Column: A Dispatch from France’s New Wars of Religion, part one

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Editor’s note: Today we present the first part of Lyonel Perabo’s reflection on the history of extremist Islamic terror attacks in France, as well as the French state’s backlash against Islam and other religions. The second part will follow next Friday. These pieces discuss extremely difficult topics, including religious extremism, colonialism, and racism, and involve descriptions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.


I remember clearly the day I learned that people could kill in the name of religion. I cannot say exactly what year; it was in the late 1990s, on one of my family’s semi-regular visits to Paris. I was chipper because my mother had decided to take me to visit the old Carnevalet museum, which houses a number of exciting artifacts from the revolutionary period.

As usual when we were in the capital, we took the metro, but this time was different: I spotted an unusual item right by the rails, a thick, short metal tube. I asked my mom what it was for. She told me it was just a trash can, a special, heavy-duty trash can built tocontain the force of a small explosive device, were one ever placed inside. I found it very odd. Why would anyone do something like that? The thought did not linger long, though, as I eagerly waited for the train to arrive.

A few minutes later, we emerged from the dark depths of the underground to encounter the charming heart of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, where small stone 19th century apartments tower over cafés, restaurants and other shops. As we passed one small and exotic-looking shop, I asked my mother if she knew what it was. She told me that it was an old Jewish deli, which had been bombed by terrorists some time before, a few years after another bombing campaign that had targeted the metro and left many dead.

I did not really think much of what my mother told me. I was too excited to be in the big city, and too young to care about war and terrorism. In the eyes of my young, innocent self, these were just things that happened on television, far from France, like the war in the Balkans. I did not know the fear. Oh, to be young and ignorant again.

Parisians mourn the deceased Charlie Hebdo journalists. [quinn_norton (2015), used under license CC BY-NC 2.0]

Then came 2015, and it became impossible to remain blind to the truth. In the span of one year, terrorists working on the behalf of Al-Qaeda gunned down the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that had published caricatures of the prophet of Islam. A few months later, Daesh-affiliated jihadists targeted a number of nightlife locations, killing even more people. I remember feverishly following the events online and suddenly realizing that one of the cafés that had been attacked was located just across the street from the house of some friends. That night is when I learned what fear really was about.

The citizens of France have had to reckon with deadly acts of Islamic terrorism becoming a fact of life. With the exception of the 2016 truck-ramming attacks in Nice, which left dozens dead, the semi-regular terror attacks in France that followed have hardly hit a nerve in the way their 2015 counterparts did. After each case of beheading, stabbing, car-ramming, or shooting, a media circus would follow for a few days or weeks, but they all ended being forgotten fairly quickly. There were just too many of them to keep track of.

Yet one of the latest terror attacks, which took place in mid-October of 2020, distinguished itself by its cruelty and its implications. It reminded the people of France about the deeply religious nature of the ongoing conflict in their society and how religious fanaticism can twist both the minds of individuals as well as their very worldviews, leading to terrifying consequences.

October’s Violence

In early October, middle-school History teacher Samuel Paty was preparing to teach a civics class. At the same time in nearby Paris, the court case against those involved in the Charlie Hebdo shooting was taking place. The national curriculum demands that teachers expose pupils to notions of tolerance and freedom of speech, so Paty decided to invite his students to view some of the controversial drawings of Muhammad that were published in the paper. This was not the first time Paty had shown the caricatures. According to some of his former pupils of his, he had done so for several years already, but this time would turn out to be different.

Shortly after the class ended, the parent of a pupil enrolled in Paty’s class published a couple of online videos accusing the teacher of serious misconduct. According to this parent, Paty “showed pornographic images” to the children; the parents also claimed Paty forced Muslim pupils to identify themselves and ordered them to leave the classroom before showing the Muhammad caricatures to the class. The videos, which were quickly picked up by Muslim social media pages, led to quite a controversy. Muslim parents started picketing the school to demand Paty’s dismissal. The parent who recorded the videos filed a lawsuit against the teacher.

