Wrong conclusions and policies are more dangerous than terrorism.

Terrorism is a global risk and threat to human security. At the same time, the often impulsive, undemocratic and irrational responses against terrorism are more dangerous than terrorism itself. The recent case of the murder of history teacher Samuel Paty and political reactions towards Islamist terrorism shows several problems beyond Islamism such as security theatre, racism, nationalism and civilisationism.

The murder of Samuel Paty

On 16th October, a history teacher called Samuel Paty was murdered in Paris. The killer was an 18-year-old high-school pupil ar old Abdullakh Anzorov, a Russian (Moscow) born individual with Chechen identification and a history of being a refugee. Anzorov used the knife to kill Paty, and after he committed the murder, Anzorov was shot dead by policemen who came to the crime place and were threatened by him.

Before his death, Anzorov motivated his brutal action and crime with Islamist ideas. Islamism is also called political Islam, as a broad set of political ideologies that utilize and draw inspiration from Islamic symbols by advocating government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam.

Days before the murder, Paty was verbally attacked by smearing campaigns via social media as on Facebook and What's App by Islamist individuals inspiring Anzarov to commit the crime. After the murder, many demonstrations have been held in France by condemning the murder and Islamism, and by supporting values as secularity, freedom and equality.

Political reactions

The murder of Samuel Paty concerns the earlier developments in 2015 with the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine. Among other materials, Paty was using caricatures of Prophet Muhammed published by Charlie Hebdo when he was teaching his pupils about secularism, a critique of religion and freedom of speech.

Immediately after the murder, France’s President Emanuel Macron made several statements including those about measures against “Islamic separatism”. The murder of Samuel Paty is now another act of terrorism, the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims. In France, between 2010–2020 there here have been more than 230 terrorist acts committed by different actors including Islamists, far-righters and Corsican nationalists.

Another of President Macron’s statements was that “here in France, we love our nation, its geography, landscapes and history, its culture and metamorphoses, its spirit and heart. And we want to teach it to all our children”.

The current French authorities under Macron’s government also insist that there is no disharmony between moderate Islam and “French values”. Instead, the focus of communication is that the terror act is “fault of communitarianism”. In France, the term communitarianism is often, in popular meaning, linked to conservative Islam.

Another focus for the current discussions is the principle of laicite. Historically seen, laicite was firstly included in the law in 1905 legally defined as the strict separation of state and religion. While secularism in France in principle applies to all religions equally, the current case is that Islam has been dominating the secularism discussions such as concerning aspects as head coverings via hijab or niqab being subjected to legal restrictions and bans.

Other examples of political communication have been highlighted as via Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right populist and nationalist party Rassemblement Nationale. Le Pen has made several statements such as being in favour of “declaring war against Islamism” including measures such as by “stopping immigration”.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon who is the leader of the far-left populist and socialist party France Insoumise, who himself has been called and accused of being an “Islamo-leftist” by among others members from Macron’s party, has made statements such as that the government should “target” the Chechen community in France and that Chechen refugees were welcomed because the former government disliked Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.

Institutional reactions

President Macron stated among other things that:

  1. Reaffirming the neutrality of public services and upholding French traditions of secularism in all public services.
  2. Funding for associations and civil society institutions would depend on their adherence to the republican principles of the French state (meaning that Islamist organisations would receive no funding)
  3. Public education will be compulsory for everyone from the age of three, meaning that about 50,000 home-schooled students will be in public schools.
  4. Reducing the dependence on foreign imams by making it mandatory for imams to be partially trained in France (known as “state supporting an “enlightened Islam”)
  5. Reclaiming what he called “lost neighbourhoods,”

From the French government, several proposals are waiting for discussions and eventual decisions:

  • Banning home-schooling
  • Preventing imams trained outside of France to work in mosques
  • Ban on several organisations deemed “separatist” including the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), Grey Wolves (Turkish ultranationalists) and a humanitarian aid group called BarakaCity.
  • Creating a new criminal offence that would punish anyone who endangers another person by publishing their details online
  • To fight against “cyber-Islamism.”

Among other reactions and already implemented decisions are:

  • Closure of Pantin mosque for six months (a local administrative court approved the mosque which via its Facebook account shared a video that was used against Paty, also this decision)
  • Ban of Cheikh Yassine collective that is considered to be pro-Hamas in Palestine, after its president Abdelhakim Sefrioui made a “fatwa” against Paty.
  • Ban of BarakaCity and Grey Wolves organisations

Interior-minister Gérald Darmanin to promise to pursue this strategy against “associations that we could qualify as enemies of the Republic”.

Problems and challenges

In general, the current situation with terrorism in France, including Islamist terrorism, represents a complex situation while there are many simplistic tendencies concerning political proposals and interpretations of reality.

For example, during his recent speeches, President Macron has not used any rhetoric and communication that in social science would be analysed as islamophobic or culturally racist towards Muslims. Macron has clearly declared that there is a difference between being Islamist and being Muslim. At the same time, other types of rhetoric such as “war against political Islam” and “enemies of the republic” are connected to behaviours that could result in undemocratic and authoritarian behaviours.

After all, one key principle of democracy is that humans have the freedom to make their own opinions and to choose their values. Research shows that humans can have up many different values at the same time. Also, rhetoric as “French values” is not only nationalist by trying to limit and “nationalise” universal values to a certain nation but also leads to myths and malicious portrait where people wrongly believe that “we” have certain good values and “they” have bad values.

There are also other examples of why the current communication from the French government is problematic for several reasons. As an individual can be French without showing particular affections or “love” for the nation or landscapes. One can be French and a nationalist, or French and Islamist, or French and cosmopolitan. It alls depends on how an individual is using different collective identification.

