Earlier this month in France, a teacher who reportedly showed caricatures of the Islamic prophet Muhammad during a civics class was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee, who subsequently was fatally shot by police.
The teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded on the street by Abdoullakh Anzorov. police said.
Robin Simcox, director of The Counter Extremism Group, which provides practical policy solutions on counterextremism to decision-makers, joins the podcast to unpack what happened.
We also cover these stories:
- Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had a sharp exchange with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey during a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee.
- The Senate hearing sought to find answers to concerns over how Google, Twitter, and Facebook moderate content on their platforms.
- 11 people were shot in riots Tuesday night in Philadelphia.
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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Robin Simcox. He’s the director of the Counter Extremism Group, which provides practical counter-extremism policy recommendations to decision makers. Simcox is a former colleague of mine at The Heritage Foundation. Robin, it’s great to have you back on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
Simcox: Thank you so much. Great to be with you, Rachel.
Del Guidice: Well, it’s great to have you back with us. I’d like to talk to you today about something really tragic that happened recently in France, where a teacher who had reportedly shown caricatures of Muhammad during a civics class was beheaded. Can you tell us about what happened?
Simcox: This is a murder in some place in France, where a teacher called Samuel Paty had shown pupils in his civics class cartoons of Muhammad. It was on a discussion about freedom of expression.
Most of the students were given the option not to attend that class, but rumors began to fly around within some of the France’s Muslim communities about the fact that this had taken place.
It started to be a bit of an online campaign against Mr. Paty by some of the more radical elements in those communities. And then, somebody called Abdoullakh Anzorov, who was an 18-year-old Russian Chechen, took it upon himself to act out against Mr. Paty and brutally murdered him and beheaded him on the street.
And Anzorov was in contact with an associate from in Syria. So, that may have been an international dimension terrorist attack that is being fleshed out. But it’s obviously an extraordinarily tragic and grotesque thing to happen to France and has prompted a whole new conversation in that country about Islamism and the values of the Republic and what should be done to fight back essentially.
Del Guidice: Well, before we go back to what happened, I’m just curious, your personal reaction when this news broke, were you surprised and what was your reaction?
Simcox: I was not shocked, because it wasn’t a surprise to me that there was radicalized people within France who would be willing to carry out that kind of act because, unfortunately there is. And not just France, but obviously across other parts of Europe as well.
But we are in a very severe situation here, where a civilian can be beheaded on the street of a major country like France, major European power, and over something, I mean, we have to remember to put this in context, this is freedom of speech, these are cartoons.
This is a very, very basic test. The freedom to offend is sacred.
And the idea that you would shut down freedom of speech over the possibility of offending someone’s religious beliefs in France, above any other country, which is so obviously dedicated to the secular ideal, it’s just a completely unacceptable state of affairs. And so you’re having a debate in France, which is unique to it because of course, we’ve had the Charlie Hebdo, January 2015 terrorist attack, where staff members at that magazine that had published cartoons of Muhammad were murdered by terrorists.
And so, it’s one of those situations where you’re personally shocked and appalled at the incident, but of course in the broader context of what’s happening in France, or what’s happening in Europe, worldwidely, it’s not that surprising.
Del Guidice: Well, as you mentioned Robin, this happened over a teacher that had shown these caricatures, and as you mentioned, too, and I wasn’t aware of this fact that Muslim students were allowed to be excused from that class if they wanted.
But as you’ve detailed a little bit, just talking about how this was something, it was a conversation about the freedom of expression. Is it especially concerning to you that this attack happened over a conversation that was about how people should be able to freely express themselves and their beliefs?
Simcox: Well, I think that the fact that this attack took place and the fact that there was this campaign against Mr. Paty by some within the local community, it exactly proves the point, of course, he was trying to make, which is the freedom of speech is sacred. It can’t be shut down by “the Assassin’s Veto,” which is essentially what happened with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, where there wasn’t many publications, both here in Europe or in America that was willing to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the terrorist attacks took place.
People were scared off to be honest. And what Mr. Paty was obviously trying to do was kick-start that conversation in civics class, around the importance of freedom of expression. And the fact that the result of that is grisly murder by a radicalized 18-year-old precisely proves the point that this is a very, very severe problem we have in Europe.
And some values … very fundamental values, are all of a sudden up for grabs again, because the defense of free speech has not been sufficiently robust in Europe over the past 15 years or so. And it’s about time that we began to pay attention to this debate more, because it’s this kind of thing is exactly what is amiss like Anzorov, the murder of Samuel Paty.
And these are exactly the things they’re trying to shut down. They’re trying to shut down criticism of religious belief. They’re trying to essentially impose blasphemy laws on France. And obviously, that is something that not just French citizens, but all of us, should be trying to push back against.
Del Guidice: What has been the response, No. 1, of the French people and then, No. 2, of the French government?
Simcox: Well, I think it’s been quite a clarifying moment because the support in France, I sense that, thankfully, there’s no compromise here from the French people. There has been a great outpouring of support for Mr. Paty, a protest and demonstrations to prove that France is not going to be cowed by this kind of attack.
