The French nation has expressed its unqualified horror and revulsion at the brutal assassination of a teacher last Friday by a deluded fanatic convinced he was applying some kind of divinely ordained justice. Any crime directed against a person because of their beliefs or positions on issues of political significance effectively wounds the human collectivity itself. It denies the most basic principles of any human society.
We live in a society in which acts of this kind are repeated frequently enough for us to seek the means of understanding the psychology behind them. Society typically reacts initially with a feeling of dismay and fear. It attempts to purge its emotion before seeking to unearth the meaning behind such acts. In the public accounting that follows inevitably two extreme reactions emerge.
The first comes from those who focus on the fact that the perpetrator’s motivation stemmed from the perception of a real injustice that needs to be addressed. Because every act of violence, including domestic crimes, contains a meaning and a motive, this analysis is justified. It becomes extreme as soon as the focus on understanding leads to dismissing the act as simply an illegitimate form of protest or even justifying it as an act of war.
The reaction at the opposite extreme comes from those who use the act to extend responsibility to entire groups of people. This implicitly and sometimes explicitly accuses a significant portion of an entire community of approving such acts to the point of encouraging other individuals to engage in similar acts. The assumption is objectively true in times of political or cultural clash, though it usually applies to a limited number of individuals. It becomes extreme when it attributes complicity to an entire community, threatening retribution beyond the scope of criminal justice.
Emmanuel Macron, France’s Islamophobe-in-Chief
Alas, both extreme reactions inevitably appear in the aftermath of crimes like this one. For the moment, no one has claimed complicity or sought to justify the murder, certainly not France’s Muslim community. The entire political class in France has mobilized to categorically condemn the act, refusing to emit any sympathy for the killer’s possible motives. Some politicians, however, have detected an opportunity to exploit the shock to further their own ends.
Emmanuel Macron has long understood the electoral value of casting suspicion on France’s Muslim community. The president recently renewed his effort to stake an anti-immigrant position in anticipation of the 2022 election. As soon as the news of the teacher’s assassination broke, Macron called it “a terrorist attack.” Prime Minister Jean Castex claimed to understand the deceased killer’s deeper, broader motives: “Secularism, the backbone of the French Republic, was targeted in this vile act.”
Macron managed to suggest the blame should be placed on a vast category of people sharing the same worldview. “They’ll never succeed,” he asserted. “Obscurantism will not win.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A term of insult used by dogmatic rationalists to condemn other people for failing to adhere to every one of their dogmas, including their political opinions, which they firmly believe represent scientific truth and philosophical correctness.
Merriam-Webster offers this definition of obscurantism: “opposition to the spread of knowledge: a policy of withholding knowledge from the general public.” Macron conflates the assassination of a teacher with an attack on knowledge itself. But in the era of sophisticated hyperreality, governments, including Emmanuel Macron’s, systematically seek to suppress the spreading of knowledge they find disagreeable while, in the name of national security, withholding from the general public knowledge they deem too precious to share. They also manipulate the media to circulate knowledge that comforts the beliefs associated with their ideology.
The background to this story reveals a series of events that call into question two belief systems: one dogmatically religious, the other dogmatically secular. The assassin believed that the teacher, who claimed to use the cartoon to illustrate the secular dogma of “freedom of expression” was an active infidel assaulting Islam in the classroom. The cartoon in question depicted Mohammed with the message “a star is born” on his naked buttocks. The Muslim girl present saw this as pornographic.
The teacher could have taught his course on freedom of expression in the way education has done for centuries, by verbally explaining the events surrounding the 2015 attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. But in our age of audiovisual media, he chose to use a visual prop. Understanding that the images may be toxic for some — one of his students advised him against showing the photo — instead of changing course, he took the extraordinary initiative of inviting Muslim children to leave the room. Because one girl decided to stay and subsequently described what she had seen to her parents, the lesson provoked a public scandal. The school attempted to deal with the issue in a series of meetings.
None of the commentators seems to have remarked that, though framed as voluntary, the teacher’s suggestion that the Muslims leave the room was a divisive, humiliating and discriminatory act. Imagine the effect of a German teacher in the 1930s inviting Jewish children to leave the room before a lesson on the “Elders of Zion.” Or a teacher in an American school inviting Christian children to leave the room during an illustrated lesson on pornography in the modern world. What responsible educator could be so lacking in cultural delicacy as to fail to assess the psychological impact of such an initiative?
Macron’s government calls this an attack on secularism. The absurdity of the complaint becomes evident when we consider that the content of the lesson, illustrated by controversial imagery, refers to religion. The French have elevated the idea of secularism — laïcité — beyond the status of the simple principle of the separation of church and state. It has become a republican dogma, with all the irrationality associated with any ideological dogma. The dogma admits two interpretations: that neutral secularism banishes the question of religious beliefs from public life and that aggressive secularism claims superiority over religion.
The assassinated teacher appears to have applied the second. For a history teacher, he also seems to have been curiously unaware of the historical context. For three decades, the Western world has experienced the troubling ambiguities of what Samuel Huntington called “the clash of civilizations.” Teachers in today’s multicultural societies should be aware of danger zones and understand how to navigate them with ordinary delicacy. They should also be aware that in the West’s specific culture of exacerbated individualism, unhinged individuals who decide they have a mission often feel empowered by the culture itself to carry out the mission to prove their identity.
Treating this assassination as a crime by an unhinged individual would have had no electoral value for Macron. He needed to make it not just political but philosophical. The journal L’Obs quotes Macron as saying: “He wanted to overthrow the Republic and the Enlightenment. This is the battle we are facing, and it is existential.”
Macron wants us to believe that the 18-year-old assassin is a political and cultural revolutionary intent not only on overthrowing the French republic but endowed with the greater historical mission of canceling the nation’s proudest accomplishment, the 18th century Enlightenment, consigning to the dustbin of history Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Condorcet and the other thinkers of the age.
The Guardian reported this observation by Macron: “One of our compatriots was assassinated today because he taught pupils freedom of expression, the freedom to believe and not believe.” Is that really what the teacher was teaching? The Charlie Hebdo affair was essentially about the freedom to use commercial media to shame a group of believers. That could have been an interesting topic to explore as a feature of modern history. It wouldn’t have required showing provocative cartoons to 13-year-olds, who in any case are too young to appreciate the economic and cultural intricacies of the controversy.
One interesting historical development might have been to highlight the parallel phenomena of Donald Trump and Charlie Hebdo, who have more than one thing in common. That might have contributed to a reflection on the relationship between politics and the media. But none of that would serve the cause of Macron’s future electoral chances.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.