Some 31 years ago, in the fall of 1989, France witnessed its first Islamist “affair” in a school. Three young girls of the Gabriel-Havez school in Creil, in the Oise department, came with head veils to class. The main organization of the Muslim brotherhood, the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, had sent representatives to negotiate with the principal but they were sent out when he discovered that they were secretly recording the conversation.
That “veil affair” had symbolically marked an important rupture, in this year in which the Rushdie affair had unleashed passions across the Channel and in which Khomeini, by pronouncing his fatwa of February 14 condemning Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy, had at the same time included Europe – and the other territories of the planet where Muslims lived – in the “domain of Islam”, that is to say any jurisdiction where a fatwa applies.
The Muslim Brotherhood had, in the same spirit, changed the title of their French organization: it became the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, and no longer the Union of Islamic Organizations in France. For its members, the injunctions of the Islamic Law, or sharia, were henceforth to be applied, and young girls who wished to wear the hijab, or veil, in schools should be allowed to, if only for the right to freedom of expression… guaranteed by the laws of the Republic. This ability to play on two different legal frameworks destabilized public institutions and NGOs, from the minister of Education Lionel Jospin to the prominent anti-racist NGO SOS Racisme and the Council of State, France’s highest administrative court, while initiating a fifteen-year-long judicial guerilla war, until the 2004 law on the prohibition of religious signs in schools.
Three decades later, the beheading of the history, geography and civics teacher Samuel Paty, who had made his students of the Bois d’Aulne school in Conflans-Sainte Honorine (also part of the larger Parisians suburb like Creil) think on the notion of blasphemy with cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, is a continuation of this process. A father of a pupil – himself very active in the online radical “islamo-sphere” and whose sister went to fight for ISIS in the Levant and is now jailed by the Kurds – published a viral video criticizing the professor based on mostly inaccurate information his daughter had given him, and put a target on Paty’s back for online harassment.
Like his predecessors of 1989, he was received by the principal, and was backed by a notorious hexagenerian Islamist agitator hailing from radicalized Muslim Brotherhood networks, known for creating the shaykh Yassine committee (Yassine was a founder of Hamas) and for his ties with the controversial antisemetic comedian Dieudonné. The agitator is on the government’s “security” registry and on the “prevention of radicalization of a terrorist nature” registry. In a video, the agitator boasted over “having demanded the immediate suspension of this scoundrel because he is not a teacher” to the school’s principal, a clear sign of the evolution of the balance of power in French education institutions in the past thirty years with respect to the Islamist movements.
In the meantime, social media and their infinite capacity to mobilize individuals through disinformation, have destabilized our environment and disinhibited behaviors thanks to a constant blending of the virtual with reality, undermining the laws of the Republic against the fatwas of the smartphones and their alternative norms. From the attacks perpetrated by Mohamed Merah in March 2012 – who killed Jewish pupils and French soldiers from supposedly Muslim descent in Toulouse and Montauban – to the decapitation of Samuel Paty by a young Chechen – during the ongoing trial of the network that helped organize the attacks against Charlie Hebdo and the HyperCasher supermarket in January 2015 – France and other European countries have suffered from numerous jihadist attacks that led to the deaths of hundreds.
A series of attacks organized with the support of ISIS’ rogue caliphate in the Levant between 2014 and 2019, from which were planned the massacres of the Bataclan, Brussels, Nice and the assassination of father Jacques Hamel in his church at St. Etienne du Rouvray. However, the beheading of the unfortunate middle school professor marks a new phase, for it is the first time that the whole process leading from Islamist agitation to fanatical crime happens at such lightning pace. At the time this piece is being written we still ignore the exact steps of this process, from the stigmatization of a professor to his assassination – and one can hope that the investigation will quickly establish it. Previously, the networks behind terrorist attacks were only discovered afterwards, with investigations having difficulties tracing back the structure of these networks as illustrated by the difficult debates currently underway in Paris at the trial of the January 2015 massacres at Charlie Hebdo.
