The Murder of Samuel Paty and the Rise of Extremism in France

Je Suis Samuel (Photo/Yvonne Wang 22)

“Je Suis Samuel” (Photo/Yvonne Wang ’22)

Elaine Wu, Online Staff Writer

On September 1 2020, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republished political cartoons which included the Prophet Muhammad, causing a huge uproar within the Islamic community. Thousands of Muslims have taken it to the streets in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, demanding for cartoons depicting the Prophet to be banned and calling for a boycott of French products. Despite the chaos, French President Emmanuel Macron has continued to defend the freedom of the press, stating that “we will not give up cartoons.” Protestors have responded by publicly desecrating images of Macron.

Since then, religious extremists have carried out multiple terrorist attacks, such as a September 25 meat cleaver attack, wounding two people. On October 16, Samuel Paty, a teacher, was beheaded for showing these cartoons in a class about freedom of expression. On October 29, a knife attack resulted in the deaths of three people. Ever since the October 16 attack, the French government has cracked down on terrorism throughout the country. These are not the first instances of violence related to Charlie Hebdo; in 2015, twelve people were killed in an attack in the Charlie Hebdo headquarters. Even before that, in 2011, their office was bombed.

Though protest over a cartoon might not seem sensible, Islam prohibits any imagery of Muhammad. This is why mosques are full of patterns and designs rather than artwork of religious figures. Keeping that in mind, it makes sense that some Muslims would feel especially disrespected by these cartoons and explains the widespread protests (though by no means justifies any of the killings). But where do we draw the line between freedom of speech and outright offensive statements? After all, many argue that everyone is entitled to their own views, even if they are disrespectful. Further, Samuel Paty reportedly gave all students the option to leave the classroom before showing an image of the Muhammad, so as not to violate anyone’s religion. 

The dissenters have a different argument in mind, though, with one protester (from Tripoli, Libya) asserting that “freedom of expression does not mean we should insult prophets and messengers.” Others additionally believe that much of the resentment causing the violence was motivated by communities of Muslims throughout France feeling unheard by their government. That reasoning is not a justification of any sorts, though; instead, it acts more as a solution to what might be the root of the problem. And, while it might be disrespectful—perhaps even hateful—to depict images of the Prophet Muhammed, a sign of disrespect should never be a death sentence and is never a valid reason to murder an innocent. As such, many in France have emerged to pay tribute to Paty, with over 12,000 people attending a rally in his name in Lyon.  

Tensions have risen to a point where even foreign relations have been affected. On October 24, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan insulted Macron, suggesting “some sort of mental treatment” for him. Erdogan also advocated the boycott of French commodities. France has retorted, calling his comments “unacceptable” and criticizing his policy. “We do not enter into unnecessary polemics and do not accept insults,” states a representative of Macron. Even now, the situation continues to escalate as the French government stands its ground.