As I am sure all of you have heard, my country, France, was shaken by a terrible terrorist act on 16 October 2020. Samuel Paty, a teacher, was murdered. He was beheaded on his way back from school. He was killed by a man who called himself a Muslim because during one of his classes, he had shown cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad, including a cartoon where the Prophet was naked.
About the murder - Like any French person, the news of what happened felt like a punch in my stomach. I felt the familiar knot in my throat. The acidic taste at the back of my tongue. The needles behind my eyes. It sent me right back to the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, when, like many others, I spent days weeping and trying to make sense of what had happened. I don’t need to talk about the horror. We all know it. You, my British colleagues and friends, know it too, because it has happened here too. Probably like most French people, I feel an extreme sense of solidarity with Samuel Paty’s family. I get this feeling that you get when you feel like your people have been hurt, directly targeted and hit. An act of pure hate. I think about Samuel Paty’s family, his friends, his colleagues, his students. I can’t help but think about the young girl too, the one whose father was the one to start the social media campaign against her teacher. Her life has taken a turn too. All these lives.
About hate and violence - of course, for people like you and me – who dedicate our lives to trying to make the world a better place, rebuilding trust where it has been broken, building bridges where there were none, creating understanding where there was ignorance and fear – naturally, the next question is: where do we go from here? You see, this extreme violence will not simply disappear. In chemistry we often quote Lavoisier “nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.” This violence will not vanish. It is right here, like a foreign body within our society and community, and like any foreign body, it is already causing an inflammation. It is waiting for an opportunity to transform into a new act of violence. What will we do about it?
We can work on removing this foreign body – this violence – extracting it from ourselves, letting go of it, so that we can heal and move forward. There are many wounded individuals in this story who need healing. We, as a society, need healing and tending to our wounds. I am not talking about forgiveness, in fact I don’t think we can forgive such atrocities. I am talking about freeing ourselves from the violence. Letting go of the hate.
Or we can let ourselves be consumed by the violence. We can blame each other for what happen, point fingers, shout, feed the conflict, build the tension. The violence will remain and the inflammation will worsen. The wound will become infected, and, as the pain increases, we will become more agitated, more aggressive and violent towards each other. There is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal. And so there is no more fertile ground for more hate and violence than a society and a community that has been deeply hurt like we have. It is already happening. Two Muslim women were stabbed in front of the Eiffel Tower. Another attack happened in Nice where a man stabbed three people to death while shouting “Allahu Akbar.” And we only hear about the most violent crimes. Away from the public eye and news coverage, microaggressions happen on a daily basis, with perpetrators on both sides. Violence creates more violence. Hate creates more hate.
So now, we have to ask ourselves: what do we want? What do we want for our society, for our future, for our children? What are we going to do about the trauma and the hurt? Are we ready to free ourselves of the violence?
About the cartoons – as a Muslim, I am annoyed that they exist. I am upset about how insensitive they are. In reality, if you know French culture well, you will not be surprised by their existence. The French have a crude sense of humour. French people love to provoke, and they love to ridicule and mock. They love political satires and caricatures towards all parties, all religions, and all groups of people. We call it “second degrés.” And when you use “second degrés”, it is acceptable to say almost anything, because nothing should be taken too literally. If you get offended, it’s probably that you didn’t get the joke or you have no sense of humour. Being able to laugh about situations and about ourselves is, one can argue, good and healthy. The problem is when it is taken to an extreme. The line between humour and bullying becomes blurred.
In fact, it is not so much the existence of these cartoons that annoy me, as much as it is the intent behind them. The intent is to get a reaction, the intent is to upset, the intent is to insult, all under the cover of freedom of expression. In my opinion, drawing the Prophet naked is an act of provocation towards a community that constitutes the biggest faith minority in France. We, Muslims, perceive it as an act of hate against us. It hurts us. I see nothing wrong with humour and jokes about Muslims, Muslim leaders and public figures, and even terrorism. I think humour can be therapeutic and a way to talk about the hard topics, the ones that hurt. We can use humour to free ourselves of political correctness and truly talk about some aspects of our society or some deep-rooted problems. After all, is there a more powerful weapon against terror than laughter? I did think that the sketches with “Ahmed the Dead Terrorist” were funny. I do laugh at caricatures of Muslims and our community. I am French after all, and I can really appreciate a witty caricature that pinpoints some of our cultural habits or ways of thinking or some problems within the community. Cartoons can be thought provoking, they can be good conversation starters, an exercise in critical thinking and self- awareness. Isn’t it the purpose of satires and caricatures? But a naked caricature of the Prophet? I simply do not see the point. I fail to see what it brings to the conversation, apart from anger on both sides. These caricatures of the Prophet kill the dialogue and create conflict. And in today’s context, they are particularly insensitive and inappropriate. The message being sent to French Muslims is clear: we have no respect for your beliefs, we want to attack the very essence of your faith, and we want to trigger you.
