Why is Free Speech Something You can be Murdered for in Western Europe?

Originally Published in The Washington Examiner
24 October 2020

The murder of a teacher is a symbolic act, as well as a tragedy. To commit such an act, Macron argued, signifies a desire “to bring down the Republic, the Enlightenment, the possibility of making our children free citizens.”

Shortly after the most recent, gruesome terror attack in France, security expert Eric Delbecque said, “Freedom of expression should not live under house arrest.” A history teacher, Samuel Paty, had been stabbed and beheaded near his school for showing his middle school students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a class focusing on freedom of expression.

The 47-year-old father of one is the latest martyr for freedom of expression. The killer, Abdoullakh Aboyezidvitch Anzorov, died on the scene after firing an air gun at police and being shot in return. He was an 18-year-old Islamist of Chechen origin whose family’s request for asylum had been rejected by the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons due to concerns about the accuracy of the father’s story, but the request was later approved by the National Court of Asylum.

This chilling murder reminds me of the fate of my friend, the late film director Theo van Gogh. Like Paty, Theo was murdered in the streets by a violent Islamist, whose name was Mohammed Bouyeri. Theo’s assassination in Amsterdam followed the release of Submission, a film we had made together about Islam’s treatment of women. To Theo, the ultimate freedom was freedom of expression. He ultimately paid with his life for exercising this freedom.

From what I’ve learned about Paty, he, too, believed strongly in the principle of freedom of expression. As a history teacher, he knew his role was to enlighten young minds, which required him to expose his class to different perspectives, even ones that could offend.

The teacher, who was by all accounts both liked by students and respected in his profession, showed two cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed to his class in early October. He offered students who might be shocked a chance to either close their eyes or step out of the classroom temporarily so as not to be offended.

Within days, parents called for the teacher’s resignation and disseminated critical videos online. The teacher knew that his name was circulating on social networks. He filed a complaint of defamation with the police. The school’s principal received threatening phone calls. Tragically, the teacher was left unprotected.

Paty’s decapitation occurred in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a town already dedicated to the celebration of a martyr, St. Honorina. Ironically, just days before, in nearby Les Mureaux, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech on the dangers of Islamic separatism, warning that “the problem is an ideology, which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the Republic.” According to Macron's speech, the Yvelines department (which encompasses both Les Mureaux and Conflans-Sainte-Honorine) currently has “172 people … being monitored for suspected violent radicalization, while 70 youths had left the department for Syria as jihadis.” That France as a whole has a chronic problem with Islamism becomes clearer with each additional attack. This virus of the mind may not be as contagious as COVID-19, but it is deadly.

Macron was correct to denounce the growth of a parallel society in France. The members of the Islamist state within the state do not view themselves as French, either civically or personally. They do not adhere to French values and norms. In every sense, they feel that they are governed not by French law but by a type of Sharia. In this way of thinking, wherever blasphemy occurs, one must punish the offender to avenge the honor of the prophet.

The actions of individuals in the parallel society speak louder than words, as evidenced in part by their refusal to learn the French language. They do not adopt the civic norms of their host society. They avoid sending their students to public schools, opting either to send them to facilities run by Islamists or indoctrinating children at home. They advocate changing the norms of the host society, for example, by insisting that young girls wear full-face veils and demanding that swimming pools institute gender segregation. They teach their children that they are not French and instill allegiance instead to a different identity and ideology: a type of “separatism” indeed. And some turn to violence to implement this ideology by force.

Macron’s speech introduced policy ideas to address these issues. However, as I’ve witnessed each time a leader has come out against parallel societies, he was promptly attacked by the well-oiled “Islamophobia” industry. Critics claimed that Macron’s speech suggested “a comprehensive institutional framework to control and regulate Islam, with a clear repressive drive” or that the “idea of ‘separatist behavior’ … opens up a Pandora’s box of bigotry.”

I was impressed that Macron even acknowledged Islamic separatism. But other leaders need to follow his lead. France is not the only country with a parallel society subverting it from within. Nor is Islamism the only ideology that is the sworn antagonist of free speech.

Across the Western world, freedom of expression is under increasing pressure. In addition to the Islamists, we are seeing an Orwellian campaign against freedom of expression by self-styled “woke” proponents of critical race theory, radical feminism, and transgender rights. Increasingly, government officials, cultural and political institutions, and leading corporations feel obliged to yield to their pressure. All of this is done in the name of “inclusion” and “sensitivity,” but the results are no less harmful. In a powerful column this week, former New York Times writer Bari Weiss sounded the alarm about this assault on the foundations of liberalism. It is not only the Jewish community that it threatens.

The murder of Paty rings another alarm bell. Peaceful coexistence in diverse societies becomes impossible if more and more forms of expression are classified as blasphemy or “hate speech,” the secular equivalent. In the absence of more effective measures to uphold the principles of individual liberty, militant minorities who seek to enforce conformity nearly always resort to violence, barbarism, and beheadings. Paty’s murder should also be recognized as a failure of the French rule of law. The climate of intimidation was known beforehand to the authorities, and yet, the teacher was not offered protection. When asked about this by one French member of Parliament, Macron apparently replied that France’s judicial arsenal does not yet allow for a sufficiently strong response under these circumstances. This must surely change.

While it is important to give speeches that condemn Islamic separatism, it is also vital to provide protection to those public servants who stand up for freedom of expression, as well as to those French Muslims who are courageously speaking out against radical Islam.

The murder of a teacher is a symbolic act, as well as a tragedy. To commit such an act, Macron argued, signifies a desire “to bring down the Republic, the Enlightenment, the possibility of making our children free citizens.” To quote Eric Delbecque again, however, it is “first and foremost freedom of expression that is in danger.”

In the wake of this latest atrocity, we need to remember the fate of van Gogh and to ask why, 16 years after his death, free speech is something you can still be murdered for in Western Europe. We also need to ask how long it will be before the “woke” opponents of free speech go down the same bloody road as the Islamists.