An article by Álvaro Vasconcelos
There can be no question but that the murder of Samuel Paty just outside his school’s gate, because he had given a lesson on the topic of ‘freedom of expression’, was a monstrous crime.
The subsequent attack and decapitation of his body, which his murderer, Abdoullah Anzorov, then immediately posted on the Internet, accompanied by the cry “Allah is great!” was an extreme manifestation of the obscurantism that proliferates throughout our societies today. It is a phenomenon that ranges from radical Islamism to the currents of white supremacy, protected through the shelter of social networks and hate speech.
Faced with our own horror at such an unthinkable action, our natural reaction would be emotional disgust and rejection of both the perpetrator and what he or she had done. However, against such enemies of freedom, reason and knowledge are the most effective weapons.
Abdoullah Anzorov, 18 years old, had not even known his victim and had had to rely on passing pupils at the school to identify Samuel Paty. We know little of him except that he was of Chechen origin and that he had grown up in France. It is clear, however, that he matched the profile that has emerged, and that has been ably described by Olivier Roy, of those responsible for such incidents since the attack on the Paris Metro in 1995 and up to the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket murders in January 2015.
The majority are young, rootless nihilists, hostages to the virtual world of the Internet, and the hatred and conspiracy theories it houses, finding in the extremism of Al-Qaïda and Da’sh a justification for their raison d’être. It is not religion in itself that inspires them, however, rather it is the violence that is stimulated by extremism that gives them meaning.
They grew up in a social environment in which the only personal and redemptive virtue would be to appear on a social network as a result of their own violent resentments, even after their own deaths.
Fanaticism also emerges from social exclusion and inadequate, precarious education, where the concept of the Republic is not synonymous with equality and fraternity.
They self-radicalise through the images of violence and death in the Middle East that they discover on the Internet. They come to prize the violence of war in Syria and Iraq, dismissing respect for the innate human right to life and rejecting the illegitimacy of violence against civilians. And Chechnya, after all, was the precursor to Syria, as the forerunner of the macabre spectacle of Putin’s wars of extermination.
We must, therefore, find ways to isolate those who preach fanaticism, whilst at the same time combating anti-Muslim racism and the extreme-right organisations which feed on it. Yet, so far, France, like other countries, has not yet found an adequate response to this conundrum and, given the seriousness of its immediate health and social situations, there is an enormous temptation to divert attention to identity issues instead.
The answer, however, does not lie in theories such as the clash of civilisations, the identification of terror with Islam, nor, as we have seen, in the pursuit of policies that diminish public freedoms in the name of security. Nor does it lie in counteracting religious fanaticism with secular dogmatism, which through the contempt in which it holds the freedom of expression excludes religion from the public space, stigmatises women who cover their hair and considers fanaticism to be inherent in religion, particularly Islam.
The overwhelming majority of France’s five million Muslims condemn fanaticism and its crimes. They, too, are citizens of the Republic in the diversity of their personal beliefs and their tolerance of the faiths of others and of those with no faith at all.
It is to play into the hands of the criminal, Abdoullah Anzorov, to identify his act with religious belief, as the Minister of the Interior, Gérard Darmadin, did when he spoke of terrorism of “Sunni origin”, stigmatising Islam. To proclaim a “Internal war” as he also did, is to enter a dangerous verbal escalation, doomed to failure, with Marine le Pen. This was not the speech that elected President Macron and made him the hope of political liberalism in Europe.
It is also important that the media do not allow themselves to be distracted by their internecine ratings wars and encourage the spectacle of verbal violence from the extreme right. Yet Éric Zemmour in France has been able to do precisely this, condemned though he has been for defending discrimination, whilst he continues to distill racial hatred on television.
Whatever measures are taken in response to this crime must reflect universal values and condemn all forms of incitement to hatred.
Whatever measures are taken in response to this crime must reflect universal values and condemn all forms of incitement to hatred. It is therefore important not only to apply the law against hate speech to radical Islamists, but also against anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic hate speech from the extreme right. This is all the more important as we are now entering the third wave of terrorism: that of the extreme right.
The first wave was the violence of the extreme left – Bader-Meinhof, the Red Brigades and similar groups in the 1970s and 1980s. It was followed by that of radical Islamists in the 1990s and the first decade of this century, which has now transmuted into the self-motivated individualism of lonely fanatics like Abdoullah Anzorov.
In fact, today most acts of terror are perpetrated by white supremacist movements, which had gained a new lease of life with the arrival of President Trump in the White House in 2017. That has been the source of ninety per cent of the acts committed in the United States in 2018 and 2019, mostly against Blacks, Muslims and Jews.
Yet the extreme right and radical Islamism now feed and inspire each other. Recently, a member of the Atomwaffen Division (AWD), a neo-Nazi terrorist network active in the United States and Europe, declared, according to a report from CSIS, a leading American security study institute, that, “The culture of martyrdom and insurrection in groups such as the Taliban and Isis should be admired and reproduced.”
To overcome such destructive radicalism, we must all unite regardless of our religious beliefs or lack of them within the confines of collective secularism for, as Voltaire argued two-and-a-half centuries ago, secularism implies tolerance and is, therefore, the way to prevent wars of religion. After all, by beheading Samuel Paty for having extolled the virtues of tolerance, Abdoullah Anzorov was really aiming to separate France from its Muslims – and that is a victory that fanatics cannot be allowed to enjoy!