The gruesome murder of a French school teacher in a Paris suburb on Friday is yet another pointer to the spirit of Jihadi Islam being conjured up by the young generation to set in a troubling spectre of violence and terror in the name of ‘faith and commitment.’ Sadly—but not surprisingly—Muslim Ulama across the world still remain silent on such heinous acts perpetrated in the ‘service of God.’ How many of them would come up and argue that it has nothing to do with ‘faith’ as enunciated in the holy texts of Islam; nor does it have anything worthwhile as part of an Islamic ‘commitment’?
The fact that the killer belonged to the Muslim migrant/refugee community in a multicultural country like France has several implications. What is in store for them in the emerging scenario is unpredictable, particularly in the background of President Emmanuel Macron’s speech on 2 October which signalled that his government was contemplating measures designed to restrain the influence of radical Islam in the country and help develop what he called an ‘Islam of France’ compatible with the nation’s republican values.
According to reports, ten people have been arrested over the beheading of Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old history-geography teacher in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. The killer, shot dead by police after the attack, was an 18-year-old Chechen refugee born in Moscow. French anti-terrorism prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard told media that the suspect, who secured a 10-year residency in France as a refugee in March, was armed with a knife and an airsoft gun. He also said that the killer’s half-sister joined the Islamic State group in Syria way back in 2014.
The killing was a sequel to some developments after Samuel Paty had engaged a class on secularism and the freedom of expression. He was reported to have discussed the controversy surrounding the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. According to reports, Paty had asked his Muslim students to leave the class room because he was going to show some cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that might hurt them. This had apparently angered some parents who registered a complaint with the authorities. The Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer said the school had taken ‘appropriate’ steps in response to the complaints in setting up measures that both “supported the teacher and opened up a dialogue with parents.” Before the incident, the killer was reported to have been seen near the school asking students about the teacher, and the head of the School had also received threatening phone calls.
Even as the murder of Paty sent shockwaves across the country, the people recollect other incidents in the immediate past. It was only a few weeks ago that a 25-year old Pakistani attacked two people with a meat cleaver over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which the Muslims considered to be blasphemous. That attack came in the background of an ongoing trial of suspected accomplices of the 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket. Seventeen people were killed in the attacks that set in a wave of Islamist violence in the country that, according to reports, has so far claimed more than 250 lives. Al Qaeda, the Islamist terror group that claimed responsibility for the 2015 attacks, threatened to strike Charlie Hebdo again after it republished the cartoons at the start of the trial.
Le Monde wrote in its editorial that “A man was savagely killed, with premeditation, because he had included in his teaching the freedom to think, to say and to draw. This freedom must be taught. It is among the founding values of our country, it is at the heart of our history, our identity, our culture, and it is under attack” (Le Monde 17 October 2020). In his speech on 2 October, President Macron said that the influence of Islamism must be wiped out from public institutions even as he admitted government failures in allowing it to spread. The measures he sought to bring in included placing rigorous restrictions on home-schooling and increasing surveillance of religious schools, making organisations that seek public funds sign a ‘charter’ on secularism. These measures would be applicable to all groups, but they are mainly envisaged to offset the emergence of radicals in the Muslim community. Through these measures, the Government also sought to end the practice of ‘importing’ foreign Imams to work in France (as they are often charged with preaching redundant or radical version of Islam). President also indicated the introduction of a new system of a France-based training and certification for Imams, besides making the financing and management of mosques more transparent. During his speech, Macron also pointed to an innate crisis in French society—the persisting difficulty to integrate significant parts of its large, non-white, Muslim population of immigrants and their descendants. He noted that the failure to integrate immigrant populations and their descendants has led to a growing inequality in France. At its worst, it has radicalized some young French, especially of North African origin, who went to fight for the Islamic State in Syria, or carried out terrorist attacks at home. Macron’s speech was a prelude to a comprehensive package that the Government was planning to bring out as a bill in December (The New York Times, 2 October 2020).
It may be noted that of the approximately 25 million Muslims who currently live in the European Union, France is home to the largest number—5.7 million (which is 8.8 per cent of the population). The size of the population living on French territory who were born abroad has increased since 2010. That year, the number of people born outside France was approximately 7.3 million. The 2015 refugee crisis did not change matters, with the number of people born abroad increasing over the years throughout the decade 2010. In 2019, this number grew to 8.1 million. In France, which has about 67 million population, Islam is the second religion (with 5.7 million Muslims) after Catholicism, and Islam has more adherents than the next three non-Catholic minorities combined: Jews, Protestants and Buddhists.
Muslims in France have different origins—most came from North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, known as the Maghreb). The largest number of Muslims reached France in the wake of the colonial wars of independence (1954–62). Their presence can be traced back to the period of decolonization, when many Muslims were recruited for labour, but much of the immigration was natural. Though France’s Muslim populations represent 123 different nationalities, nearly three-quarters are from the countries of the Maghreb: Algeria, Morocco, or Tunisia. The national census does count the total number of immigrants, which includes everyone born outside France to non-French parents (Muslims and non-Muslims). The Chechen immigrants began to appear in France as political refugees since 2000s, escaping from the civil war in their home. It is estimated that there are about 30,000 Chechens in France.
