The tragic assassination of french teacher Samuel Paty by 18 year old Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, invites us to reflect on the reasons why marginalised youth find a recourse in radical Islam and choose death through committing what they perceive to be an act of defending the Prophet.
Why do some young people find religiously inspired answers to their real-life problems? What should be our response as a society?
The process of radicalisation of these young people is complex. Socio economic inequality and discrimination provide a breeding ground for certain forms of religiously inspired extremism as Hisham Hellyer and Michele Grossman point out in a recent paper. Part of the problem is also found in French society’s refusal to openly acknowledge that Muslims often suffer from discrimination and racism and that the principle of equality is a mirage for many young people of immigrant origin.
There were two events that actually took place mid-October in France. One event was the civic education course of Samuel Paty: his decision to show the caricatures of the Muslim Prophet as an example of freedom of expression (and perhaps of its limits) and the related reaction of Brahim C., the father of one of Paty’s students, who protested with the school about Paty’s course. In addition to complaining with the school principal – which was the appropriate thing to do for a parent who is unhappy with how the child’s school deals with religious diversity – Mr Brahim C. posted a video expressing his anger about the incident. The video went viral on social media.
The second event was the horrible crime that a young radicalised man of Chechen origin, Abdouallakh Abouyezidovitch Anzorov, planned and executed, notably, the assassination of Samuel Paty because, in the eyes of Anzorov, he offended Islam and the Prophet. While Anzorov had been radicalising and expressing his extremist views and violent intentions for a few months, it was the social media that provided the crucial connection between the two events.
Anzorov was looking for a victim, and the social media through the video of Brahim C. offered him one. This is perhaps a very important lesson to learn from the tragic and unacceptable assassination of Samuel Paty: We need to be more aware about how social media is being used and how it can sometimes get out of hand and lead to tragic consequences.
Hatred and misinformation can flame polarization and violence
Of course Brahim C. is not responsible for Anzorov’s actions but, unfortunately, we live in a social media world which plays an important part in the processes of violent radicalisation of young people. We need to recognize how the apparent innocuous use of social media can be misconstrued; and how hatred and misinformation can flame polarization and violence. We have seen the effects of social media self-feeding dynamics in the recent QAnon story that has been infiltrating Christian congregations online, spreading fake news and nurturing polarisation.
Some wonder if France is losing the battle against freedom of expression when it comes to talking about Islamic beliefs. This is not so. Yet, part of the problem is that terrorist events are often portrayed as representing an inherent feature of Islam as a religious faith or that all Muslims are potential terrorists. Instead, the process of violent radicalisation links some youth to an aberrant version of Islam that represents only a tiny minority among Muslims and that is of great concern also in Muslim majority countries like Morocco or Tunisia. We should not conflate that version of salafist radical and violent Islam to the mainstream faith that millions of people in Europe and the world adhere to.
At the same time we should not forget that freedom of expression comes with responsibility. The fact that you can publish something that offends somebody else’s religious faith or core moral values does not mean that you should publish it so as to prove that you can exercise your freedom of expression. We should always ponder our acts and exercise our freedom responsibly, in all domains. It is, of course, absolutely important that the state and our laws provide for the legal framework that protects our freedom, and that we should have both our religious freedom and our freedom to express our criticism and disagreement.
However, it is our call, each time, to ponder on whether expressing our disagreement with somebody else’s values needs also to offend the other’s values or beliefs. Religious sentiment is at the core of many people’s sense of identity and dignity. We need to ponder carefully, each time, within each specific context – there is no one size fits all answer – as to where our freedom of expression ends and where the right of the other person to not feel denigrated or offended starts.
Finally, there is a future where Islam and Christianity in Europe will coexist. That however requires rethinking the limits of laïcité, opting for moderate secularism (as practiced in most European countries) with a higher respect for religion, recognizing the special role it plays in people’s lives. Perhaps we can find inspiration from practices that come from other countries, like India for instance. At the same time, we need to pay more attention to the ways in which socio-economic inequality intersects with religious and ethnic discrimination and exclusion. We need to continue working together to build societies that respect cultural and religious diversity and resilience against all forms of violent extremism (whether of jihadist, white supremacist, far right or far left orientation). There is a concrete danger that events like those at Conflans-Sainte-Honorine and their representation in public discourse lead Muslim youth throughout Europe to feel stigmatised and put in a box as potential extremists or terrorists.
Making these young people feel ashamed about their upbringing or religious faith is not only wrong but also can become a breeding ground for extremism. Young Muslims in France (and elsewhere in Europe) feel they cannot express their discontent with laïcité without facing a social penalty. At the same time this does not help young Muslims raise their own questions about how to reconcile their religion with their everyday lives – to express the challenges that they may face and share those with their (for instance) Catholic or Protestant peers who may experience similar issues. Stigmatising Islam blocks such discussions and interfaith dialogue among youth. By contrast we should aim at supporting young people to build a strong sense of security, acceptance and respect in society. That is how we can fight both Islamophobia and jihadist terrorism.