A few days later, as he was walking home from the school, Paty crossed paths with Abdoullakh Anzorov, a 18-year old Chechen refugee, who decapitated him with a large knife before posting photos of his crime on social media. The attacker had paid a student from Paty’s school 300 euros to identify the teacher.

Paty had been receiving threats for several days and had even filed a complaint about them. But he clearly did not expect to meet such a terrible fate – a fate especially horrifying considering that lies and manipulations had been used to paint his actions in the worst possible light.

French people demonstrate in the memory of Samuel Paty. [Jeanne Menjoulet (2020) under license CC BY 2.0]

In the days following Pety’s murder, it was revealed that the pupil who first raised complaints about the civics class had not even been at school that day. Additionally, Paty never demanded that Muslim students identity themselves or leave the classroom; he had simply allowed students to turn from the podium if they deemed the caricatures offensive. Though Anzorov dealt the fatal blow, it was clear that he manifested an anger brought on by cultivated falsehoods spread throughout the Muslim community.

Just like that, Samuel Paty became the latest victim of Islamist terrorism in France, the 267th fatality in eight years. This attack and its societal implications reflected a new zeitgeist: Where are we going? Are we witnessing the beginning of a conflict? A civil war? A war of religion? 

For someone like me, who had lived close to twenty years in France without really thinking much about religious strife, it seemed a hard pill to swallow – but maybe there was a way to explain how we got to this point.

Laicité, Catholicism, and Islam

I can count on the finger of one hand the number of times another pupil discussed religious faith in earnest during my childhood and teenage years on the fingers of one hand. Two fingers to be precise: once a classmate declared himself to be Catholic. Another, a Protestant, heckled me when I brought a grimoire to school. The few students I knew who had a Muslim background never once discussed faith or gave any kind of hint that they were religious in the slightest. When our own history teacher talked about Charlie Hebdo’s first Muhammad caricature, I cannot recall them commenting on it in any way. To me, while there certainly were major problems in the country, religious extremism was not one of them. Looking back, I think that I was just naive and misinformed.

Tensions between the French state and its Muslim minority can be traced to the state’s colonial past, especially in North Africa. There, for more than one hundred years, France ruled a majority-Muslim territory where only European colonists, and later native Jews, were granted French citizenship. This period of colonization abruptly ended in the 1960s, following the bloody Algerian war, which was marred by widespread acts of terror against civilians, torture, and the death of hundreds of thousands of people. In the end, the French state agreed to relinquish the territory to the Algerian rebel forces and, in the span of a few months and years, nearly all of the European and Jewish population of Algeria was forced, often following violence, to leave the territory. This bloody conflict left deep scars on both sides of the Mediterranean, and poisoned, some say irrevocably, relations between the French and their African and Muslim neighbors. While the debate surrounding France’s colonial past never really went away and is still to this day a source of friction, for the longest time, there was little talk of Islam being in and of itself a potential source for serious conflict.

The current crisis began coming to light in 1989. In the beginning of that year, over a thousand Muslims marched through Paris calling “Death to Satan” in response to Salman Rushdie’srecently released novel, The Satanic Verses, which created an enormous controversy among Muslims the world over. Later that year, three middle-school girls in Creil refused to remove their hijabs on school grounds, behavior deemed incompatible with France’s secular values by both the school rector and the State Council. Controversy over the wearing of the hijab raged for more than a decade, until in 2003 a law was enacted forbidding ostentatious display of religious symbols on public school grounds.

This later affair was but the first to highlight one of the major dividing lines between the dominant French cultureand that of the Muslim immigrant community: the notion of laicité. Laicité roughly means “secularism,” and stems directly from the Enlightenment period which saw the establishment of the First French Republic, the first post-Christian state in the world. In the 19th century, as France saw regime change after regime change, the democratic republican forces faced swift opposition not only from conservative royalists but also from the Catholic Church. In order to weaken the influence of the church among the populace, and especially among youth, the French state signed a law to separate church and state in 1905.