The law prohibiting the wearing of ostentatious religious signs of 15 March 2004 had ended 15 years of attempts by the Islamists movements to impose the hijab in classes – to the great fury of Islamist activists and their fellow travelers – while giving the administration and the education department some respite and time to focus on their duties rather than fighting in the courtrooms. Similarly, the law on “separatism” in the works following Emmanuel Macron’s speech on that matter in the town of Les Mureaux on 2 October – another crime scene of jihadists in the outskirts of Paris – should shift the focus on the roots of this issue, of which Samuel Paty’s death is the most monstrous expression, before such a type of crime becomes commonplace.
The term “separatism” has been the subject of much debate. Regardless of the vocabulary chosen, the root of the problem comes down to an Arabic expression that the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and jihadists alike have tried to put at the heart of Islamic dogma through intense proselytizing in school yards (where it has become near impossible to call oneself an “atheist” especially if you are “visibly” Muslim), in the Friday preaches in some mosques, on Facebook and Twitter, and on the many websites: al wala’ wa-l bara’a. The phrase means literally “allegiance and severance” – the second term is also understood in the Salafist newspeak as “disavowal.” The goal of every Muslim should be according to these doctrinarians to disavow everything that does not constitute dogma in its most rigid sense – including mystical and confraternal versions of Islam, considered to be a “heresy” (chirk) or “apostasy” (ridda) – and thus organizing a radical “separation” from the “infidels.”
The term “infidels”, which translates as kuffar, but is also used as a singular noun in Franco-Arabic slang common in the “territories occupied by Islamism” to paraphrase the title of Bernard Rougier’s latest work, designates any non-Muslim or “bad” Muslim who has not made a total and exclusive “allegiance” to this vision. Accusations of being a kafir (the singular of kuffar) come with severe consequences as a kafir’s sanction is death. The tweet from “Chechen_270” in which he claims the beheading with a horrifying picture of the bloody severed head provides a chilling illustration of that concept:
“From Abdullah, the Servant of Allah, To marcon [sic], the leader of the infidels, I executed one of yours dogs from hell who dared to belittle Muhammad, calm his fellow professors before we inflict you with a harsh punishment.”
We are yet to know the exact process from the stigmatization of the professor, to the publication of his comings and goings as well as his address, to the viral rants of the pupil’s father and the Islamist agitator, to the waves of online harassment, and finally to the intervention of Aboullah Abouyezidovitch Azondov, the 18 years-old Chechen refugee born in Moscow who perpetrated the murder, claiming it with a tweet before being gunned down.
Was the act motivated by agitation on social media as it seems to have been the case on September 25th with the Pakistanese Zaheer Hassan Mahmood’s (also a refugee) attempt to decapitate two people he believed to be Charlie Hebdo journalists, while Pakistani social media were showing crowds of protesters brandishing cutlasses over the re-publication of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons? Or did the young Chechen have ties – either through activism, petty criminality or through his practice of martial arts – with more important islamist actors who transported him from Evreux, where he lived, to Conflans, some 80 kilometers away?
Whatever the case may be, it seems clear that the legislative arsenal, which since 2015 focused exclusively on terrorist attacks and the breaking down of their cells, is no longer effective against this new horizontal form of jihadism illustrated by the many assassinations since the knife attack in Paris police prefecture committed last year by a long-time employee, Mickael Harpon. The elaboration of this new law will have to deal with the consequences of these attacks but also its causes, which requires a good understanding of the workings of political Islamism. Its activists are constantly on the lookout for any sign of alleged discrimination to tiptoe out of the attacks they face and to drape themselves in the clothes of victimhood, as they already have begun to do on their social media.
Gilles Kepel is a professor at Sciences Po Paris and director of the Middle East and Mediterranean Chair at Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL) Research University, based at Ecole Normale Supérieure.
This article was first published in French in Le Monde. Translation by François Valentin.
Cover Photo: National homage to Samuel Paty – Montpellier, October 21, 2020 (Pascal Guyot / AFP)
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