The murder of Samuel Paty, a French teacher who had shown images of the Prophet Mohammed in classroom discussions on free speech, illustrates the dangers that radical Islamists present to European countries. In the aftermath of this shocking incident, the French government will likely seek to suppress the activities of the country’s alleged extremist groups. However, it is essential that the French government also addresses the social marginalization of potential radical recruits and refrains from alienating the peaceful majority of Muslims in the country.
In an attack staged in broad daylight, Paty was beheaded with a knife outside the Bois-d’Aulne high school at Conflans-Sainte-Honorine in Paris’s northwestern suburbs. The teacher was attacked after his killer Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, an 18-year-old Muslim Russian-born refugee of Chechen descent, paid students hundreds of Euros – acquired from a source that French police have yet to identify – to help him identify and track his victim. Anzorov managed to escape the scene but was later stopped and shot dead by the police.
The incident highlights the pernicious influence of social media in terms of its use by extremists to single out individuals with potentially fatal results. Mr Paty’s death came after an orchestrated online hate campaign that has been linked with some of the associates of Anzorov who have now been arrested by the police. Even after the incident, highly emotive reactions to the incident online included nearly 100 messages of support for Anzorov. A subsequent statement from Mr Paty’s colleagues, which expressed their belief that cyber chatter led to the teacher’s death, also highlighted the disturbing role played by social media in this case.
It appears that Anzorov was not known to the French security services as a potential extremist threat. But the initial evidence – most obviously the arrests of the terrorist’s associates and evidence of external funding support – suggests he had links with a broader network in France and further afield. In particular, the alleged connection between Anzorov and the so-called jihadi elements in Syria demonstrates the importance of transnational links to Islamist extremists.
The killing has had a dramatic impact on French public opinion. In response to Mr. Paty’s death, President Emmanuel Macron has promised an immediate and wide-ranging crackdown on radical Islamists. Gerard Darmanin, the French Interior Minister, ordered the temporary closure of a mosque in Paris after one of its members distributed an online video attacking Mr. Paty. Darmanin has also targeted a range of organizations that have been accused of harboring secret Islamist sympathies. Calling for the disbandment of the Islamic charity BarakaCity and the French Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF), he described these and related organizations as “enemies of the republic”.
Macron’s measures are likely to amount to a complete relook at the methods in which Islam is practiced as a community religion in France. Besides curbing the flow of funds that Muslim communities receive from other countries, the government is also likely to proscribe a wide range of organizations suspected of encouraging radicalism while also obliging French-trained imams to seek certification before they can preach in mosques.
Regarding its future strategy, the Macron government has announced that it will introduce a range of new measures to combat extremism in France. With the presidential election due in 2022, President Macron and his advisors are well aware that he needs to deal with the problem of extremism firmly given that his main rival, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National party, will seek to accuse the government of failing to protect the French people against extremists. Even within his own broadly centrist party, En Marche, Macron is facing increasing calls for a crackdown on Islamist organizations that are suspected of subverting France’s secular values and promoting radicalism.
Given the multiplicity of political pressures and calls for action, the President intends to announce his anti-radical program in December, though there is some concern over whether the French National Assembly will approve his package. Critics of the plan argue that there should be a greater focus on deprived suburbs within French cities – the banlieues — who suffer from poverty and deprivation and are home to marginalized young people vulnerable to radicalization and incitements to violence.
Assessing the extent of this problem is further hampered by the fact that although the secular nature of French governance forbids the collection of data relating to the race, ethnicity, and religion of the population, there is no question that latent, and occasionally overt, prejudice against Muslims inhibits their full participation in civic and economic life.
Also, fears remain that the political far right will exploit Mr. Paty’s death to further their agendas and deepen divisions within French society. Some on the far right had already spread the false accusation that the teacher was due to be disciplined for showing Prophet Mohammed’s images before he was attacked and killed.
Consequently, there is a risk that firm political measures, while satisfying the public demands for repression of the extremists, will leave the problem of social marginalization unaddressed. While stronger action against the hateful propaganda and funding of radicalized Islamists may be justified, these measures must not be enforced at the expense of most Muslim people in France whose cooperation is vital in identifying and supporting those vulnerable to being recruited by extremist networks intent on perpetrating violent acts.
The French government should also deepen cooperation and share intelligence with like-minded countries that are also concerned with the dangers of radical Islamists and their efforts to sow social discord in the countries in which they operate. Only a firmer policy toward the extremists, combined with measures to address their potential recruits’ social and economic alienation, will prevent a recurrence of Mr. Paty’s tragic death.