Matteo Gemolo, a PhD candidate at Cardiff University
Located thirty kilometres from Paris at the confluence of the Oise and the Seine, Conflans-Sainte-Honorine is a charming little town where life has always been calm, the pace slow and serene away from other grubby and dicey Île-de-France suburbs such as the notorious St. Denis, La Courneuve, and Mantes-la-Jolie. It was in this peaceful French commune, located in one of its public middle-class schools, that one middle-age teacher of history, geography, and civics, was beheaded with a long knife on 16 October by a pupil.
Committed to instil the nation’s ideals in the young and animated by a strong belief in secularism, Samuel Paty taught a moral and civic course on freedom of expression earlier in October, showing amongst others a caricature of Muhammad taken from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It is difficult to imagine how any French teacher could not bring up Charlie Hebdo while introducing “freedom of expression” to their students, familiarizing them with the story of Charlie Hebdo’s work and the massacre of its staff in January 2015 by jihadists. Before showing the images, Paty offered those who might feel offended the chance to leave the classroom.
It is by simply analysing this rather banal sequence of events that we may understand how and why such a barbaric assassination could take place in France—again. Paty’s murder occurred less than a month after the previous Islamist terroristic attack, a 25 September attack outside the old headquarters of Charlie Hebdo magazine.
Paty’s killer was a radicalized 18-year-old Muslim of Russian origins, a refugee of Chechen descent named Abdullah Anzorov, by all accounts unsuccessful in an academic sense at schools but with a strong passion for sports and martial arts. He arrived in France at age-6 and grew up in Évreux, a historically socialist city in an economically depressed area in Normandy. Known by the police for minor misdemeanour charges, only very recently he began showing signs of radicalization, posting a series of tweets against Jews, Christians, and the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Investigators have been searching into Anzorov’s contacts, proving he had ties with at least two Syrian jihadists (whose identities remain still unknown), and another seven people have been charged as accomplices.
Anzorov’s telephone shows evidence of an exchange with Brahim Chnina, father of one of his female school mates. Chnina had organized, in parallel with Anzorov’s own plot, a public campaign of incitement against Paty, accusing him of pornography (declaring that Paty showed an image of “naked Mohammed” to his minor daughter who in fact, according to police sources, wasn’t even in the class at the time of the lesson). Chnina posted several messages on social networks that called for protests against Paty. On several occasions, the father had also insulted the teacher as a “thug”, disseminated his identity and address on social networks, and denounced him to the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF). Chnina also appeared in a video published on the day of the murder in which he denounced the professor’s “hatred” and called for him to be fired: “This thug must no longer stay in National Education, he must no longer educate children, he must go and educate himself”.
Together with Chnina, Abdelhakim Sefrioui, a Franco-Moroccan Islamist fundamentalist, founder of the pro-Hamas collective Cheikh-Yassine and imam at the Grande Mosque of Pantin, was also inciting protests against the use of these caricatures and lobbying strongly for several days for the teacher to be dismissed from the National Education. The Grande Mosque de Pantin, which has now been shut down by French’s Interior Minister, had reportedly shared a post on its Facebook page, targeting Paty with hate speech prior to the attack.
A few minutes after the beheading of Paty, a message was posted on Twitter from pseudonym @ Tchetchene_270 on which a photo of his decapitated head appeared with the following message: “In the name of Allah, the most merciful, the most merciful, […] to Macron, the leader of the infidels, I executed one of your hellhounds who dared to belittle Muhammad, calm his fellow human beings before they inflict harsh punishment on you.” Hundreds of other internet users shared the gruesome photo on Twitter and other platforms, commenting triumphantly on the assassination of the professor.
In theatre plays, especially in works of tragedy, authors often use a literary device called “dramatic irony” by which the audience’s understanding of events or individuals surpasses that of its characters. Everyone in the audience knows that something dramatic will soon happen, but the characters involved on stage seem to be the only ones unaware of what is coming. How can Samuel Paty not be defined as the last victim of such a “dramatic irony”?
Anzorov was born in 2002, the same year in which Les Territoires perdus de la République – antisémitisme, racisme et sexisme en milieu scolaire (The Lost Territories of the Republic – Antisemitism, Racism and Sexism in Schools) was published. This book brought together the testimonies of teachers and heads of schools on multiple episodes of antisemitism, sexism and Islamism, evoking a global degeneration—both social and cultural—which was sweeping through colleges and high schools in the Paris region. Amid accusations of “Islamophobia”, the book was first boycotted and later ignored, its authors criticized for dealing with “minor and unimportant facts”. After eighteen years during which dozens of Islamist attacks have been perpetrated, hundreds of lives taken in name of Allah, and thousands of intellectuals, scholars, journalists and authors put under armed protection for criticizing political Islam and its incompatibly with secular values, the assassination of Paty cannot be described simply as the unfortunate fruit of one deranged young mind.
Nor has the wave of Islamist attacks ceased. A little over a week after Paty’s assassination, on 29 October, three other people were slaughtered, one of them like Paty beheaded, at a church—the Basilica of Notre-Dame—in Nice. The victims were a Christian priest, Vincent Loquès, and two women, Nadine Devillers, murdered near the holy-water font, and Simon Barreto-Silva murdered while trying to escape. The killer was, again, a young Muslim, 21-year-old Brahim Aouissaoui, who had arrived in September 2020 illegally in Europe from Tunisia via the island of Lampedusa, Italy.
Aouissaoui was notified to leave Italy, but decided instead to move to Bari, where he began his journey to Nice by train. Aouissaoui’s movements were not monitored, and he managed to arrive in France, defying even the coronavirus controls between borders. Half-an-hour after the attack, French police officers first tasered the attacker and then shot him while he was still shouting, “Allahu Akbar!” on the street.
Coming from a modest family living in Sfax, in central Tunisia, Aouissaoui had turned to religion only two years ago, according to his relatives. Born into a large family of eight daughters and three sons, he lived with his parents in a simple house, on a rutted street in a working-class neighborhood near an industrial area on the outskirts of the coastal town of Sfax. After putting some money aside, he started a small, informal gasoline outlet, such as those which can be found in many towns in Tunisia. According to the deputy prosecutor general at the Tunis court of first instance., he has a criminal record of violence and drugs.
Abdullah Anzorov and Brahim Aouissaoui signed and sealed in blood the dramatic end of four innocents’ life without even knowing them. Anzorov was not one of Paty’s students. He was not attending the allegedly “controversial” civic course on freedom of expression. Aouissaoui had only just arrived in Nice, bringing with him the idea of killing as many Christians as possible. These events are not individual and not to take them in the overall context would be to miss the point. After long efforts at piecemeal solutions, the French Republic is looking to a more comprehensive and collective answer to this issue.
The apologists on the other side have referred relentlessly to Islam as a “religion of peace”, repeated year after year, incident after incident, death after death, that “Islam has nothing to do with terrorism”, and held out the possibility of a backlash against Muslims generally as a reason not to act against Islamism. With Paty’s murder simply for doing his job, the state and society have arrived at a moment of agreement: Ils ne passeront pas (They will not pass). The tragedy is that it is too late. Political Islam has already entered France’s secular institutions—the schools, public offices, and so on. It has entered through the doors of the churches as well. The only way out of this is to finally realize this is not something that can be avoided by anyone. To cite Hannah Arendt: “Under conditions of terror, most people will comply, but some people will not […] Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.