FRANCE - Samuel PATY : "Terror after Charlie Hebdo" by Marc Weitzmann (NYRB)


[Vincent Boisot/Riva Press/Redux - A tribute to Samuel Paty, a teacher who was killed near Paris after showing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in class, Paris, October 2020]



On October 16, 2020, Samuel Paty, a forty-seven-year-old history and civics teacher at a public middle school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a northwestern suburb of Paris, was attacked and beheaded. His assailant, Abdoullakh Anzorov, was eighteen and lived sixty miles away in Normandy. The son of Muslim Chechen refugees, Anzorov was born in Russia and came to France with his parents when he was six. He had never met Paty and didn’t know what he looked like, so he paid two students he found outside the school to identify him. Surveillance cameras show the students pointing at Paty as he walked out the front gate around 5:00 PM. Anzorov followed him and stabbed him repeatedly in the middle of the street with a twelve-inch knife he had bought the day before. Then he decapitated him.

Anzorov posted a picture of Paty’s severed head on Twitter with the caption “From Abdullah, the servant of Allah, to Macron, leader of the infidels, I executed one of your hellhounds who dared to belittle Muhammad.” A few minutes later he was stopped by police and killed as he fired at them with an air gun he had concealed in his backpack.

Paty had been aware of threats against him. The father of one of his students had spoken out against a lesson Paty had taught on October 5, on free speech, claiming that his daughter had been upset by it—in fact she was absent from school that day. It was this father’s comments on social media that had captured Anzorov’s attention.

A course on freedom of speech and citizenship is compulsory in French public schools, and Paty had taught it to his eighth-grade students since coming to Conflans-Sainte-Honorine in 2017. Each year he included a discussion about the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and briefly displayed a cover it had published in 2012 showing an especially mocking caricature of the Prophet Muhammad. The cover was an escalation of a conflict that went back to 2005, when, in response to the murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamist in Amsterdam, a Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, published a provocative series of cartoons of the Prophet. These drew protests, threats of violence, and Saudi Arabia’s decision to pull its ambassador from Denmark. Charlie Hebdo reprinted them in solidarity, as did more than a dozen other newspapers in Europe and around the world.

A journal with a strong—and, it must be said, very French—anticlerical tradition, Charlie Hebdo has also mercilessly caricatured Jesus, rabbis, and the pope. But any depiction of Muhammad is considered blasphemy by many Muslims, and after a lawsuit was initiated against Charlie Hebdo by the World Islamic League, a Saudi organization, threats to “avenge the Prophet” grew. In November 2011 the newspaper’s offices were firebombed (they were empty at the time). The following year, Charlie Hebdo published a cover showing the Prophet naked with his exposed rear end facing the viewer, with the caption “Muhammad a Star Is Born!”

The editors began receiving anonymous death threats, and in January 2015, two armed men, French-Algerian brothers named Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, forced their way into the newspaper’s offices and killed twelve people. Two days later, an associate of the brothers, Amedy Coulibaly, killed four Jewish hostages at a Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris.

In his civics class, Paty discussed the Charlie Hebdo cover as an example of the extreme protections granted free speech in France. On October 4 he drew two columns on the board—for Charlie and against Charlie—and asked his students whether the newspaper crossed a line in printing such insulting images. The discussion would continue the next day, when the students would see the caricature itself very briefly, and Paty invited any Muslim students who didn’t want to look to cover their eyes or leave the room if they preferred. One student, a thirteen-year-old Muslim girl identified as Y. Chnina, had complained in class on the first day of the discussion, asking why Muslim students were being singled out. The next day she didn’t come to school, sending a note saying she was sick.

There is no question that the cover is offensive. According to students who were interviewed, much of the class laughed when they saw it. But that night the girl’s father, Brahim Chnina, uploaded a video in which he called Paty un voyou (a thug) and accused him of forcing all the Muslims out of the room to show a blasphemous drawing. On Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Snapchat, the message started to spread. Chnina published more videos decrying what he called Paty’s Islamophobia, exhorting his “brothers and sisters to write to the CCIF”—the Committee Against Islamophobia in France—in order to get rid of “that sick man.” He gave Paty’s name and the address of the school.