Should Muslims react to them with more anger and violence? No. We need to rise above the offence. We need to take the higher road. Through these cartoons, violence was sent to us. Now it’s up to us to decide what we are going to do with it. Or are we going to keep this violence inside of us, let the inflammation worsen, affecting our mental health, until we respond with more ourselves? Or are we going to surgically extract it from our body so that we can heal and be free? To do this, we need to decide: “Seeing this cartoon was violent for me. I want to be free from this violence and this pain. I am letting it go.”
Should we continue to criticise the perpetuation of such material? Yes. We’d have to get back to the definition of hate speech and decide whether these cartoons are, indeed, “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation". To me, they definitely encourage violence and fuel hate on both sides. It is clear to me that these cartoons deeply affect an entire community who feels targeted, harassed, bullied. Should all cartoons, caricatures and satires be prohibited? Of course not. Freedom of expression is precious and something that we should always protect and defend. But when the cartoon is an expression of hate – and that should be decided on a case-by-case basis with real neutrality – then yes, I do think it should be clearly condemned. I do not think that these cartoons are in line with our French values “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. Unless, of course, you consider that some of us are less part of the brotherhood than others, less equal than others, and less free to live our lives without constantly being targeted and bullied than others.
Of course, nothing justifies the horror of what happened to Samuel Paty on October 16th. Nothing justifies such violence and disregard for human life. Such behaviour goes against the very essence of Islam and I think I can confidently speak for the majority of French Muslims when I say that we were all shocked and heartbroken by this murder, and that it is not a reflection of what our faith is about. We reject any association with the murderer and are embarrassed that he called himself a Muslim. The trauma of this murder and of the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015 shouldn’t prevent us, however, from talking about how problematic the cartoons are, and how they perpetuate a cycle of hate and constant micro aggressions towards the Muslim community. Like I said, it is time we rid ourselves of violence and hate – all of it.
About the next steps – Do you ever feel like working for the greater good of our community is like trying to help an angry toddler? They’re having these intense emotions, they’re angry, they’re kicking, they won’t listen, they won’t be reasonable, at this point they’re so deep in the meltdown that they can’t even hear any solution you might try to suggest. So the act of violence triggers the intense emotions. It sparks the rage, the pain, the indignation, but also the fear, the disgust, the insecurity – “What History teacher in France doesn’t talk about the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015?! Any of them could be a target! Any of our children can walk out of school only to come face to face with a murderer ready to behead those who think differently!” French society right now is in the middle of the meltdown: swallowed by intense emotions, wanting to kick and punch, wanting to abandon itself to rage and pain. Politicians are already grabbing this opportunity to serve their political agenda. They see the short term gain. They know that these intense feelings are a valuable currency. They have an incentive to maintain the meltdown, keep it going for as long as possible, use it to their advantage. Opportunists will use the divide to gain angry votes. Real leaders will remember the greater good, they will want to guide the nation towards healing and solidarity, but we know they are few. So who will be the calming voice, the voice of reason? It is us, dear colleagues. Everyday citizens. We need to be the standard bearers of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” We are the ones who will advocate for peace when everyone else is calling for war, who will promote healing when others are full of rage and anger, who will encourage others to let go of the hate and violence when they want to hold on to it so bad. We are the worker bees, rushing to the inflammation site to reconstruct the bridges, re-establish communication, rebuild trust. We shed the light because we help others see better and know better. Our work is more important than ever.
Through New Horizons in British Islam I am working with middle school teachers in East London to build student resilience to hate and extremism. We are raising their awareness – helping them to recognise when hate, prejudice and discrimination is occurring – we are developing their critical thinking skills – helping them to engage with negative ideas, beliefs and attitudes and identify how to discuss, challenge and react to them – and we are building their resilience – developing like skills of resilience, including how to use nonviolent communication, how to let go of ruminations and the violence we have received, and how to change our life narrative to get back in the driver’s seat. Imagine how powerful it would be if we could reach all the kids in the UK, in France, and give them the tools to let go of the violence, build their resilience to hate, empower them to be upstanders, critical thinkers, advocates for peace and justice. Terrorists may strike us again, but we will rise back with courage and strength and unity because we know how to free ourselves from hate and violence and thus hate and violence have no power of us. Let’s roll up our sleeves. We’ve got a lot of work to do.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.