After teacher’s killing, French Muslims fear rising Islamophobia

The gov’t has acted vigorously and quickly after Samuel Paty was attacked, but Muslims worry they will be collectively punished.

A French police officer stands next to a portrait of French teacher Samuel Paty on display on the facade of the Opera Comedie in Montpellier on October 21, 2020, during a national homage [Pascal Guyot/AFP]

Paris, France – The gruesome killing of a teacher by an 18-year-old suspect of Chechen origin is testing the country’s fragile relationship with its Muslim minority, with growing fears of collective punishment.

The teenager attacked Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old father, in broad daylight on Friday, beheading him near his school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a suburb about 15 miles (24km) from the centre of a Paris.

There has been an outpouring of grief and shock among top officials; Paty on Wednesday posthumously received the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour, in a ceremony attended by President Emmanuel Macron. Thousands have attended protests.

Paty’s attacker had been angered that he showed his pupils caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

In the days after the killing, the government launched a crackdown against Muslim organisations while vigilante groups have attacked mosques; places of worship in Beziers and Bordeaux have been placed under police protection after having been threatened with violence.

Tensions between the state and France’s Muslims, the largest Muslim minority in Europe, have deepened.

They were already on a downward trend after Macron, on October 2, launched a plan against what he called “Islamist separatism” and said Islam was “in crisis” across the world.

Muslims fear Paty’s tragic death is already being weaponised to advance a government policy they worry conflates Islam with “terrorism”.

“Muslims are being targeted,” Yasser Louati, a French Muslim activist, told Al Jazeera, adding he believed Macron was “using Islamophobia to power his campaign.”

On Monday, the French government said it was strengthening its crackdown on suspected “extremists”, carrying out multiple raids and threatening a mass expulsion of more than 200 people.

More than 50 Muslim organisations are being targeted; the “Cheikh Yassine Collective”, an organisation has already been banned in the wake of the killing. The group’s founder, Abdelhakim Sefrioui, is being held by police for publishing a video on YouTube insulting Paty.

But there are more surprising names on the list.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has proposed to ban the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), an association that tracks anti-Muslim hate crimes, in a move that more than 50 civil society groups and academics have warned against.

In an interview with French radio station Europe 1, Darmanin lambasted CCIF as an “enemy of the republic”, adding it was one of several organisations he would dissolve at Macron’s personal request.

CCIF condemned Darmanin’s language as slander, stating the government was “criminalising the fight against Islamophobia”.

Darmanin, who was appointed in July during a cabinet reshuffle, routinely raises eyebrows for comments appealing to conservative and far-right parties.

In an interview with BFMTV Tuesday evening, he said he was “shocked” to see Halal and Kosher food aisles in supermarkets, which he believes contributes to separatism in France, comments that were instantly mocked on social media.

But there are fears recent government actions contribute to a discourse that endangers Muslim lives.

“What is going in France at the moment is unprecedented,” activist and co-founder of CCIF, Marwan Muhammed wrote on Twitter last week. “Fundamental freedoms are at stake, as the government is focused on stigmatising and criminalising Muslim communities.”

Many viewed the government’s vigorous and accelerated response to Friday’s attack as a dire warning that the law could be manipulated to target Muslims more generally.

The crackdown has echoes of France’s response to the deadly November 2015 attacks in Paris by ISIL. Human rights groups criticised those measures, which saw mass arrests and raids under emergency rule, saying they yielded few results and left Muslims feeling like second-class citizens.

A French Republican Guard holds a portrait inside Sorbonne University’s courtyard in Paris on October 21, 2020, during a national homage to French teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his civics class [Francois Mori/ POOL/AFP]

During Wednesday’s eulogy, Macron remembered Paty as someone who “loved books, loved knowledge”.

Originally intent on becoming a researcher, Paty chose instead to follow the same path of his parents and become a teacher.

Paty ultimately was killed, Macron said, “because he made the choice to teach.”

He had shown the caricatures during a lesson about free speech.

Muslims believe that any depiction of the Prophet is blasphemous.

According to reports, Paty advised Muslim students who might be offended to leave the room or look away during this part of the discussion, as a measure of sensitivity.

The attacker posted a photo of the decapitation on Twitter before being shot and killed the police. According to French media, the teenager had been in touch with Paty before the killing.

Fifteen people have been arrested as part of an investigation into the killing, including the assailant’s family members.

The attack also follows two stabbings last month outside the former offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in September at the start of the trial for those suspected involvement in the January 2015 attacks which killed 17 people.

In his anticipated October 2 speech, Macron sought to address “radicalisation”.

The new law he is proposing to push religion further out of education and the public sector in France, aims to strengthen “laicite”, France’s strict separation of church and state.

It would, among other things, let the state monitor international funding coming into French mosques, limit homeschooling to prevent Muslims schools from being run by what Macron cited as “religious extremists”, and create a special certificate programme for imams to be trained in France.

Mame-Fatou Niang, an associate professor of French studies at Carnegie Mellon University, told Al Jazeera the government was not simply “going to war against terrorists”.

“Rather they’re taking these seeds of division planted by terrorists to erase any grey areas and create a completely polarised society … it’s a declaration against not only fundamentalists but against Muslims in general.”