Over the next eleven days, Paty tried to defuse what he thought of as a misunderstanding, explaining that he had offered Muslim students the option of leaving class out of respect, not intending any offense. He met with school administrators and other parents, and offered to meet with Chnina, who refused. Instead, Chnina filed a criminal complaint against Paty, claiming he had distributed “pornographic images.”

Meanwhile, Chnina kept up his campaign. One of the videos he posted shows his daughter expressing outrage about her teacher. “Even non-Muslims were shocked,” she says. “Why does he attack our religion?” This question is directed toward the man interviewing her, Abdelhakim Sefrioui, who went to see the school principal with Chnina on October 8, presenting himself as Chnina’s religious adviser. With Sefrioui involved, the misunderstanding Paty was trying to clear up shifted gears. Sefrioui, sixty-one, is an Islamist militant from Morocco who has been in France since the late 1980s and has been well known for his fiery anti-Semitic speeches. In the 2000s he founded a group called the Sheikh Yassin Collective, named for a founder of Hamas who was killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2004, and managed a radical Islamist publishing house and bookstore in Paris.

Several pictures taken in the early 2000s show Sefrioui with the French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala. Last year, Dieudonné was banned from Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok for anti-Semitic posts, including mockery of Holocaust victims; he has been convicted in France of hate speech. In the early 2000s Dieudonné was instrumental in spreading a certain anti-Semitic, pro-Islamist populism, especially among young followers of his in the working-class banlieues.

Another onetime associate of Sefrioui’s is Frédéric Chatillon, a former fundraiser for the far-right National Front party and a close friend of Marine Le Pen, the current leader of the party (which has been renamed the National Rally).

Brahim Chnina, for his part, was already known to French intelligence primarily because of his half-sister, Khadija, who joined ISIS in Syria in 2014. Sefrioui and Chnina, in short, offer a glimpse of the strange environment that has helped nurture ethnic and religious tensions in France over the last two decades.

For a complex mix of reasons—including the collapse of the Middle East peace process, Islamist propaganda that attributes the Iraq war to a Jewish lobby in Washington, and Dieudonné’s popularity—anti-Semitism has been the leading motivation of these tensions for the past twenty years. It was typical that, when Sefrioui and Chnina showed up unannounced at Paty’s school to see the principal, Sefrioui complained, “If we were Jews, you would have seen us immediately,” the magazine Le Point reported. “It is because of the Jews,” Chérif Kouachi, one of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen, said after the attacks. At the Hyper Cacher, according to survivors, Coulibaly said to his hostages, “You are two of the things I hate most: French and Jewish.”

The Kouachi brothers were reportedly first radicalized by Farid Benyettou, a young man with an Algerian background who was preaching in a mosque near Belleville, in northeastern Paris. Benyettou’s group, known as the Buttes-Chaumont network, sent a dozen young men to Iraq to be trained by jihadists. Coulibaly, a petty criminal and drug dealer, met Chérif Kouachi in prison. Chérif himself was trained for the Charlie Hebdo attacks by al-Qaeda in Yemen.


The tensions around the Charlie Hebdo trial, as it was somewhat inaccurately called—on trial were fourteen accessories to the attacks at both the newspaper and the Hyper Cacher—cannot be separated from the Paty murder. The trial began on September 2, 2020, and to mark the occasion, the editors of Charlie Hebdo reprinted the original offending cartoons that the Jyllands-Posten published in 2005. But in sharp contrast to the wave of solidarity that followed the 2015 attack—“Je Suis Charlie,” read the banners—reactions in the press and on social media ranged from confusion to hostility. Many wondered, What was Charlie Hebdo doing?

