(November 11, 2020 / JNS) Suppose you’re a teacher and you’re French, and you want your students to learn about France’s tradition of freedom, the reasons your nation believes it’s good and useful to tolerate a wide range of opinions, beliefs and perspectives, including those some people find offensive. Do you go ahead and teach this lesson? Or do you remain silent because to speak freely about freedom in France today is to risk your life?
This is not a hypothetical question. In January 2015, the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad sparked the slaughter of 12 people at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine. Fourteen alleged accomplices in that attack have only recently gone on trial.
To illustrate the issues involved, Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old teacher in a Parisian suburb, on Oct. 5 showed the cartoons to those of his middle-school students who were interested—permitting anyone who preferred not to view them to step out of the classroom for a minute. On Oct. 16, Mr. Paty was attacked and beheaded.
Abdullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old Chechen immigrant, was soon shot and killed in a confrontation with the police. French prosecutors have charged six suspects with complicity in Paty’s murder. Paty was married and is survived by a five-year-old son.
A few days after Paty’s murder, two women and a man were murdered inside the Notre Dame Basilica in the southern French city of Nice. One of the women was “virtually beheaded”—her throat was deeply slashed—according to France’s chief anti-terrorism prosecutor. Witnesses said the killer repeatedly shouted Allahu Akbar! (“God is greatest!”) before being wounded and subdued by police. Brahim al-Aouissaoui, 21, is believed to have recently arrived on a boat carrying immigrants from Tunisia. Two other men have been arrested in connection with this triple homicide.
“With the attack against Samuel Paty, it was freedom of speech that was targeted,” said French Prime Minister Jean Castex. “With this attack in Nice, it is freedom of religion.”
There was another attack in September: Two people were stabbed with a butcher knife, allegedly by Zaher Hassan Mahmood, an immigrant from Pakistan, near the former offices of Charlie Hebdo. Mahmood was apparently unaware that the magazine had moved to a new location.
French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a tough line in response to this latest outbreak of what he calls “Islamist” terrorism and “Islamist separatism,” the latter a reference to the belief that Muslims in Europe owe primary allegiance to the ummah, an imagined pan-Islamic international community. “Islamists will not sleep peacefully in France,” Macron promised after the beheading of Paty. “This is our battle and it is existential.”
He has shut down a mosque and a non-governmental organization believed to encourage extremism. He supports legislation that would ban foreign funds going to French mosques and religious schools. He’s promised additional measures.
French Muslim leaders have responded variously. Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, proclaimed: “The duty of fraternity requires everyone to renounce certain rights.” Translation: “Free speech does not apply where Islam is concerned.”
Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, president of the Conference of Imams of France, disagreed. Calling Paty “a martyr of freedom,” he added: “There is such a thing as Islamism: It is the poison of Islam, the disease of Islam.”
Among the countries ruled by Muslims, there has been a range of responses as well. The United Arab Emirates condemned the attacks strongly and unequivocally.
By contrast, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asked: “What is Macron’s problem with Islam? What is his problem with Muslims? Macron needs some sort of mental treatment.” Erdoğan also is furious because Charlie Hebdo ran a cartoon mocking him. Turkish officials have called that “racist,” and vowed diplomatic and legal consequences.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan accused the French president of encouraging “Islamophobia,” adding: “Blasphemy in the garb of freedom of expression is intolerable.”
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad asserted on Twitter that Muslims have a right to “kill millions of French people” in retaliation for past French crimes. (A year ago, as noted in this space, Columbia University honored Mohamad.)
It is often said that France is not doing enough to integrate Muslim immigrants and their children. That may be true, but such criticism is rarely accompanied by concrete proposals for government programs likely to achieve that objective.
Complicating the task is the frequently leveled charge that attempts to inculcate traditional French values such as free speech and laïcité—secularism in the public square—violate multiculturalism, an ideology that has been embraced by Europe’s elites.
It’s hard to see how this ends well. With encouragement from such prominent international figures as Messrs. Mohamad, Khan and Erdoğan, not to mention the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, Islamism is not going away anytime soon. In one form or another, it will continue to appeal to a small but lethal—and therefore powerful—minority of Muslims in Europe.
How consequential will it be if the French acquiesce, agreeing to carve out an exception to free speech in deference to Islamists? Very.
For one, it would establish, de facto, the supremacy of Islam over all other religions. For another, once it becomes apparent that the French government cannot guarantee basic freedoms to its citizens, and that violence commands silence, some on the far left and far right are likely to employ the same tactics. Under such pressures, it’s probable, perhaps inevitable, that freedom of speech, along with other freedoms, will wither and die.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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