In Selected Opinion

By Laurent Dubreuil – WSJ –

Samuel Paty’s jihadist murderer targeted the victim based on social media outrage and lies.

Samuel Paty wanted to teach his students a lesson about free speech. He ended up paying with his life. Paty, 47, a middle-school teacher in a Paris suburb, announced to his civics class in early October that he would show some of the caricatures of the prophet Muhammad that the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published in 2015 and that students were free to opt out of viewing the images. 

The teacher was immediately denounced on social media. In a viral video, the Muslim father of one of Paty’s students related a series of fabrications. He falsely claimed that his daughter attended the class on free speech, that the teacher banned all Muslim students from the room and later showed the class a “photograph of a naked man” as if it were a portrait of “the Prophet of Islam,” and that his daughter had been excluded from the school in retaliation for her objections. 

On social media the father posted Paty’s name and the school’s address and encouraged all Muslims who shared his concerns to assist him in having the “rogue” instructor fired. The father and his entourage repeatedly described the affair as an act of racism and Islamophobia. 

An 18-year old Chechen refugee, Abdoullakh Anzorov, learned of the uproar from social media. He came to the middle school and bribed students to find out which teacher was Samuel Paty. Anzorov followed Paty as he left the school, then beat and stabbed him to death, decapitated him, and posted an image of the teacher’s severed head on Twitter. Later that day Anzorov was confronted by police; he attacked them with a knife and was shot and killed. 

This was no ordinary act of terrorism. Other atrocities committed by Islamists in France were either coordinated attacks carried out by terrorist groups (as in the 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Hypercasher supermarket massacres) or murders of random citizens by Islamic extremists who didn’t rely heavily on external help (as in the 2018 Paris knife attacks by Khamzat Azimov). 

Paty’s murderer appears to have been linked to Syrian jihadists, but the victim was chosen by a Twitter mob. Supposedly “shocked” and “offended” people asserted that Paty made them feel threatened because of their identity. They connected their personal experience with a larger history of oppression—eventually bordering on paranoia by comparing the present situation of French Muslims with the victims of the 1995 massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica, Bosnia. They encouraged bearers of the victimized identity to believe themselves personally affronted by the alleged offender.

In essence, they demanded that Samuel Paty be canceled. 

Anzorov’s crime is often described by French commentators as “barbaric,” “backward” and “medieval.” But in fact it was astonishingly up to date. It sprang from the identity-obsessed politics of the early 21st century, and its perpetrator was inspired by social-media platforms. The whole affair is a brutal reminder that the redefinition of politics as combat among identities portends ill for democratic societies in which diverse people agree to coexist and take on a collective identity as “the people.” 

Three decades ago, Samuel Paty and I were students together in Lyon. There were around 40 in our classe prépa. I wasn’t close to Samuel, but, when I saw his name in the news on Oct. 17, I remembered him instantly, along with his passion for history, his shy demeanor and his sense of duty. 

In France, Samuel Paty is now officially celebrated as a hero. And rightly so, although his was a low-key, benevolent kind of heroism. It consisted in talking to unknown others and allowing space for conflicting dialogues. The world in which he thrived was far removed from the newer, alternative model of society based on group identities, censorship, ignorance and destruction. 


Mr. Dubreuil is professor of literature at Cornell.

Photo: After his murder by a jihadist, Samuel Paty’s portrait is projected on the facade of the Hotel de Region in Montpellier, France, Oct. 21. PHOTO: PASCAL GUYOT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

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