Then, on September 11 (the timing was clearly deliberate), al-Qaeda issued a five-page statement attacking Charlie Hebdo and France and calling on Muslims to take action. Eleven days later Marika Bret, the paper’s human resources manager, had to be escorted from her apartment by police because of what they judged was an imminent threat to her life. On September 25, three weeks before Paty was killed, a twenty-five-year-old man named Zaheer Hassan Mahmoud, an immigrant from Pakistan who had planned to set fire to the Charlie Hebdo offices, instead severely injured two journalists for a nearby TV production company with a meat cleaver. That same evening Anzorov, incensed by the reports of Mahmoud’s attempted strike, began his search for a potential target.

The news of Paty’s murder plunged France into a state of shock. The terror attacks of 2015 had certainly traumatized the country—in addition to the violence in January, they included coordinated attacks that killed more than a hundred people on a single night in November, when terrorists bombed the Saint-Denis stadium during a soccer match, while more opened fire on sidewalk cafés and restaurants in Paris and a third group staged a mass assault on the Bataclan theater in central Paris, killing mostly young people. A massacre followed on July 14, 2016, in Nice, which left eighty-six dead. Then there were a number of less noticed but no less grim killings, like that of a Catholic priest in Normandy who had his throat cut during mass later that summer.

It was a terror wave of unprecedented scale in Europe, leaving 238 dead and hundreds injured. Although no global scheme was discernible, Coulibaly had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before the Hyper Cacher killings, while al-Qaeda claimed credit for the assault on Charlie Hebdo. Thus the attacks appeared to be a step toward an alliance between the two rival organizations. In 2004 an al-Qaeda operative had published an e-book called The Management of Savagery, which offered a plan for creating a caliphate through global terror. The terrible streak of violence in 2015–2016 seemed to indicate that France had been selected as the best place in Europe to test it.

Yet the death of Samuel Paty hit many French almost as hard. There were demonstrations throughout the country, including many rallies organized by teachers. To harm a public school teacher in France was to attack a national symbol of the 150-year-old republic and its more recent tradition of laïcité—the particularly French version of secularism that guarantees the right of all religions to exist, yet denies the right of religion to control public life. There are laws against hate speech and against insulting people for their religion, but the concept of blasphemy is not recognized, as it would mean that a religion was sanctioning speech.

According to a new book by Jean-Pierre Obin, a former schools inspector, as many as half the teachers in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods across France say that Muslim students of theirs have objected to lessons on subjects such as history and biology.

A study by the Fondation Jean Jaurès, a think tank, found that almost half of these teachers admit that they sometimes self-censor on religious issues to avoid conflict. Part of the problem, Obin writes, is that Muslim parents—who may come from places where religion rules everyday life—don’t always understand the concept of laïcité and teachers aren’t trained to teach it. For many school administrators, ne pas faire de vagues (don’t make waves) is the whispered agreement: avoid problems at all costs. In retrospect, Obin’s book makes Paty’s engagement with his students, his willingness to debate, look courageous.

French president Emmanuel Macron felt the shock of Paty’s murder himself. On October 2, just two weeks before, he had given a long-awaited speech on Islamic “separatism”—what he characterizes as a kind of “counter-society” influenced by political-religious groups opposed to France’s secular values—and his government’s policy toward Islamic extremism and Islam in France. Speaking for more than an hour, Macron promised a “radical change” in public housing policies to end the racial and ethnic ghettoization that has plagued France’s banlieues and cités. In the 1960s and 1970s, a large portion of the migrants who moved there originally came from France’s former colonies in North Africa, or the Maghreb—in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. Macron explicitly acknowledged France’s colonial past and the traumas it still hasn’t resolved.

At the same time, citing the Islamist attacks of recent years, Macron announced stricter oversight of mosques and Islamic religious associations, and a requirement for imams to be trained and certified in France. (If a law Macron proposed in December is passed, mosques such as the one in Paris’s Belleville neighborhood that the Kouachi brothers attended, where Farid Benyettou was invited to teach radical Salafi Islam, would be shut down.)