The problem of Muslim integration in France emerged a few years ago when a report appeared that 60 per cent of inmates in the country’s prisons came from the Muslim community. An analysis noted that the Muslim prisoners in France were usually unemployed and living in the most poverty-stricken suburbs. They are generally second-generation immigrants of Arab origin who arrived in France in difficult financial situations. They appeared to be frustrated for a variety of reasons, and often ended up perpetrating crimes as revenge against society (Al Arabiya News, 30 October 2014). It was in this background that a survey conducted a few years ago had found 74 per cent of French citizens seeing Islam as ‘intolerant’ and ‘incompatible’ with French values (Ibid). It was also found that the perception of Islam in the West had worsened considerably since the rise of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq militant group.
Like most immigrants in the Global North countries, the Muslims who reached France during the second half of the twentieth century had gone through several types of hardships. They were recruited to low-paid jobs, mainly in the industrial sector, as they arrived in the 1960s and 1970s.Their conditions became worse, when secure jobs of the post-war period vanished in the economic recession of the 1970s and1980s. That explains how the economic and social opportunities became inaccessible for this population. Muslim immigrants have experienced higher unemployment than the rest of the country’s population—accompanied by higher levels of crime and unrest. These problems were reinforced by the worsening economic situation in France, especially after 1990s. Added to these deteriorating conditions came negative stereotypes and consequent radicalisation. No wonder, the continuing alienation and frustration emerging from the socio-economic handicaps led to increasing rate of crimes, and Muslims constitute a majority of the French prison population. It was estimated that Muslims were significantly overrepresented in French prisons and the majority of them belonged to the eighteen to twenty-four-year-old age group.
Over the years, the new generation of Muslims have come under the pressure of radicalisation of Islam. Though they constitute a small minority, their propaganda and activities led to increasing suspicion and surveillance across wider sections of the French multicultural society. Of course, this has been accentuated by the developments since 9/11, and more significantly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015.
In the present-day world, nobody disputes the fact that the injustices perpetrated on people give rise to legitimate grievances and struggles in several countries. However, there is nothing in Islam that would justify the killing of civilians, nor of unleashing any excess as a result of hatred. In Islam the pursuit of justice cannot be carried on violating the very principle of justice: “O ye who believe, be upright for God, witness in justice; and let mot hatred of a people cause you to be unjust. Be just—that is closer to piety” (5:8). The experience of the Algerian Muslims itself is a good reminder. Emir ‘Abd al-Qadir, the leader of the Algerian Muslims, showed a mature way of responding to the French colonial apparatus whose barbaric crimes were notorious. Reza Shah-Kazemi writes: “At a time when the French were indiscriminately massacring entire tribes, when they were offering their soldiers a ten-franc reward for every pair of Arab ears, and when severed Arab heads were regarded as trophies of war, the Emir manifested his magnanimity, his unflinching adherence to Islamic principle, and his refusal to stoop to the level of his ‘civilized’ adversaries, by issuing the following edict:
Every Arab who has in his possession a Frenchman is bound to treat him well and to conduct him to either the Khalifa or the Emir himself, as soon as possible. In cases where the prisoner complaints of ill treatment, the Arab will have no right to any reward (Shah-Kazemi 2005: 131-32).
Shah-Kazemi begins his essay with a quote from Emir ‘Abd al-Qadir:
When we think how few men of real religion there are, how small the number of defenders and champions of the truth—when one sees ignorant persons imagining that the principle of Islam is hardness, severity, extravagance, and barbarity—it is time to repeat these words: “Patience is beautiful, and God is the source of all succor (Quran, 12:18).
According to Shah-Kazemi, Emir’s engagements vis-à-vis the French colonialists exemplified an important verse from Quran: “God forbiddenth you not from dealing kindly and justly with those who fought not against you on account of your religion, nor drove you out of your homes. Truly God loveth those who are just” (Quran 60: 8). There are several verses in Quran which underline the importance of mercy and compassion in life-world situations of conflict and contradictions. For example, the verses, “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors (2.190), “It is part of the Mercy of Allah that thou dost deal gently with them. Wert thou severe or harsh-hearted they would have broken away from about thee; so pass over (their faults) and ask for (Allah’s) forgiveness for them; and consult them in affairs (of moment)” (3. 159) etc are widely quoted by liberal traditions in Islam, but grossly ignored by Jihadis and other radical Islamists. Obviously, the traditional teaching of holy texts in French Islamic institutions disregards such liberal interpretation of Islam and the splendid history of Emir ‘Abd al-Qadir’s engagements with the French colonialists.
Shah-Kazemi, Reza (2005): “Recollecting the Spirit of Jihad,” in Joseph E.B. Lumbard (ed.), Islam, Fundamentalism and the Betrayal of Tradition, New Delhi: Third Eye.
Trench, B. (2016): “Charlie Hebdo,” Islamophobia and Freedoms of the Press,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 105(418): 183-191, available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/24871662
Yusuf Ali, Abdullah (2016): The Holy Quran – English Translation with Commentary, Chennai: Goodword Books.
The author is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. His articles also appear in Global South Colloquy, a digital platform of the Institute for Global South Studies and Research. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org