France’s secularism, laicite as it’s called, prohibits the public expression of religion. Democratic rights also include that to blaspheme. So, it wasn’t out of context or an act of destruction when Samuel Paty displayed controversial cartoons to prove this point in his module on freedom of expression. Paty was known to his pupils as the teacher who liked to be unconventional in his methods: he made the most out of art to encourage the students’ participation in class. We all know how well visuals work in aiding our comprehension. He was known to be a responsible tutor who took care to create an inclusive atmosphere. The lessons transcended the four walls of the classroom and social science was made a dynamic discipline under his watch.
The news of his decapitation came as a shock to all. That he was subjected to such brutality because he displayed a Charlie Hebdo cartoon just a few days after the nation had marked five years since the shooting, makes the matter even more perplexing. There can be no grounds for justifying the horror of the incident. Nobody deserves a fate like the one Paty received for simply teaching the rights guaranteed in his country. But, nearly two days after the government cautioned its citizens to be vigilant in keeping with the turbulence, three more people have been killed – of the three, a woman was beheaded. These remind one of the era of fatwa that prominently rose when Salman Rushdie came out with The Satanic Verses. There could be nothing more deeply hurtful than having one’s right to express curbed through force.
Emmanuel Macron was quick to declare that his government would strictly put down any attempts of Islamist separatism. But as experts put it, Macron could very well be playing by the political gains this time, than with a reformist intent as guide for his speeches. This is where the whole picture is forced to undergo scrutiny and be viewed as a targeted vote-bank policy that the President wishes to pitch for an electoral win in 2022. Unlike the many contemporaries of his, Macron hasn’t quite seen his political popularity rise – the trend otherwise has seen popularity for leaders escalate owing to nationalism that accompanied each state’s critical response to the pandemic. Better late than never, Macron must have figured it wise to venture into his campaign ahead of others – the critiques from the right can also be seen to be influencing his attitude today.
It would be absolutely unfortunate if this is indeed why the President is making his pitch for transforming a religion into one more accommodative to the country’s system and resolving to tackle religious radicalism. The events that unfolded over the past few weeks demand that France strengthens its intelligence system and also look into how inclusivity can be established effectively. The growth of radical extensions, regardless of which direction they are inclined towards, needs to be checked rigorously. In bringing inclusion into the debate, merely admitting the nation’s past mistakes would not be enough. There needs to be a thorough analysis of disparities that exist in France with a focus on living conditions and educational access, among other factors. Most importantly, the administration must realize that generalization is an evil that deserves no place in policy-making. This would only add to
the heat that Erdogan and other leaders allying with him are trying to strew over France. In targeting extremism, the government shouldn’t promulgate Islamophobia.
The legacy of integration - which France has upheld over the years for warmly opening up its embrace to a varied influx of people – must not be torn down by extremism or political apathy.