As France is entering its second coronavirus lockdown, along with several other European countries, there are even more reasons for my country to sink in a dark mood. I am far away but I feel the pain and disorientation.
The horrid murder of Samuel Paty, a middle-school teacher killed because he illustrated a freedom of speech lesson with Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad, is a traumatic blow to French society and to its values. It is both standing out, because of its ghastly circumstances and the profession of its victim, and part of a long series of attacks perpetrated by Islamist terrorists in France, two of which have happened since the teacher’s murder not even three weeks ago.
France has to speak forcefully against terrorism and categorically deny Islamist terrorists the right to change our way of life. So she has in the voice of President Emmanuel Macron. But his words that essentially defend freedom of speech and laïcité, the French brand of secularism, as our core values are perceived differently by many Muslims.
To a great many people around the world, laïcité, the modern principle that society is not predicated on religion, is opening the door to disrespect and blasphemy, a violation of their deepest beliefs and their own way of life that cannot be tolerated and should be punished. This is reflected in terrorist attacks but also, less terribly, in the recent strong reactions, some of them quite hateful, to Macron’s speech around the Muslim world.
The argument is generally that Macron’s words have fueled Islamophobia. Even though I disagree and I can see how some leaders of Muslim countries are using this accusation to their own political tactics, I still think the argument should be taken seriously. For one thing, Islam is France’s second religion population-wise. How the large French Muslim community is experiencing Islamist terrorism and France’s reaction to it does matter. This should obviously be on the mind of a French President speaking in such troubled times, and I believe it is.
Beyond this is the question of what it means to be Muslim in France, to which there is obviously no monolithic answer. It is true though that many of France’s Muslims live in underserved areas and have been failed by French society in numerous ways. This is one of the reasons why some of them have turned to Islam as a provider of educational, social and economic support in addition to its religious and spiritual dimension. In some cases, the support comes with a dark hidden agenda.
French public school teachers talk of Muslim students arguing vehemently when they are taught the Shoah. This did not happen a generation ago. It reflects a profound shift in a significant part of the French Muslim population and speaks to our society’s failure to integrate, not as a single explanation for terrorism but as a significant one in my opinion. The two brothers who perpetrated the Charlie Hebdo shooting were born in France to Algerian immigrants. The murderer of Samuel Paty came to France from Chechnya with refugee status as a six-year-old boy.
This problem is not specific to France’s particular objection to communitarianism. Western countries inclined to accept communities as essential building blocks of society, such as the United States, have experienced the same extreme rejection. In her book The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, Masha Gessen explores the terrorist journey of the Boston Marathon attackers, who also came from Chechnya at a very young age.
What strikes me in these real stories is that their protagonists have been utterly unable to find meaning and purpose in the multicultural fabric of their life. The question is why. The answer is of course complex and maybe ultimately unknowable. But there is no doubt in my mind that their experience growing up in Western societies, where their integration opportunities fell very short of an ambitious but abstract model, is part of the equation. The pain is here but it will have to be turned into nuanced thought and deliberate action, not numbness.