This law, while originally highly controversial, has over time become highly valued by the majority of French people. The law also was a factor in significantly changing the popular culture of France: instead of a state religion, France progressively developed a secular doctrine, based on its own revolutionary history intertwined with humanistic and universalist principles. These principles were also the basis for, since the earliest days of the First French Republic, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. These relative freedoms, while less far-reaching than, for example, those of the United States, nevertheless make France stand out in a Europe where numerous countries still enforce anti-blasphemy laws.

Just a few weeks ago, for example, Italian soccer player Gianluigi Buffon was investigated by the Italian soccer league for uttering an as-yet unspecified “blasphemous” statement while on the pitch. Similarly, in 2011, an Austrian court fined a Viennese woman 480 Euros ($583 USD) for the crime of disparaging the Islamic religion and its prophet Mohammed. The anonymous woman, who spoke at a seminar organized by the right wing party FPÖ two years prior, ultimately brought the lawsuit to the European Court of Human Rights, which, in agreement with Austrian law upheld the ruling.

Despite the wide agreement on laicité, one cannot help but notice how, in past few years, the Catholic Church has been expressing an increasingly vocal opposition to the kind of anti-religious media promoted by the likes of Charlie Hebdo. In 2015, mere days after the deadly attack on the newspaper’s office, Pope Francis stated that, while freedom of speech was important, it had to stop at religion. “You cannot provoke,” said the Pope. “You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.”

Following the decapitation of Samuel Paty, French clergymen offered a similar string of reactions. Robert Le Gall, Archbishop of the southern city of Toulouse, stated on public radio, “One cannot mock religions with impunity – you see what this leads to.” Should this rhetoric be attributed to the fear that Christian places of worship might end up caught in the crossfire, like with the Normandy church attack in 2016, in which an elderly priest had his throat slit by two teenage Islamists? Or could it just be a simple demonstration of Abrahamic solidarity, some sort of a “sacred alliance” against the secular hordes? Regardless, the church is not alone when it harshly judges anti-religious provocateurs; in the past few years, the Muslim population of France has likewise adopted a more intransigent outlook on these issues.

Widening Divisions

I will not attempt to unravel the complex web of causality that led to the current situation, but suffice to say that, despite the aforementioned 1980s controversies, few could have then predicted that the position of Islam would prove to be a major dividing force in French society. One could instead go back to 2006 when Charlie Hebdo published its first Muhammad caricature: it showed the prophet forlorn and holding his head, captioned Mahomet débordé par les intégristes(“Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists”).“C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons,” he says in a speech balloon –  “It’s hard being loved by jerks”). This publication lead not only to criticism, but also to a lawsuit filled by a number of Muslim organizations. For a growing number of Muslims, freedom of speech seemed to have met its limits.

In the following years, the question of whether the Muhammad caricatures, and criticism/mockery of Islam in general, were protected under freedom of speech was hotly debated in the French political and intellectual spheres. Did Muslims only get a bad rap because of racism and xenophobia? Was there anything within the Muslim holy scriptures that was not compatible with the secular French society? Should France even retain its distinctive laicité, or should that be amended? Did Muslims share the same values of other French people to start with? Articles, books, and op-eds were written, organizations were launched, lawsuits were filed, and the debate raged on – until 2015, when the Charlie Hebdo attacks completely recontextualized the conversation.

While the vast majority of French people, Muslims included, were horrified about the deadly attack, this tragedy did not completely unify all French people. Over the past two decades in France, major tragedies have been generally addressed in schools through a moment of silence – I remember taking part in such an event to honor the victims of the Madrid train bombing, for example. The slogan “je suis Charlie” was quickly becoming a national rallying cry, and schools all were set to hold such a moment of silence – yet hundreds of disturbances were reported from all over the country. During these incidents, some pupils simply refused to remain silent. Others stated that the caricaturists had it coming, or that the act of caricaturing Muhammad was just as vile as the subsequent terror attack. Some openly praised the terrorists and insulted the memory of the caricaturists.

Clearly, France was more divided than most could have imagined.

Lyonel Perabo will be back next Friday for the second part of this series, which will look deeper into the divisions in thought about religious life and religious liberty between France’s secular majority and the Muslim community, as well as President Macron’s intensifying crackdown on Islam.


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