There are also problems when it comes to secularism. In France, secularism is often seen as “civic religion” and one of the most vital parts of national identification. Oliver Roy writes that French government e draft law would have the effect of reducing the display of religious faith, and not only Islam, in public life, often at the expense of the very liberal values — freedom of religion, thought and speech — that it is intended to protect. Roy states that many secular Muslims are vocal supporters of the fight for republican values. At the same time, many conservative Catholics feel increasingly uneasy with current interpretations of laïcité.

Clint Witchalls writes among other things that the question in the first place is not about how Islam should adopt to secularism in France but how secularism should adopt to Islam(s). According to Witchalls, France, as a state has, in fact, made many exceptions for Catholics by, for example providing substantial public funding to private Catholic schools. In France, 11 official holidays in France are Catholic, and laïcité is often understood as an unwillingness to accommodate the religiously based demands of Muslims. For example, in 2015, a Muslim advocacy organization sued a municipal authority in France’s Burgundy region for refusing to offer an alternative to pork in public school cafeterias. The court compelled the town to reverse its policy, but not because it violated religious freedom. Instead, the court found the menu violated the children’s rights.

Kenan Malik writes that France already has laws and decisions that are problematic concerning freedom of speech:

“To say this is not to say that one should therefore defend Macron or his policies. For these policies, like much of the French response to Islam and terror, are shot through with hypocrisy and illiberalism. For all its claimed attachment to free speech, France has tough laws against speech deemed unacceptable, from Holocaust denial to insulting the French flag. It has criminalised those who call for a boycott of Israel. It has banned protests against Charlie Hebdo, and, after the 2015 massacre of the magazine’s staff, dozens of Muslims were arrested for suggesting sympathy with the killers, including a boy who posted on Facebook a cartoon mocking the magazine. A proposed law threatens academic freedom in the name of “the values of the republic”. Another would outlaw any filming of police in which officers may be identified.”

The public educational system in the EU has to be based on knowledge and political neutrality, not by being used to indoctrinate individuals politically. This is, of course, more complicated in practice because there is no such thing as a neutral public school in a democratic system. At the same time, the democratic system is not comaopibtle with demands for individuals to accept certain values by force.

Another general problem is concerning the principle of equal treatment. Islamists as in France are indeed against secularism and democracy, but they do not have political power nor influence at higher levels. The case is the opposite regarding the far-right under the leadership of nationalist and right-wing populist Marine Le Pen. As a leader of former Front Nationale and now Ressamle Nationale, she and her party have a history of anti-secular and anti-democratic behaviours including statements such as that France should not be a secular state and that Russia under Vladamir Putin’s dictatorship is an “inspiration” and “model of traditional Christian society”.

Such proposals are not only against freedom and human rights but also create wrong and mythological perceptions that all Muslims are potential terrorists. Such communication will be used for Islamist propaganda who just as the far-right and nationalists will play on tribalism, identity politics and victimhood behaviours. The problem with certain anti-Islamist rhetoric is that its proposals could be used against others as well, as by for example forcing far-right members to attend courses in “French values”.

In its fight against “communitarianism” and “separatism” over the years, the French government has introduced bans on religious symbols in public schools and offices and outlawed full-body Islamic swimsuits, or burkinis, in public swimming pools and beaches, the latter cast as a hygienic measure. Ninety-six per cent of French Muslims feel connected with their country. The percentage of Muslims feeling the same way is equally high in Germany, while Switzerland has the highest levels, at 98 per cent. For many in Muslim communities that have raised apprehensions about a further conflation of Islam and Islamist extremism, as some advocates warn that an aggressive, indiscriminate approach may only play into the hands of the very people the government seeks to fight.

Mohammed Cheppih who is a Dutch imam and proponent of a so-called “European style of Islam”. In 2008, he founded a liberal mosque in Amsterdam, that practised exclusively in Dutch and allowed men and women to pray together. Speaking to Euronews’ breakfast show Good Morning Europe, he said Islam had been part of European history for more than 1300 years:

“The problem is that we are living in societies that exclude each other and that’s giving us our issues. The compromise lies in including each other and understanding one another. We should be on the same page, instead of looking at Islam as a strange religion, as an extreme religion, that we can’t deal with. Islam is part of society. Muslims are European citizens, and they have the right to be here. But they have to invest in making it more part of any society. We have to find a way to talk as partners, instead of as victims and accused.”

Security theatre

Reactions against terrorism are often impulsive, irrational and hysterical. Such behaviours are part of our human nature and biological evolution, but such behaviours are also dangerous in the long-term. For example, Yuval Harari argues, terrorists are in principle to few to take over whole countries. Still, by using fear, they can make more people accept measures and policies leading to reducation of personal freedom and human rights, and the abolishment of democratic and open societies.

One such example s I the United States where different terrorism-related legislation has not only led to insufficient results but also to misconducted of power, such as abuses of personal freedom and wars of aggression as against Iraq that cost hundreds of thousands of lives as of Iraqi civilians and where American taxpayers will pay for the war until 2050.

Governments often prefare to make behaviours to show that “we are doing something against terrorism” even if such measures are ineffective and even absurd. As the case of Macron’s government shows, some measures such as solving social problems in “lost neighbourhoods” can make a real difference. Others such demanding “republican values” and having soldiers on the streets are not.

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Vladan Lausevic

Vladan Lausevic

I am active as a social and policy entrepreneur. SEEDS ambassador. Motto: I have no identity, I have only identities.