At 9 a.m. yesterday morning, a 21-year-old called Brahim Aouissaoui entered Notre Dame Basilica Church in Nice carrying a bag of knives. Just a few minutes later, three people had been stabbed to death. A 70-year-old woman — unnamed at time of writing — had been decapitated.
The mayor of Nice subsequently said that “everything points to a terrorist attack.” Aouissaoui was shot by responding French police and is currently under arrest.
It had been less than a fortnight since the last beheading in France. That time, a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, showed the caricatures of Mohammed published in Charlie Hebdo magazine to students in a civics class discussion on free speech. The parent of one of the schoolchildren who attended the class issued a fatwa against Paty, and Abdullakh Anzorov — an 18-year-old Russian of Chechen descent — took action. Anzorov tweeted an image of the aftermath of his attack.
So Islamist beheadings are now quite familiar to France. But then so much else also is. So are attacks in Nice. For example, in July 2016, 86 were killed and 434 injured when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel ploughed a truck into those celebrating Bastille Day on Promenade des Anglais.
So too are attacks on churches. In April 2015, Algerian-born Sid Ahmed Ghlam is alleged to have planned what French authorities described as an “imminent” attack on churchgoers and is suspected of having murdered a gym instructor whose body was discovered on April 19, 2015. Before he could carry out his plot, Ghlam accidentally shot himself in the leg and had to call an ambulance. French authorities believe the plot to be connected to extremists in Syria. Ghlam is currently on trial in France.
Over a year later, in July 2016, Abdelmalik Petitjean and Adel Kermiche murdered Jacques Hamel, a Catholic priest, in a church in Normandy. Both had previously tried to travel to Syria and were in contact with Rashid Kassim, a French terrorist who was directing terror plots from his base in the Caliphate.
So are attacks by those who made hazardous journeys from afar in order to live in Europe. A Pakistani called Zaheer Hassan Mehmood was previously so keen to live in France that he lied about his age to ensure he be categorized as an unaccompanied foreign minor (meaning that while he could not claim asylum in France, he also could not be expelled). Last month, Mehmood took a meat cleaver to two people outside Charlie Hebdo’s old office in Paris (unaware that the magazine had now changed location for security reasons). Like so many asylum seekers who have carried out attacks in Europe in recent years, Mehmood wanted to live in France; he just did not want to have to live with French values.
Still, those French values endure, and the French government seems understandably keen on protecting them. In response to Paty’s brutal murder, Emmanuel Macron said that the time for statements was over: “Our fellow citizens expect actions.” Those expectations would be within their right: France has faced an unrelenting stream of terrorist attacks in recent years.
Still, European politicians often talk tough in the aftermath of a terror attack and then do little to back it up. It was somewhat jolting, then, that France seemed to be an exception. The government prepared to deport hundreds of foreign nationals it assessed to possess extremist beliefs. It ordered the temporary closure of a mosque on the outskirts of Paris after the mosque had shared a video on its Facebook page whipping up anger against Paty prior to his murder.
It raided Islamist groups throughout France. The government subsequently dissolved Sheikh Yassine, a group named after the founder of Hamas, which French authorities believed was “directly involved” in Paty’s murder (the group’s founder, Abdelhakim Sefrioui, had accompanied the father of a student of Paty’s to complain about his teaching).
They dissolved Baraka City, an NGO, for their alleged links to Islamist groups, inciting hatred and acting as apologists for terrorism. Also being targeted is the Collective for the Fight Against Islamophobia in France, described by French interior minister Gérald Darmanin as “an Islamist outfit” that accused the French state of “Islamophobia all the while being subsidized (financially) by the French state.” Darmanin warned that was “time we stopped being naive with these outfits.”
These are far-reaching efforts to combat Islamist groups. Some believe they have gone too far. Yet given what France has endured, you would hope that no one in international community would be indecent enough to try to portray France as anything other than the wronged party.
Enter Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. He tweeted that Macron was “creating further polarization and marginalization that inevitably leads to radicalization.” He castigated the French leader for having “chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims, including his own citizens, and encouraged the display of blasphemous cartoons targeting Islam and the Holy Prophet.”
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey also spoke up. “What is Macron’s problem with Islam? What is his problem with Muslims?” he asked, declaring that “Macron needs some sort of mental treatment.” France recalled its ambassador to Turkey as a result.
Erdoğan then stepped up his efforts, proclaiming from Ankara that Turks should “[n]ever give credit to French-labelled goods, don’t buy them.” He went on to compare the condition for Muslims in Europe to that of Jews prior to World War II and said that Macron was responsible for a “hate campaign.”
Erdoğan’s message struck a chord way beyond Turkey. Kuwait and Qatar stopped selling certain French goods. Effigies of Macron were burned in large protests in Dhaka, Bangladesh. #BoycottFrance became a popular hashtag on Twitter with an accompanying image of which French companies and brands should be boycotted. Messages being forwarded on WhatsApp groups supported the initiative and encouraged even greater participation, imploring Muslims to “stand up for our Prophet, stand up for Islam.”
Then there was the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He denounced Macron as “primitive in blaming the religion of Islam and Muslims” for Paty’s murder and declared that “Muslims have a right to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.”
It has been an extraordinary sleight of hand by these grievance-mongers to turn the beheading of a French teacher into a campaign to boycott the French state for causing offense to Islam.
Yet it has been at least partially successful, and so it is worth reiterating who exactly the victim is here and who is not.
Samuel Paty is the victim. Those who have been murdered and those who have had their lives ruined by Islamist violence are victims. Erdoğan is not a victim. Neither is Khan, Mohamad, or anyone taking to the streets or whinging online over some drawings they do not like.
If there is one ray of light to emerge from the dark period that France is enduring, it is this: we now have total clarity on what the priorities are for men like Erdoğan and Khan. We should quietly note who aimed their fury at Macron and who aimed their fury at Anzorov and Aouissaoui. And we should never forget it.
Robin Simcox is Director of the Counter Extremism Group.