The speech was received with strong criticism in France and abroad—especially in Turkey, from which half of the imams currently practicing in France come—and Macron was responding to the condemnation when the murder of Paty occurred. He had attempted to strike a balance, recognizing France’s failures toward its migrant population while addressing the country’s problem with terrorist violence, but the killing pushed him in only one direction.

On October 21 Macron presided over an homage to Paty outside the Sorbonne, as his government launched a series of police investigations and crackdowns on groups identified as radical Islamist organizations. Marwan Muhammad, the leader of the CCIF, which was named in Brahim Chnina’s videos, decried the Islamophobia he said was possessing the government. In Le Monde, Clémentine Autain of the French Communist Party denounced the political manipulation of the attack and the way French society was becoming “pre-fascist.”

Such antiestablishment feelings were not limited to the left. On the night of Paty’s murder, in a live chat held by a group called Les DéQodeurs—a sort of French affiliate of QAnon—both the killing and the Charlie Hebdo trial were called “a sideshow.” “It’s a false flag, a Macron coup,” one participant said. “The deep state is against all religions!”


The colonial past Macron alluded to in his speech raised complex questions about French values and identity that are at the heart of the country’s situation today. Historians divide the country’s colonial period into two distinctive parts. The first, the “royal empire,” begins in the seventeenth century with Louis XIV, the Sun King, in the Americas, the West Indies, and West Africa. This period included the slave trade and missionary trips to Africa to convert “savages” to Catholicism, and ended roughly with the fall of Napoleon, in 1814. The second phase of French colonialism, which began in 1830 with the conquest of Algeria, was born in post-revolutionary France and was marked by the Enlightenment. It died with France’s defeat in Indochina and Algeria in the mid-twentieth century.

To understand France’s relationships with its colonies during that second phase, one must remember that during the ancien régime, the concept of citizenship did not exist in the country, or anywhere else in Europe. The king reigned by divine right over subjects who were divided into separate groups with varying privileges and rules. In the eighteenth century, during the Enlightenment, political philosophers such as Rousseau and Diderot began to envision a world in which subjects would become free and equal citizens who would unite around “the general will” of “the Nation”—another new word of the era.

During the revolution, in search of a model for this new world ruled by the people, the young National Assembly first turned to the Roman republic, and then to the Bible and the Jews. Rousseau famously saw in Moses the first leader to dare shaping “a swarm of wretched fugitives into a national body.” A tiny minority at the time, the Jews of France were deprived of rights and submitted to constant controls, but they were permitted to follow their own legislative and religious rulesIn 1791 the government legally “emancipated” the country’s Jews—granting them civic equality and political rights, but, importantly, as individuals, not as a separate cluster of people. The revolutionaries would use them as a test group, so to speak, “for the much larger debate over how to achieve the conversion of tens of millions of French subjects, peasants and princes, peddlers and priests, into citizens,” as David Nirenberg wrote in Anti-Judaism (2013).

The consequences of the law of emancipation cannot be overestimated. Its influence was felt throughout Europe in the rise of secular Jewish life, and gave way to the “assimilation” of the Jews in France. The concept of assimilation became the cornerstone of what the new nation was, at least in theory, to be: the bearer of universal values generously provided by France to its minorities, who in turn would gladly become French.

The ideals of emancipation and assimilation found an early challenge in Haiti, when Toussaint Louverture demanded that they be applied to the colonies. But the contradictions erupted and deepened later, when Algeria became a template for France’s new colonial policy.

