Teaching about freedom of expression

OCTOBER 30 ― I am a teacher. And like the million other teachers here in France, I am finding it hard to come to terms with the tragic killing of history-geography teacher Samuel Paty on the 16th October. I am still in shock.

Much time has passed since I last wrote a column. Teaching is a job that is all-consuming: it does not stop when you leave the classroom. Educating children to become caring, open-minded and curious young adults is a huge responsibility. It is not one to be taken lightly.

I did not know Samuel Paty, but as I marched in the rain along the streets of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine last Tuesday to pay homage to this 47-year-old father, surrounded by parents and young teenagers from the middle school where he taught, the love and respect for this man was palpable.

By all accounts, he was a teacher who cared enormously about his students and who took his role seriously.

Earlier this month, Paty was explaining to his class of 13- and 14-year-olds the importance of the freedom of speech — a fundamental principle of democracy which forms part of our national curriculum.

It’s a value you cannot fail to miss in France, for it is carved in stone on town hall porticos across the country — ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ (liberty, equality and fraternity).

The freedom of expression includes the right to make what might be deemed blasphemous comments about all religions.

According to Paty’s former students, he would use caricatures of Jesus, Prophet Muhammad and rabbis to demonstrate this principle. For this term’s class, Paty did what any teacher worth his salt would do: he used a real-life and pertinent example, namely the cartoon caricatures of the Prophet published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The trial of the suspected perpetrators of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in which 17 people were killed has just started in Paris.

Paty knew his subject area was sensitive. As in previous years when he had taught the same topic (and without any repercussions), he urged pupils who might be offended to leave his class before showing these caricatures.

Nonetheless, his lesson provoked a furious response from several parents including online hate mail and threats — notably a menacing video calling for action against Paty posted on the Facebook page of The Grande Mosque de Pantin in the northern suburbs of Paris. Its imam, Abdelhakim Sefrioui, an Islamist militant known to French anti-terrorism police, is now under arrest.

The social media storm caught the attention of Paty’s attacker, 18-year-old Abdoullakh Anzorov, who had no connection with Paty or his school, given that he lived in Normandy some 60 kilometres away.

Anzorov beheaded Paty as he walked home from work, an act President Emmanuel Macron called a “typical Islamist terrorist attack.” A killing that the Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer called an “attack on the French nation as a whole.”

I have a daughter the same age as Paty’s killer. She’s just started her medical studies and her WhatsApp messages invariably ask for help, anything from needing money and books to what meals to cook.

They are reminders that she’s only just embarked on the journey to becoming an independent and responsible adult.

Anzorov was at the same milestone, a young person on the verge of becoming an adult. Except, he’s dead now, shot by police having refused to surrender after he killed Paty. And his mind was not occupied with further education and nourishing meals.

No, someone or something had brutalised and abused the young mind of this Russia-born refugee from Chechen to the point where Anzorov had lost all his humanity. Hatred and death were the result.

It is now known that Anzorov had online links with jihadists in Syria. This, combined with the social media call for action by parents and Sefrioui unquestionably inspired Anzorov to kill Paty.

What is being done to fight the evils of social media? And what about Anzorov’s schooling in the French state system where he was educated from the age of six?

Just weeks before this attack, President Emmanuel Macron had announced a long-awaited law aimed at freeing Islam in France from “foreign influences” by providing additional funding for schools, education and academic research on Islamic culture and civilization.

It also seeks to address other social issues including housing and poverty — recognising that the lack of opportunity and alienation within France’s Muslim community, which forms about 10 per cent of French population, the biggest Muslim community in Europe — is a real problem.

This law, which will be enacted in December, is commendable but it has come too late for Paty and Anzorov.

Emmanuel Macron’s parting words at Paty’s state funeral at the prestigious Sorbonne University last Wednesday were: “The light will never go out Vive la République, Vive la France!”

Sadly, two lights have been extinguished forever. It is a tragedy for them, for their families and for the whole of France.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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