Certainly, the French government has been quite unrelenting in their response. [French President Emmanuel] Macron was already talking about these in the past, referred to this idea of Islam as “separatism” in France, this idea of it’s a clash between Islamist values and that of the French state.
And there’s a reason, of course, that these conversations have been taking place before. And that’s because France has consistently been hit with terrorist attacks over the last five years or so especially. ISIS targeted France more than any other country. And so, the French government [has] been quite active.
They shut down a pro-Hamas group that was tangentially linked to the murder of Mr. Paty. It was a tangential link, but there was a link there. They closed down a radical mosque. They’ve carried out various raids on Islamist networks.
And I think some of the actions they’ve taken have been an attempt to show that the rules of the game have changed. Which is the sort of language you often heard, tough language from politicians after terrorist attacks, that aren’t always followed up with actions.
I think France, the French government, are determined to make sure that isn’t just tough talk, but they actually do something about it. And how successful that will be remains to be seen.
Del Guidice: Well, the NPR had reported that nine people were in custody over the shooting. What is the update on the whole case itself?
Simcox: To be seen, I think that it’ll take a while to unpack exactly what happened and the extent to which Anzorov, the terrorist, had assistance. For example, there is some suggestion that one of his associates drove him to a shop to acquire the knife. There was another suggestion that another of his associates drove him to the location that he carried out the murder.
I think, at the moment, they are denying this, saying that Anzorov had misled them, that they didn’t know this was what he was to do. So, there’s all sorts of things that the investigation will have to get to the bottom of.
And they’ll obviously also need to get to the bottom of the Syria link. Which is, the individual that Anzorov was in contact with was based in Idlib, which is a hot spot for a lot of jihadi groups in Syria.
And a lot of Anzorov social media and internet accounts and history demonstrate their support for various jihadi groups, including groups linked to al-Qaeda. So, it’s going to take a while to unpack all this.
Often you do get, after an attack has taken place, the police cast a wide net and arrest a lot of people that don’t ultimately end up getting charged. With this case, we’ll just have to keep an eye on it on the days and weeks ahead.
Del Guidice: Well, Robin, would you call this an act of terrorism? And I know we’ve talked a little bit about this during our conversation, but in so many news articles about this, that it’s not a term or a word that’s readily brought up.
So, I’m curious how you would classify it and then your thoughts on media and their lack of using this word to describe the situation.
Simcox: Yeah, I think it’s a clear act of terrorism. It’s an attempt to bring about political change essentially by cowing a certain part of the civilian population in the country. I think that there should be little doubt really about the nature of what is going on here.
The fact that any media unwillingness to use the word “terrorism,” it’s a shame if that’s the editorial decision that’s been made, because they fear … .
Obviously, I get the editors will have to speak for themselves as to why they wouldn’t describe it as terrorism, or why they’d be unwilling to go down that route. I do think it’s interesting that you see very quickly in certain media outlets, the story pivots so quickly from the incident to what the height of that’s called “backlash.”
I’ve seen this as a component of the U.S. publications, where there almost seems to be as much emphasis on the potential for French government overreach in their response to the attack as there is in the actual attack itself.
And I think we’ve got to have a moral clarity about this. And our emphasis here and our focus should be, what is it that drives somebody to commit such an appalling and brutal murder, again, this is over cartoons.
I mean, if it wasn’t so tragic, there’d be something vaguely ridiculous about it. And we don’t spend enough time interrogating that specific issue about how could this be happening in 2020.
And why is there not more emphasis being placed on coming up with solutions? It’s a daunting task; I get that, and it’s a intimidating one, and I understand why people feel helpless in some ways about dealing with it, because in various forms, the U.S. and its allies have been trying to respond to the issue of Islamist terrorism in a concerted way since 9/11, really.
Here we are in October 2020, and it feels at times like France is still [inaudible]. That doesn’t mean that we can turn away from the issue. We’ve got to keep going, and we’ve got to carry on.
Del Guidice: Well, lastly, Robin, what would your message be to leaders in France, as well as leaders across the country on the importance of free speech, given the situation and what can happen when that’s not safeguarded?
Simcox: The easy thing to do and you understand the inputs, but I go back to this idea of “the Assassin’s Veto” again, because, of course, you can imagine the next time another teacher in another country or in France itself, is thinking about the next civics class they take. Whether [and] how they can discuss freedom of speech issues.
Of course, you’d imagine this would scare people even more about the idea of showing images that may cause offense to others. All I can say is that we all have to share the risk on this. We have to be, as a broader society, absolutely unflinching in our unwillingness to compromise on very fundamental values.
Free speech isn’t up for debate. It’s not something we’re going to trade away. It’s not something we’re going to give up, or at least it’s something we shouldn’t trade away and we shouldn’t give up because it’s the right thing to do.
Freedom of expression isn’t something that we’re going to give up because radicalized people like Anzorov are willing to go to such grotesque lengths to shut it down.
So, I think the response from the French people has been understandable. And I hope that the commitments of free speech from France, but also France’s neighbors and allies and others, remain steadfast.
Del Guidice: Well, Robin, thank you so much for joining us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” It’s always great having you with us.
Simcox: Thanks so much for having me.