During most of France’s imperial era, the colonies were seen as “part of the Republic,” and assimilation was seen, as a member of the colonial administration wrote in 1894, “as the most intimate union between the colonial territory and mainland France.” Yet in 1860 Louis-Napoleon developed the dream of making France “a Muslim power” that would extend from Paris to the Middle East. Algerians would be governed under the principal of associationisme—the opposite of assimilation; it would allow them to live “in association with” the colonial society. They would not have to follow the Code civil; thus they would not have full political rights but could practice traditions that would otherwise be deemed illegal, such as polygamy. If such exceptions benefited the upper classes, for most Algerians the “special status” meant total disenfranchisement.

During the following decades, that status turned Algeria into a quasi-apartheid regime.

In 1882 public education became mandatory in France and in the colonies, and Algerian children were sent to school to learn about equality and the revolution. In a couple of generations, a cohort of Algerian intellectuals led their country toward its war of independence. From its beginning in 1954 to Algeria’s victory in 1962, Algerians fought against French injustice with the French vocabulary of universalism, and France fought back with antidemocratic practices in the name of the republic.

On both sides there was a systematic use of torture, mass killings, and terrorism against the civilian population. The winning side in Algeria—the National Liberation Front (FLN)—immediately eliminated the opposition, banned elections, made the country a satellite of the USSR, and in less than two decades turned into one of the most corrupt regimes in North Africa.

Between 1962 and 1981, the percentage of immigrants in the French population rose from 5 to 8 percent. They came from Morocco, Tunisia, and other former colonies, but mostly they came from Algeria. Some were “Harkis,” Muslims who had fought for the French, while others had fought against France and came out of economic necessity, looking for work on construction sites or as garbagemen, sleeping in shelters or in shantytowns on the outskirts of Paris. They sent money home and usually intended to go back someday. But most did not go back. These men, as the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud has said, were the last “ghosts” of the imperial era.

In the US, to be a migrant, at least the way many people think of it, has meant to leave the “old country” behind and start fresh in an unknown place. In France, migrants from former North African colonies have been far more likely to arrive with a bitterness about the shared history of both places, as they settled in a country haunted by its former glory and the contradictions of its own ideals.

As a young journalist in Paris in the early 1980s, I worked at an alternative weekly paper called Sans Frontière that specialized in migrant issuesOur staff was made up mostly of Marxist militants, political refugees from North Africa, and a couple of Jews like me who intuited that the migrant question was about to become one of the country’s central issues.

In 1983 the newspaper played an important part in gathering support for a demonstration for equality, nicknamed the Marche des Beurs. (“Beur” is slang for Arab, and referred especially to the sons of migrant families, who often encountered police violence, racism, and social discrimination, despite being French by right. A child born to foreign parents who has continuously lived in France for five or more years becomes French automatically when he or she turns eighteen.) The march, partly inspired by the US civil rights movement, started in the south of France in the fall and grew as it made its way north. This was the high point of what became known as the Beur movement; it culminated that December with a 100,000-person demonstration in Paris.


MarchedesBeurs 1.JPG

Patrick Aventurier/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images - Participants in the ‘Marche des Beurs’ demonstration for equality meeting with Pierre Bérégovoy, the minister of social affairs, Paris, 1983. Father Delorme, who helped organize the march, is at far right.


What is striking to recall now is how few of the people my colleagues and I met, interviewed, and demonstrated with at the time defined themselves first and foremost as Muslim. Except for a few of the older women, veils were virtually absent, and niqabs—the full-body covering that reveals only the eyes—were unheard of. (Today, by comparison, according to the Institut Montaigne, about 30 percent of Muslim women in France have worn some sort of veil.) Young people wanted to talk about the struggle for equal rights, jobs, and access to a decent life. A role model for them was Rachid Taha, an Algerian singer in his mid-twenties who had, after his parents immigrated, spent most of his life in France, and whose musical style was a mix of Algerian raï and chaabi on the one hand and rock on the other.

