In the last few days, several European conversations converged for me in a troubling way.
Historic anniversaries played a role. This Saturday was the anniversary of V-E Day for most western nations. And the next day, which was Victory Day in Russia, Vladimir Putin delivered a speech that western media found threatening. In some pockets of social media, I found scattered debates about how to remember the Soviet Union’s outsized role in Nazi Germany’s defeat. Last Wednesday, meanwhile, had been the bicentenary of Napoléon Bonaparte’s death. Marking that day, Emmanuel Macron laid a wreath at the dictator’s grave, delivering a speech that lightly acknowledged some of Napoléon’s crimes yet also celebrated his “political will” and “taste for the possible”—as if murdering people on a continental scale were a self-actualization exercise.
In the Guardian yesterday, the columnist Kenan Malik—with one eye on recent British debates about how to remember the imperialist-but-antifascist Winston Churchill—brought together various conversations when he implicitly praised Macron’s speech as a refusal “to paint heroes and villains in black and white, to simplify the past as a means of feeding the needs of the present.”
Reading the text of Macron’s speech myself, though, I find that simplifying the past to feed the needs of the present is precisely what the French president was doing.
Yesterday, a middle-school (collège) history and geography teacher named Samuel Paty was brutally murdered near his school in suburban Paris. French authorities say the murder was an organized Islamist terrorist attack. The killer, apparently a Chechen immigrant about eighteen years old, is said to have no other connection with the school or the teacher. French police have arrested nine people so far, though it’s not clear how many of those people were actually involved.
According to media reports, Paty seems to have been targeted because of a controversy that began early this month. That’s when showed his quatrième (eighth-grade) students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad—perhaps from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, itself targeted in a major terrorist attack in 2015 and a smaller attack just last month—as part of lessons on freedom of expression.
This outraged at least one Muslim girl and her father, who claimed the teacher had ordered Muslim students to leave class before showing students a “photo” of a naked man, saying it was a picture of the prophet. It’s not clear that this was accurate. Another parent said Paty “simply said to the Muslim children: ‘Leave, I don’t want it to hurt your feelings.’ That’s what my son told me.”
What’s most striking to me, here in the United States, is how the French government has rallied around Samuel Paty as a martyr to freedom and the secular republic.
President Emmanuel Macron said Paty was murdered “because he taught. Because he taught his students about liberty of expression, the liberty to believe and not to believe.” The minister of national education called him a representative of the French republic itself, “a servant of the state” as well as of his students.
In a wider context, some politicians and activists in France (and elsewhere) will certainly use this attack to advance anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim policies. That script is depressingly familiar.*
But the immediate context is also important, and we can reject the false choices offered by all kinds of extremists and bigots.
I don’t know exactly what happened in his classroom. But we can assume Samuel Paty knew it could be dangerous to teach in the way he believed best. He certainly knew about the recent history of Islamist violence in his own country—and knew that it has been connected, probably, with the very images he showed his class. Indeed, he was almost certainly teaching in direct response to a similar knife attack targeting Charlie Hebdo just days earlier.
Samuel Paty was a man of courage who ultimately gave his life for his students’ education.
History teachers everywhere know that doing our jobs well—with moral and civic conviction, with intellectual honesty, and with openness to the complexity of the world—means taking risks. Most of us will never face anything close to the kind of danger Paty faced, but any of us, under the right circumstances, could. And only rarely will any of us receive the kind of full-throated official support that Samuel Paty has received after his assassination.
Samuel Paty’s murder is a reminder that the work of teaching is the work of freedom.
Update: Twitter user Arnaud Léonard, a fellow history educator, points out an exhibition of drawings Samuel Paty’s students produced last year, based on the motto of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Themes of racial and religious harmony are prominent.
* Update 2: Sadly, in the weeks since I wrote this, it has become clear that Emmanuel Macron and his political allies have chosen to exploit Samuel Paty’s death, in the context of French racism and Islamophobia, as a pretext for authoritarian policies and catering to the French racist right. This shift in Macron’s public posture was alreadyunderway when Paty was killed. But what is striking now is how naked the power grab is—how directly and overtly it contradicts Macron’s claim to be defending the liberty of expression, as the French contemplate criminalizing protests on university campuses, censoring the research of scholars, and preventing public scrutiny of the police. Not only does this make a mockery of the French government’s espoused republican principles; it also dishonors the memory of Samuel Paty.