A teacher called Samuel Paty was beheaded on Friday last week in the French town of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Islamist fanaticism has claimed plenty of victims worldwide, including many representatives of the enlightenment in countries where schools have fought islamist terror with exemplary courage. Sadly, Samuel Paty is a symbolic victim, the first teacher in Europe to have been targeted for trying to educate his students. In EMC ( enseignement moral et civique, formerly secular morals), the school subject he taught, Samuel Paty showed his class a caricature of Muhammad with a star drawn on his buttocks. Paty spoke about tolerance and freedom of expression as part of a subject that is a symbol of public education, the great institution of the French state, a subject that has historically aimed to teach the republican values that are supposed to be the mortar, the social glue. To quote Jean Jaurès, schools are tasked with “creating republicans [in the sense of educating them]” and today Paty’s dead body tells of an extremely profound crisis that affects not only France but many other European countries and the US, a crisis that has to do with hatred, polarisation, identity, social frustration and the capillarity of networks. In other words, it affects us, too.
On 21 October a local teacher who was passionate about geography, history and books received a state funeral at the Sorbonne in a moving event for those who are still willing to put up a fight against obscurantism and religious fanaticism, for those of us who still believe that a school is a temple that opens one’s eyes to knowledge and a civilised notion of community. One of Paty’s colleagues read an excerpt of a historic letter written to teachers by Jean Jaurès, where he entrusted them with the civic muscle of French society: “You have been entrusted with the intellect and soul of our children (…) They will become citizens and must know what constitutes a free democracy, what rights their classmates have, what duties are imposed by the sovereignty of the nation”. At the Sorbonne ceremony, standing before the casket, a young student solemnly read a paragraph from the letter penned by Albert Camus in 1957 to Monsieur Germain, his teacher when he was a schoolboy back in Algiers, telling him that he had thought of him when he was awarded the Nobel prize: “Without the affectionate hand that you kindly stretched out to the poor boy that I was, without your teachings and your example, none of this would have come to me”. And he added that: “Your efforts, your work and the generous heart you put into it live forever in this young schoolboy who, despite his age, has never ceased to be your grateful pupil”.
Schools are at odds with darkness, religious dogma and intransigent politicians. They are a space for knowledge where you learn to live with difference, the antithesis of the intellectual submission required by a fanatical interpretation.
The problem is far-reaching and perhaps not too far. Not long ago, the ISIS French language bulletin, Dar al-Islam, ran a story about the inception of the republican school system as part of a Judeo-Masonic conspiracy, and for many years now France has recorded incidents and many instances of small back steps and self-censorship. There are cases like Mila’s, a sixteen-year-old girl who received death threats after insulting Islam on social media. In France most Muslims aged 25 or younger foreground Islam over the Republic. Pointing this out is neither islamophobic nor incompatible with denouncing social and economic discrimination, which is also a fact.
The debate in France is becoming more profound every day. On 18 October a Seine-Saint-Denis teacher wrote on Mediapart’s website that explaining Madame Bovary in class had become a problem. Flaubert, a problem! The teacher wrote that some students feel uncomfortable and “girls make the book’s most vehement of opponents”, calling Emma “an infidel”, meaning “impure”.
Furthermore, the bridges that unite secular democrats are wobbling. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has called out the left’s islamist sympathies in universities. It is a sort of “intellectual complicity between terrorism and the university left”, to quote a conservative student union. On 9 December the French cabinet will put forward a “bill against separatism”, which will make it a criminal offence to “post someone’s personal details online when their life might be in danger”. This is in response to the video that circulated showing the father of a 13 year old pupil in Paty’s class blaming his son’s teacher for showing the caricatures of Muhammad, which Paty’s killer got hold of via the mosque’s Facebook account. On social media the murderer, Abdouallakh Abouyezidovitch Anzorov, tried three times to find the home address of the people he accused of insulting Islam and Muslims. Today the mosque is run by Salafists, even though it was born as an effort by the Pantin Muslim federation to bring together a range of views, including those held by communities originally from Mali, Algeria, Senegal and Bangladesh. This is yet another attack on France’s republican values, which are our own, and our neighbours north of the border often show us what is coming down our way. Are we sufficiently aware of that?