“The big issue was equality, not religion,” Smaïn Laacher, a sociologist at the University of Strasbourg, told me. Laacher is part of that generation (his parents are Algerian) and studies it professionally. The only religious figure of note in the Beur movement, he said, was Father Delorme, a Catholic priest and social worker who helped organize the 1983 march. “Although mostly French citizens, or dual citizens, the Beurs were discriminated against because of their name, or their address or appearance, when they went looking for a job.” Hence their slogan: “We are French like all the others and we want the same problems as any others,” in tune with the assimilationist ideal.

To say that the French government was perplexed by the movement would be an understatement. In 1981 François Mitterrand had been elected the first left-wing president of the Fifth Republic. His victorious “United Left” had its roots in the dreams of a generation of mostly white working-class people, dating back to the 1930s and the Popular Front, whose children had risen into the middle class during the period of postwar economic growth. Their standard of living was owed, in part, to the migrant workforce that had made France’s prosperity possible. Yet many of the migrants’ children wanted to be French like “any other,” confounding their parents as much as the government—for one thing, Laacher explained, “as immigrants, they wanted their children to be as discreet as possible.”

The humiliation of staying permanently in the country that had once been an oppressive colonial power in your native country was another issue—especially, perhaps, among Algerians, who in many cases had actually fought against France, and had sometimes been tortured by the French military. And North African countries tended to encourage a sense of alienation. “Moroccans will never be integrated [into French society],” Morocco’s King Hassan II said in 1993. “Even if they expressed such a wish, they could not succeed, and would make bad French. I would discourage the French to try to change this.”

With Algeria, the policy toward France was more deliberate. The party in power since independence, the FLN, set up an association in the 1960s called l’Amicale des Algériens en France that, under the cover of providing social support to Algerian migrant workers, was actually an instrument of police surveillance and nationalist propaganda.

For the French government, ignoring such arrangements was part of a deal with Algeria and Morocco to replace colonialism with an “Arab policy,” which included gas and oil contracts. In the prosperous 1960s and 1970s in France, it seemed that everyone found a reason to ignore the migrants’ situation or exploit their labor. But by the 1980s the demands of the younger generation began to disturb the status quo.

The timing could hardly have been worse. By the middle of the decade the unemployment rate was over 10 percent. The country was failing to integrate and elevate the white working class; how would it do so with the children of its migrants? Officially, the French government made statements in favor of assimilation. But the reality in the 1980s and 1990s was different. The often shabby migrant neighborhoods were left on their own, and segregation was not seriously addressed.

Some integration efforts have, however, proven effective, at least to a point, and France today is a multicultural country. The Institut Montaigne study cited above found that 65 to 70 percent of French Muslims surveyed describe themselves as secular, or state that religion and the Republic are equally important to them. At the same time, according to a recent Fondation Jean Jaurès report, 42 percent also say that they have been discriminated against at least once in their lives because of their religion.

Yet the most striking aspect of these studies may well be in the vocabulary. Somewhere along the way, the French offspring of migrants demanding full citizenship came to be called—and, more importantly, called themselves—the “Muslims of France.”

Shortly after Paty’s murder, I spoke with Oceane, a forty-year-old lawyer of Algerian background whose father came to France in the 1980s to work in construction. “I feel anxious since the killing,” she told me. “I keep thinking of what we went through during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s.” Oceane was referring to the bloodbath into which Algeria plunged in 1991, claiming 200,000 lives, mostly women and children. Most of the mass killings were committed by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the military branch of a political party called the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which was determined to fight any Western “decadent” influences and establish an “Islamic state” either by vote or by force. Oceane was a teenager in France then, but she recalled her mother trying to get her niece out of Algeria because their family was being threatened by Islamists. “I remember the phone calls we received to announce who had been killed and that there was nothing we could do. In Algeria, too, the first targets were the journalists and the professors.”

Members of the FIS settled in France as early as 1990 and started to proselytize and set up the Salafi networks that would strongly influence Islam in the country in less than a decade. The French scholar of Islam Gilles Kepel writes that during the 1990s “Algerian jihad awakened a lot of sympathies among the French migrant youth.” Among these youth was Farid Benyettou, the future religious mentor of the Kouachi brothers.

