Last Friday in Paris, a high school history teacher named Samuel Paty was murdered and decapitated on the street by an Islamist terrorist. During a lecture the previous week, the teacher had shown his students two cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, depictions of whom are forbidden in Islam.
The cartoons came from French left-wing satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Just five years ago, the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo were attacked by members of Al-Qaeda, who killed twelve cartoonists and staff in retaliation for the cartoons.
Paty showed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to his class to teach them about the freedom of expression, one of the most important values in France. That led a group of conservative Muslim parents at the school to call for a “mobilization” against him on social media. One parent published Paty’s name and the address of the school, calling for the “thug” to be fired.
That same parent then exchanged text messages with an 18-year-old man outside of Paris. Days later, that man drove 40 miles to the school, asked for help identifying his target, and brutally executed Paty. He was a refugee from the Muslim-majority region of Chechnya, in Russia. France had welcomed him and his family into the country this March.
After the decapitation, the killer wrote on Twitter: “...to Macron, leader of the infidels, I have executed one of your hellhounds who dared to belittle Muhammad.” Police then shot the suspect.
At the scene only a few hours later, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with absolute moral clarity: “One of our compatriots was murdered today because he taught ... the freedom of expression, the freedom to believe or not believe. We must stand all together as citizens.”
If, however, you were read about the horrific attack in the U.S. news media, you would have been treated to the following headlines, which tell a very different story. First, from America’s “paper of record,” the New York Times.
French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street
Ah, yes; the actual news is that French police killed the suspect after the “knife attack,” not that a schoolteacher was beheaded for a cartoon. NBC News chose a different angle for its headline.
Decapitated French teacher warned not to show Prophet Muhammad images before 'Islamist' attack
He had it coming, in other words. His murder was his own fault. If you don’t want your head cut off outside work, you had better shut up.
No doubt, the people who instigated the murder appreciate the depraved response from the American "free press" -- first prioritizing the police killing of the terrorist, and then blaming the victim. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, many people also chose to blame the victims and criticize the cartoons as “Islamophobic” or “offensive.”
If a person has been murdered over a cartoon and you think it is appropriate to criticize the cartoon, you have failed a very basic moral test.
Islam forbids depictions of its Prophet. A free and secular society, on the other hand, does not. The concept of ‘blasphemy’ as an offense warranting any punishment, let alone death, is abhorrent. Just what kind of society would we live in if we were subject to punishment for offending the religious?
No religion, including Islam, is exempt from jokes, satire, or critical examination. Suppose you had published a book denouncing the Pope, made fun of the “Virgin” Mary in a graphic manner, or put on a full-production Broadway musical about one specific religion, just to lampoon its adherents -- should you then expect to lose your life? Certainly not.
To stand up for free expression is not to be against Islam, a religion of two billion believers. I want to stand with Muslims in the fight for freedom and against violence. But what we must be against is Islamism, which is a political movement to impose that religion, sometimes violently, on everyone, reordering laws and rights at all levels of society.
It is not “Islamophobic,” racist, or anti-immigrant to oppose Islamism and stand up for the right to free speech, even if some Muslims are seriously offended by cartoons. Free expression for everyone, believers and non-believers, is the only hope we’ve got for a peaceful, functioning, pluralist society.
The French understand this, which is why people of all stripes -- whites, blacks, Arabs, Muslims, non-Muslims, immigrants and native-born -- poured into the streets this weekend to say “Je Suis Samuel,” I am Samuel.
After the attack on Charlie Hebdo in 2015, #JeSuisCharlie became the rallying cry for free expression. Today, the French are saying #JeSuisSamuel, #JeSuisEnseignant and #JeSuisProf (I am a teacher) to show solidarity with Paty and all teachers.
(Photos from CNN and the Associated Press)
We Americans could learn a lot from our French brothers and sisters, who are bravely standing up for liberal values against the threat of violence.
France is a great country with great traditions of laïcité (secularism) and free expression. Samuel Paty was killed for teaching those values to his students. It would be a shameful surrender, and a disgrace to his life, to accept the threat of murder, abandon French principles, and remove the cartoons from schools.
Just last month, Charlie Hebdo defiantly republished, in the name of free expression, the cartoons that got twelve of its staff murdered. All around the country, the cartoons Samuel Paty was killed for are being projected onto public buildings. The French people are uncowed. We should be too.
So, I say: Je suis Samuel. Say it with me, and stand up for free expression!