Last fall, a schoolteacher named Samuel Paty was reportedly teaching a class on free speech and blasphemy in the suburban Paris town of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. A 13-year-old student told her father that Paty had told Muslim students to leave the room before he showed a caricature of the Prophet Muhammed naked; any depiction of Muhammad is considered blasphemous in Islam. When she challenged the teacher, she told her father, she was suspended for two days.
According to the New York Post, the girl’s father filed a legal complaint against the teacher which led to a social media campaign against Paty.
Ten days later in October, an 18-year-old man named Abdullakh Anzorov beheaded Paty, who became a martyr for free speech.
Anzarov himself was later shot dead by police.
Now, it turns out the whole thing was predicated upon a lie.
On Monday, according to the U.K. Independent, the unnamed girl’s lawyer admitted she wasn’t in class on the day the picture was allegedly shown.
Instead, French newspaper Le Parisien reported, she had been suspended the previous day because of unexcused absences.
They said the girl told the lie to avoid consequences from her father.
“She would not have dared to confess to her father the real reasons for her exclusion shortly before the tragedy, which was in fact linked to her bad behavior,” Le Parisien reported.
The girl’s lawyer, Mbeko Tabula, said she felt pressure from her schoolmates to be the person who spoke up about the alleged caricatures.
“She lied because she felt trapped in a spiral because her classmates had asked her to be a spokesperson,” Tabula said.
Not only did the lie lead to a legal threat, however, it led to an outrage campaign against the teacher started by the father. He also went to members of the school staff to complain about Paty and posted a video online about what Paty had allegedly done, turning him into a viral figure of hate.
There does not appear to be a question about whether the teacher actually showed the cartoons, as the BBC reported. Only the girl’s story about being present and objecting was not true.
That does not, however, make Paty guilty of anything, much less anything deserving of death by decapitation.
The girl is charged with slander and the father with “being complicit in a terrorist killing.”
And there are numerous others implicated, according to The Associated Press, which reported in January that seven “suspected contacts of Anzarov” had been detained.
“A total of 14 people were already being formally investigated and face preliminary terrorism- and murder-related charges in the investigatio0n,” the AP reported. “Of those, seven have not been granted bail.”
The girl’s lawyer, however, insists that the father’s “excessive and disproportionate behavior” is responsible for Paty’s death.
Not being an expert in the French legal system — much less how it treats its juveniles — I’m not going to pass judgment on the guilt or innocence of the 13-year-old in a legal sense. What’s clear is that lies have consequences, which is going to be the one thing most readers take away from this story.
This is true, and I’m not going to absolve the 13-year-old girl from playing a role in this tragedy. However, I want you to ask yourself this, honestly: How many of you have told a lie when you were 13 to get yourself out of trouble?
How many of you, before the days of printed and/or digitized report cards, drew a simple vertical line and turned that B- into a B+? Or, if you were really brave, did a bit of careful handiwork and turned that D into a B? (The key is all in a few light-but-artful pen-strokes that make it look like the double-bubble was always there — not that I would know.)
Perhaps we’ve told bigger lies. Lies that got other people in trouble. Maybe it got them suspended. Maybe we got suspended. I could go on, but here’s the important point: Could any of us have told a lie that ended in someone’s beheading?
Yes, of course the 13-year-old girl likely knew the sensitivity around the taboo of depicting the prophet Muhammad. It would be impossible, however, for her to know that this would end in murder. And yet, this is the end-product of an ultra-small, ultra-radicalized minority within the Muslim community that believes in meeting affronts to their faith with violence, up to and including death.
There’s always the usual caveat here: These extremists aren’t representative of their religion. But they exist, and yet we do all we can to sweep radical Islam under the rug.
This is troublesome because, in terms of threats from extremist offshoots of mainstream religions currently extant in the West, extremist Islam is sui generis.
There’ll be no beheadings by Catholics because a teacher desecrated a crucifix.
It’s curious that in a year where the whole conservative movement in the United States is being put under a microscope for the actions of a profoundly small, ultra-fringe element of it on Jan. 6, even the suggestion that the more problematic elements within Islamism still require diligent scrutiny produces the kind of bristling you get when someone begins a sentence with, “Now, I’m not racist, but…”
We now know a lie put into place a concatenation of events that ended with Samuel Paty’s beheading.
And yet, it makes it no better or worse than if it were the truth that did it. All it does is remind us there exists a fringe element that believes the hard-won values of freedom of speech and freedom from violence for that speech are antithetical to their worldview.
It doesn’t matter that this worldview is attached to a religion, no matter what the religion.
It’s a fringe element of violence that needs to be extirpated from public life in the West, without dithering or delay.
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