French Teacher’s Death Results in Crackdown on Islam: The Rise of Islamophobia in France

A French teacher in the northern suburbs of Paris, Samuel Paty, was tragically killed on October 16, 2020 after having shown images of the Prophet Muhammad from the magazine Charlie Hebdo to his class during a lecture on freedom of speech. His killer, Abdullakh Anzorov, had paid two students 300 and 350 euros respectively to identify Paty with the intent to “humiliate” Paty and “make him apologize for the cartoon of the Prophet,” according to French chief anti-terrorism prosecutor Jean-François Ricard. Upon identification, Anzorov followed Paty as he was leaving the school and proceeded to behead Paty in an alleyway. An image of Paty’s decapitated head was posted to a pseudonym Twitter account belonging to Anzorov, which allowed police to identify Anzorov’s location. In a confrontation with police shortly after Paty’s death, Anzorov was killed by gunshot.

The death of French teacher Samuel Paty is undoubtedly tragic but the larger implications of this incident become institutionalized and societally-accepted violence and oppression against the Muslim and larger Arab population in France, with France holding one of the largest Muslim populations within Western Europe. The rise of islamophobia in France can be attributed to three main events in recent times, although political speeches and sentiments can certainly add to islamophobic sentiments.

These three events were the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, the 2005 French riots, and the January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine’s office. During his presidency, French President Emmanuel Macron has added to these anti-Arab sentiments that have been echoed throughout the country. Even before Paty’s death, Macron had solemnly sworn to strengthen secularism within the country, with a vested interest in fighting what he referred to as “Islamic radicalism.” On October 2, 2020, Macron vowed to introduce a bill in December 2020 that would strengthen an existing law from 1905 focused on laïcité, a concept of separating religion from the French state. However, in his televised speech, Macron emphasized one singular religion: Islam. He stated, “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today, we are not just seeing this in our country” and that “no concessions” would be made in this fight for secularism. His speech has political intentions behind it–to galvanize support from the far right and return back to a historical France–but his speech also functions to isolate individuals who identify as Arab or Muslim.

After the death of Samuel Paty, Macron gave another speech declaring that French citizens, with the intended demographic being those who identify as Muslim, need protection from radical Islamism, as Macron believed that radical Islamism will try “to turn some of our citizens against the Republic, because of their religion” and expressed a determination to defeat this “radical Islamism” when he stated, “We will not let this happen.” Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister of France, pledged to investigate approximately 80 hate messages that were posted online, meet with 51 non-profit groups and organizations to establish which ones should be dissolved, and work with a mosque in the northern suburbs of Paris whose director had reposted a message that called for threats towards Paty prior to his death. He also stated that there would “not be a moment of respite for the enemies of our Republic.” Darmanin had made true to this commitment even before the death of Paty. Since January of 2020, Darmanin has shut down 73 mosques and Islamic private schools across the country in what he describes as a fight against “extremist Islam.”

This type of rhetoric by French politicians has a tremendous impact on the actions and attitudes of the general French population.  On October 21, 2020, two Muslim women, Kenza and Amel, were repeatedly stabbed and called “dirty Arabs” near the Eiffel Tower by two white women after Kenza and Amel refused to put their dogs on leashes, according to Metro News in the United Kingdom. During and around this date of October 21, 2020, French citizens had gathered in solidarity in the streets to march in favor of free speech, where this support was notably brought about by the death of Paty. The stabbings of Kenza and Amel, as well as the derogatory statements directed towards the two women, demonstrate a sort of social policing that occurs, which can be notably traced back to the political sentiments portrayed by the state itself. Macron invoked the mobilization of a far-right, Islamophobic, and anti-Arab sect of the population that has adamantly seen themselves as a type of enforcer to Arab and/or Muslim individuals, as evidenced by the actions of the two white women that committed the stabbings.

Because of this general attitude that some members of the public have adopted, individuals who identify as Muslim and/or Arab have tended to rely on non-governmental organizations to provide legal justice to cases of Islamophobia, rather than relying on bureaucratic services that perpetuate or are complacent in these acts of injustice. One notable organization that has worked to provide pro-bono legal services to individuals who have experienced cases of Islamophobia is Le Collectif Contre L’islamophobie en France (The Collective Against Islamophobia in France, CCIF). The CCIF has created a telephone hotline that allows individuals to report their cases of Islamophobia, where they will then be connected to a lawyer who will help represent them and fight their cases in court. Organizations such as the CCIF have been successful in bridging the lack of availability of legal reform for individuals identifying as Muslim and/or Arab but also overwhelmingly demonstrate a distrust of the French bureaucratic system for individuals who remain marginalized by it.

Some members of the international community and scholars have been critical of Macron and his direct targeting of Muslim citizens in France. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently spoke out against Macron at Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party meeting on October 24, 2020. He asked, “What is Macron’s problem with Islam? What is his problem with Muslims?” and later stated, “Macron needs some sort of mental treatment. What else is there to say about a head of state who doesn’t believe in the freedom of religion and behaves this way against the millions of people of different faiths living in his own country?” Upon the media’s reporting of this statement, the spokesperson for Macron condemned Erdogan’s remarks and the French government withdrew their ambassador to Turkey. This interaction between France and Turkey has demonstrated a clear unwillingness of the French government and its head of state to rationalize and take accountability for their approach towards Muslims in France. Al-Azhar, a prestigious Sunni Islamic institution within Egypt, has publically made a statement through their Islamic Research Academy, stating “[Macron] made false accusations against Islam, that have nothing to do with the true essence of this religion… Such racist statements will inflame the feelings of two billion Muslim followers.” Al-Azhar also condemned the acts of those who use “religious texts to achieve unsavoury purposes.”

In order to eliminate discrimination and Islamophobia within France, French politicians must be held accountable for their statements that aim to mobilize the French population against Muslims and/or Arabs. There must also be a clear separation from the religion of Islam itself and the individuals who wrongly use the religion and its texts to justify their own ill intents, as Al-Azhar has previously stated. French and the international media must be thorough in their coverage of Islamophobic acts, as the stabbings of Kenza and Amel have largely been underreported by media. Just as Macron has done by condemning the murder of Samuel Paty committed by Abdullakh Anzorov, Macron must also openly condemn the stabbings of Kenza and Amel, as well as all other acts of Islamophobia and discrimination against any individual within the country. The need for secularism cannot be limited to just the elimination of Islam from institutions. Instead, French law has to show a clear intention to accommodate different faiths and beliefs if there is ever going to be co-existence and a progressive society in France.



Leave a Reply