The gruesome killing of a teacher by an 18-year-old suspect of Chechen origin is testing the country’s fragile relationship with its Muslim minority, with growing fears of collective punishment.
The teenager attacked Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old father, in broad daylight on Friday, beheading him near his school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a suburb about 15 miles (24km) from the centre of a Paris. There has been an outpouring of grief and shock among top officials; Paty on Wednesday posthumously received the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour, in a ceremony attended by President Emmanuel Macron. Thousands have attended protests. Paty’s attacker had been angered that he showed his pupils caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. In the days after the killing, the government launched a crackdown against Muslim organisations while vigilante groups have attacked mosques; places of worship in Beziers and Bordeaux have been placed under police protection after having been threatened with violence.
Tensions between the state and France’s Muslims, the largest Muslim minority in Europe, have deepened. They were already on a downward trend after Macron, on October 2, launched a plan against what he called “Islamist separatism” and said Islam was “in crisis” across the world. Muslims fear Paty’s tragic death is already being weaponised to advance a government policy they worry conflates Islam with “terrorism”.
“Muslims are being targeted,” Yasser Louati, a French Muslim activist, told Al Jazeera, adding he believed Macron was “using Islamophobia to power his campaign.”
On Monday, the French government said it was strengthening its crackdown on suspected “extremists”, carrying out multiple raids and threatening a mass expulsion of more than 200 people.
“What is going in France at the moment is unprecedented,” activist and co-founder of CCIF, Marwan Muhammed wrote on Twitter last week. “Fundamental freedoms are at stake, as the government is focused on stigmatising and criminalising Muslim communities.” Many viewed the government’s vigorous and accelerated response to Friday’s attack as a dire warning that the law could be manipulated to target Muslims more generally. The crackdown has echoes of France’s response to the deadly November 2015 attacks in Paris by ISIL. Human rights groups criticised those measures, which saw mass arrests and raids under emergency rule, saying they yielded few results and left Muslims feeling like second-class citizens.
This is all part of a bigger trend in France as well that could be seen as a problem. On 11 April 2011, France became the first European country to ban the full-face Islamic veil in public places. Under the ban, no woman, French or foreign, is able to leave their home with their face hidden behind a veil without running the risk of a fine.
As President, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose administration brought in the ban, said that veils oppress women and were "not welcome" in France.
In 2016 France introduced a controversial ban on women's full-body swimsuits, known as "burkinis". Prime Minister Manuel Valls called the swimsuits "the affirmation of political Islam in the public space".
The burkini ban, imposed by French Riviera mayors, was later lifted in seaside resorts after France's top administrative court overruled the law. By doing this along with many other European countries France is starting to control what people can and cannot wear, especially if it for religious reasons people should not have to feel ashamed of wearing what they want.
France has about five million Muslims - the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe - but it is thought only about 2,000 women wear full veils.
The penalty for doing so is a 150 euro (£133, $217) fine and instruction in citizenship. Anyone found forcing a woman to cover her face risks a 30,000 euro fine.
Data from 2015 showed that 1,546 fines had been imposed under the law.
The European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban on 2 July 2014 after a case was brought by a 24-year-old French woman who argued that the ban violated her freedom of religion and expression. Most of the population - including most Muslims - agree with the government when it describes the face-covering veil as an affront to society's values. Critics - chiefly outside France - say it is a violation of individual liberties. A ban on Muslim headscarves and other "conspicuous" religious symbols at state schools was introduced in 2004 and received overwhelming political and public support in a country where the separation of state and religion is enshrined in law.
There have been widespread reactions to Frances actions in recent times from other political leaders. The Pakistani prime minster has added his voice to the growing criticism of the French president for "encouraging Islamophobia" following the killing of a teacher who showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils. "Hallmark of a leader is he unites human beings... rather than dividing them. This is a time when President [Emmanuel] Macron could have put healing touch, and denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarisation and marginalisation that inevitably leads to radicalization," Imran Khan said in a series of tweets on Sunday. "It is unfortunate that he has chosen to encourage Islamophobia by attacking Islam rather than the terrorists who carry out violence, be it Muslims, White Supremacists or Nazi ideologists."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasted France and Europe on Saturday over what he saw as "rising Islamophobia," just days after French President Emmanuel Macron dedicated a high-level ceremony to Samuel Paty. "What problem does this person called Macron have with Muslims and Islam? Macron needs treatment on a mental level," Erdogan said in a speech at a provincial congress of his AK Party in the central Turkish city of Kayseri.
These are two prominent Muslim leaders in powerful countries, who have voiced their anger and dissatisfaction with how France is treating its Muslim population. There is growing worry as to how the treatment of French Muslims is escalating towards something that they will not be able to pull back from and if something is not done soon to bring the country of France together it could go from bad to worse.
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