take more action. 

“We have pointed a finger at the evil, we have named it,” he said. “Our citizens today need to be protected.”

The government is looking at stepping up deportations of foreign-born Islamists and better monitoring of online activity.

Yasser Louati, a human rights activist and head of the Justice & Liberties For All Committee, said during a debate on France 24, a French news channel, that the clampdown was going too far and was politically motivated.

He blasted the Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin for saying the raids are taking place to “send a message.”

“We have here state-sponsored retaliation and intimidation,” he said.

He condemned French politicians for insisting Muslims are being radicalized. 

“We have to be extremely cautious when we use and throw around words like radicalization,” he said. “The term is adopted under the pressure of events.”

He said the killing highlighted shortcomings by intelligence services because the killer, an 18-year-old man whose family is from the Russian Muslim-majority region of Chechnya, had been reported to authorities.

“With all these counterterrorism laws, with a law allowing mass surveillance; all our communications are under scrutinty and yet again we lose our freedoms on the one hand and we are nowhere safer against terrorism,” he said.

He also pointed the finger at social media for allowing a classroom row in the outskirts of Paris to snowball and lead to the beheading of a teacher.

The government has said it will make it a crime to endanger another person by publishing their details online and French ministers are discussing how to fight against “cyber-Islamism.”

In the wake of Paty’s killing, French have poured onto the streets to honor the slain teacher. They’ve carried signs reading, “They will not behead the republic,” “I am a teacher,” “No room for obscurantism — no room for barbarism, RIP Samuel.”

There is widespread rejection of radical Islam as a form of “barbarism” antithetical to France’s values and secularism. Secularism, the barring of religion from public spaces such as workplaces and classrooms, is considered fundamental to France’s national identity.

The killing of a teacher seeking to get his students to debate free expression has touched a nerve in a nation that sees itself as a model of learning, openness and freedom of expression and belief.

“We’re here to defend the republic, the values of the republic, liberty, equality, fraternity and secularism,” Pierre Fourniou, a pensioner, told France 24. “We can feel that the fatherland is threatened, that those values are under threat. The government is too inactive, something must be done.”

The tribute at the Sorbonne was a homage not only to Paty but to French culture more generally. The ceremony included poetry, the republican guard orchestra playing the national anthem, the reading of a letter French novelist Albert Camus wrote to his teacher and a lightshow displaying the principles of the French Revolution: Liberty, equality and fraternity. 

Paty was awarded posthumously the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest award.

“Samuel Paty was a lover of books, of knowledge, he loved it more than anything else,” a grim-faced Macron said inside the courtyard of the Sorbonne, one of France’s oldest universities. “The apartment where he lived was a library.”

Macron called Paty “a man who was murdered because he decided it was up to him to teach his students how to become citizens.”

The president called Paty “a lover of teaching” and one of those hard-working devoted teachers “we do not forget.”

In his speech, Macron promised to do more to protect teachers “to whatever extent is necessary either in school or outside of the school.”

“We will protect them from pressure, we will protect them from ignorance, because ignorance has no place in our French society,” he said.

Looking at Paty’s coffin, Macron vowed to fight for him.

“We will continue to be free. We will continue to defend those freedoms that you taught so well,” he said. “Dear teacher, we will continue to uphold literature, music, everything that uplifts our souls, and we will continue to teach the power of debate and argumentation, of rhetoric. 

“We will continue to love science in all of its differences; we will continue to seek new knowledge. We will continue to fight against all those people who will take that away from us. We will continue to learn what it means to laugh, what humor is.”

In early October, Paty showed his class cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Five years ago, those same cartoons led to the killing of 12 people after Islamic extremists attacked the magazine’s offices. A trial in Paris is underway over that attack and another one at a Jewish store. Depictions of Mohammad can be a grave insult to Muslims because Islamic tradition forbids images of Mohammad and Allah.

After showing the cartoons in class, a disgruntled 48-year-old parent took to social media to denounce Paty and he became the subject of an online hate campaign.

French authorities are now investigating whether the parent’s outrage turned into a coordinated plot to kill Paty. On Monday, seven people, including the parent and two students who allegedly helped the killer identify Paty, appeared before an anti-terrorism judge, according to French media.

The killer, Abdullakh Anzorov, reportedly traveled about 50 miles before attacking Paty, who was on his way home from his school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, about 25 miles northwest of Paris. Anzorov was killed by police after the killing. The killer and the disgruntled parent allegedly exchanged WhatsApp messages and spoke by telephone, authorities say.

Among those being investigated is a group called Sheikh Yassine Collective and its founder, 61-year-old French-Moroccan Abdelhakim Sefrioui, who is in custody. He went on YouTube to denounce Paty and called for him to be fired. The group supports the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Sefrioui had previously been detained but not found guilty, though he was someone French counterterrorism officials were watching, French media reported.

Darmanin, the interior minister, accused Sefrioui and the disgruntled parent of issuing a “fatwa” against Paty. French prosecutors accuse Sefrioui and his group of being “directly implicated” in the killing.

Hassen Chalghoumi, an imam at the Drancy Mosque, said on France 24 that Sebfrioui and other radical clerics are savvy about not breaking the law with their rhetoric.

“They know the laws, they know the system, so that’s why they don’t cross any red lines,” he said. “They don’t cross them, others do. Young people, naive and ignorant people.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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