Glavin: On the death of Samuel Paty – Shouldn’t freedom of religion mean freedom from religion too?

The French school teacher’s brutal murder by a radical Islamist set off an outpouring of revulsion across the country. But somehow, several world leaders are attacking France‘s president over it.
Relatives and colleagues hold a picture of Samuel Paty during the ‘Marche Blanche’ in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris, on Oct. 20, 2020, after the teacher was beheaded for showing pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

BERTRAND GUAY / AFP via Getty Images

Samuel Paty was a quiet 47-year-old middle-school civics teacher at the Collège du Bois d’Aulne, in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, in the suburbs of Paris. He would walk to and from school from his second-floor apartment in nearby Eragny, where he lived alone with his five-year-old son. After class, he liked to play tennis. By all accounts passionately devoted to teaching, Samuel Paty was otherwise a man of temperate disposition, well-regarded by his students and by his colleagues.

That was just three weeks ago. Now, Paty’s name is coming up in blood-curdling slogans shouted in the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and in arguments and imbecilities erupting in Ankara, Riyadh, Islamabad and Tehran. Ambassadors have been summoned. Diplomats have been recalled. Tuesday this week was officially International Religious Freedom Day. If there was anything worth observing about it, it’s that religious freedom must mean freedom from religion, too, or it means nothing at all.

How Samuel Paty’s name ended up in all of this is a horrible story.

At the Collège du Bois d’Aulne, Paty often used art as a medium for teaching the French national curriculum. In his lessons on the French republic’s rigorous commitment to secularism and free speech, Paty’s custom was to encourage class discussion by considering a pair of cartoons. They were the caricatures of the Muslim prophet Mohammed published in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, where terrorists allied with al-Qaida, claiming the right to avenge a blasphemy, murdered 11 of the magazine’s staff on Jan. 7, 2015.

Ordinarily, Paty would invite students to look away or briefly leave the room if they preferred to be spared Charlie Hebdo’s vulgar depictions, and then the class would proceed, and debate would unfold in a civil way. No exceptional umbrage had been taken by anyone until this year. Earlier this month, lurid allegations about Paty’s class began to circulate on Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms.

Originating in rabble-rousing loudmouths associated with what it is usually called radical Islam, the online expressions of outrage veered into incitement to murder. Education ministry officials and the police were called in to investigate allegations of Paty’s “Islamophobia.” Disciplinary action was considered – then sensibly rejected outright.


Paty filed a libel case against a particularly obnoxious parent who had made outrageous claims about him, and he took to avoiding the woods he usually walked in on his way home. But the light of day offered Paty no safety.

On Oct. 16, at around 5 p.m., an 18-year-old fanatic confronted Paty on a street near the school, killing him, beheading him and mutilating his body. The killer, a Chechen immigrant, broadcast pictures and videos of his atrocity on Twitter and Instagram, boasting that he’d “avenged the prophet.” He was later shot and killed in a confrontation with police.

Paty’s murder set off an outpouring of revulsion across France, where the right to blaspheme and the strict secularist doctrine of laïcité have been law for more than a century.

The Charlie Hebdo outrage was just one incident in a series of Islamist atrocities carried out across France, including the single deadliest terrorist event in French history, the November 2015 massacres at the Bataclan nightclub, the Stade de France and several restaurants and bars that left 131 people dead. The following year, a Tunisian jihadist drove a cargo truck through the crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing 86 people. Since then, the atrocities have been kept to a dull roar, two or three people stabbed to death here, three or four people shot and killed there. Since 2017, French police have broken up and thwarted 32 attempted terrorist operations.

Within hours of Paty’s beheading, French President Emmanuel Macron gave every impression that he’d had quite enough. His statement was terse and direct. “Ils ne passeront pas,” Macron said, borrowing from the anti-fascist rallying cry of the 1930s: They shall not pass. A dozen high-profile Islamists have been detained for questioning, and among other measures, Macron’s government is considering a law that would ban home-schooling, which is being used as a cover for “radical” Koranic schools.

And now, the hysterical propaganda that roiled around Paty’s class at the Collège du Bois d’Aulne has spread outward into the United Nations’ member states with the most dismal records in upholding religious freedom and freedom of conscience.

The clownish Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been busy transforming the secular Turkish republic into his own personal neo-caliphate, is questioning Macron’s mental acuity, calling for a boycott of French products, demanding an apology from France for allowing Charlie Hebdo to publish a saucy cartoon of him on its cover, and accusing Macron of subjecting French Muslims to “a lynch campaign similar to that against Jews in Europe before World War II.”

Not to be outperformed in stupidity, Pakistan’s national assembly passed a resolution damning Macron for his persistent refusal to condemn the depiction of Mohammed in cartoons, and demanding that the oafish Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, recall Pakistan’s ambassador to France. Fun fact: Pakistan doesn’t have an ambassador to France. He was reassigned to China three months ago.

For his part, Khan has issued an open letter to the Muslim leaders of the world to “collectively counter the growing Islamophobia in non-Muslim states, especially western states.” Khan has been quiet, meanwhile, about China’s internment-without-trial of perhaps two million Uighur Muslims, the forced sterilization of Uighur women, the systematic obliteration of centuries-old Muslim holy places in Xinjiang, and the reduction of the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities into captive populations in forced-labour gulags.

The uproar in the Arab countries has been muted and mixed. The Saudis and the Egyptians have reiterated the offence many Muslims take to the taboo of depicting Mohammed in any form, but have also expressed sympathy and solidarity with the people of France as they grieve the death of Samuel Paty.

As for French Muslims, the response is similarly mixed. Several French imams have declared Paty a shaheed, a martyr, and joined in laying wreaths in his honour at the Collège du Bois d’Aulne.

In his statement observing the International Day of Religious Freedom, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, François Philippe-Champagne, said this: “As a multicultural, multi-faith and multi-ethnic society, Canada will continue to stand up for human rights, including the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief, at home and around the world.”

That would be nice. We might also stand up, for once, for the human right to be free of religious belief, and to be protected from religious bullies and fanatics, at home and around the world.

 Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.


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