Benyettou, whom I interviewed in 2016, confirmed that his interest in Salafi thinking grew out of Islamist propaganda from Algeria. One of his brothers-in-law, a member of the GIA who had left Algeria for France in 1993, was arrested and charged with plotting a terror attack against the World Cup in Paris. Another former member of the GIA, Djamel Beghal, influenced Amedy Coulibaly, the future perpetrator of the Hyper Cacher massacre, after they met in prison in the early 2000s.

It was between 2001 and 2015 that Islamist violence in France germinated. Benyettou noted that a crucial factor was the rise of the Internet and satellite TV, which brought foreign propaganda into family living rooms. “The youth really started to come into the mosques en masse in the wake of the Second Intifada,” he said. “And of course the war in Iraq after that.”

This may help explain the rise of anti-Semitic violence in France during that period. Random acts of brutality included the killing in 2003 of twenty-three-year-old Sébastien Selam by his childhood friend Adel Amastaibou (Amastaibou plunged a knife in Selam’s eye before yelling in the streets, “I killed a Jew!”), or the torture and killing in 2006 of Ilan Halimi, also twenty-three, by a gang, which ultimately involved the complicity of dozens of people. Neither of these murders was committed by Islamists. What they expressed, however, was a blind rage that an Islamist ideology would later be able to shape. By the end of 2014, after fifteen years of rising tension that had included the 2012 killings of Jewish children and French soldiers in Toulouse by Mohamed Merah, the number of anti-Semitic incidents had reached eight hundred a year, or more than two per day.

And where does this leave the country now? If tensions, attacks, and the murder of Samuel Paty marked the Charlie Hebdo trial, did its end bring any closure? In December all fourteen defendants were found guilty, but charges of terrorism were dropped for six of them.

I recently exchanged e-mails with Abdennour Bidar, a Muslim philosopher of the Sufi tradition and a highly regarded expert on the history of Islam. In 2015, after the attack against Charlie Hebdo, Bidar published an “open letter to the Muslim world” in which he urged Muslims to acknowledge their responsibility in the birth of “the monster” ISIS, and to not take refuge in “self-defense” without also taking “the responsibility of self-criticism.” I asked Bidar what he thought of the situation in France now, in the aftermath of the trial and of the Paty killing, which almost overshadowed it.

“Paty’s murder shocked me enormously,” he said. “I have been a teacher for twenty years. That a teacher could be killed for doing his job, to teach freedom of thought, is horrifying. It touches me personally.” Beyond that, he said, the trial did not change anything.

After the killing, at the request of President Macron, the French Council of the Muslim Faith, an advisory body, met to create a “charter of values” that would disassociate them from Islamist views and reiterate the commitment of the Muslims of France to the principles of the Republic. Then, on December 28, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, Chems-Eddine Hafiz, published an open letter to announce his withdrawal from the discussions. According to Le Journal du Dimanche, he made his decision after several groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, objected to the proposed charter, which supported equality between the sexes and denounced homophobia, misogyny, and anti-Semitism.

“They wanted to undermine the project,” Hafiz told me over the phone. “French Muslims want to live in peace. But these groups attempt by any means to separate them from the rest of the country.” He noted that he was from Algeria, and had experienced the violence of the civil war. “In France, my responsibility is to defend the Muslims and denounce malicious groups who seek to move a peaceful religion in the direction of war.” Since he published the open letter, Hafiz told me, he has been under constant police protection.

Bidar and Hafiz are liberal-minded men from an older generation, and it is among young men that the potential to radicalize is most apparent. I asked Bidar whether he believed that France, in light of its history, could be the soil from which a new, liberal Islam could arise. He said he believed it could, “but it will take time.” Meanwhile, since the killing of Samuel Paty there have been hundreds of reports of jokes made about his death online, and statements across the country in defense of terrorism.

—January 14, 2021

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