Explainer: France crisis over Islam

By Tim Wyatt

France has been further engulfed in a crisis over Islam and terrorism after a second knife attack left three people dead.

Three people were killed, the attacker “virtually beheading” one, at a large church in the southern city of Nice on Thursday.

The attacker was shot and injured while being detained and kept continually repeating “Allahu akbar”, Arabic for “God is the greatest”.

President Emmanuel Macron has described the incident as an Islamist terror attack and vowed to stand up for France’s values in the wake of the killings.

The latest attack came a fortnight after a schoolteacher was decapitated in the street after he had shown cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to pupils during a lesson on freedom of expression.

CONTEXT

Tensions have been rising in France since the trial began last month of 14 people accused of assisting the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo magazine killings in 2015.

The satirical magazine, which lost 10 staff members in the slaughter, chose last month to republish the Muhammad cartoons that had provoked the attack.

Later that month, an 18-year-old Pakistani man with a knife injured two people near the former Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. The French prime minister Jean Castex linked the incident to the 2015 attack.

On 2 October, President Macron gave a long-awaited speech unveiling a new strategy to counter Islamist extremism in France, which would include limits on homeschooling, more scrutiny of religious schools, and curbs on foreign imams leading French mosques.

“Secularism is the cement of a united France,” he argued. “What we must attack is Islamist separatism.” He hoped the measures would help build a new “Islam of France”, he added.

Separately, Mr Macron, a centrist, has appointed more conservative figures to his cabinet, some of whom have been accused of picking up the aggressive language of the far right when discussing France’s problems with integration of religious and ethnic minorities.

THE SAMUEL PATY KILLING

On 16 October, Samuel Paty, a history teacher, was murdered by an 18-year-old Chechen who had lived in France for 12 years. Several students had pointed out Mr Paty.

An online campaign against Mr Paty had erupted after some Muslim students and their parents were angered by him showing the cartoons of the prophet to a class. A number of parents, friends of the killer — Abdullah Anzorov — and two teenage students have all been arrested by counter-terrorism police, as has an Islamist preacher accused of fomenting anger against Mr Paty online.

It has also emerged Anzorov was in touch with a Russian-speaking jihadist living in Syria shortly after he launched the attack on Mr Paty, saying he had “avenged the prophet” and hoped to become a martyr.

REACTION

The atrocity provoked a huge wave of anger within France, led by Mr Macron, who vowed to defend “freedom of expression” and called the attack an “attempt to strike down the republic”.

Hundreds of people were detained three days later during an enormous crackdown by the French authorities. Many of those arrested were targeted because they had already been flagged for showing signs of radicalisation or for sharing extremist content online.

A large mosque north of Paris with a congregation of 1,500 was shut down by the government for six months and its imam arrested after videos were published online inciting Muslims against Mr Paty. The mosque was also home to the man who carried out the knife attack near to the old Charlie Hebdo offices.

Two hundred others were threatened with deportation, and dozens of Muslim charities and associations were raided by police. Several, including a group that chronicles acts of Islamophobia, castigated by the hardline interior minister as an “enemy of the republic”, will be forcibly dissolved by the state.

However, the vast majority of those targeted by the crackdown had no connection with Mr Paty’s death, and some have questioned the wisdom of turning the problem of isolated terrorist incidents into a more general struggle between the French state and Islam.

Protests across the nation saw thousands take to the streets to demonstrate against Islamist extremism and in favour of France’s secular values, in particular laïcité, which creates a strict church-state divide and prohibits any religious influence in government affairs.

An online campaign under the hashtag #JeSuisEnseignant (“I am a teacher”) has also become popular, emulating the #JeSuisCharlie movement after the 2015 attack. One poll found 87 per cent of the public believed France’s secular culture was under attack.

OVERSEAS

President Macron’s crackdown, however popular among the French, has prompted significant criticism overseas. After he described Islam as “in a crisis”, a number of Muslim-majority nations angrily condemned him. In some countries, French goods have been boycotted.

Demonstrations against France have taken place in cities including Baghdad and Dhaka, the capitals of Iraq and Bangladesh.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey has led calls for Muslims worldwide not to buy French products and even accused Mr Macron of suffering from mental health problems, prompting angry retorts from the French president’s office.

In Pakistan, the French ambassador was summoned to the country’s foreign office in protest at what the government there described as France’s “Islamophobia”.

The same day, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, wrote to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg demanding that — like the social network’s recent ban on Holocaust denial — it should also ban any Islamophobic content.

French citizens living abroad have also been warned to be on their guard for fear of reprisals. In Saudi Arabia, a guard outside the French consulate in Jeddah was stabbed and taken to hospital.

In Britain, the Muslim Council of Britain, the UK’s largest such umbrella group, has accused the French government of “scapegoating” its Muslim communities.

“We support the French government’s right and obligation to seek out the perpetrators and bring them to justice. But that objective is sullied by kneejerk reactions to satisfy baser instincts and scapegoat a whole community,” it said.

Its statement also condemned the persecution of “legitimate and peaceful” Muslim charities and mosques, which was not only unnecessarily divisive but counter-productive in the battle against the extremist fringe.

“We call on the French government to review urgently its alarming response and rhetoric,” it added.