News last week that three worshippers in a church in the southern French city of Nice had been stabbed to death by a suspected Islamist terrorist added to fears in France of a rise of religious violence after the decapitation of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty outside his school near Paris by another Islamist terrorist on 16 October.
55-year-old Vincent Loquès, who had reportedly worked at the Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice for over a decade, and Simone Barreto Silva, a 44-year-old mother of three originally from Brazil who had lived in France for some 30 years, were attacked by 21-year-old Tunisian national Brahim Issaoui, an undocumented immigrant, as they prayed in the Basilica in the early morning of 29 October.
A third woman, 60-year-old Nadine Devillers, was also killed in the attack.
According to reports in the French press, Issaoui had arrived in Nice the previous day by train, having landed illegally on the Italian island of Lampedusa on 20 September, from where he was transferred to Bari in southern Italy on 9 October. He was issued with instructions to leave Italy, but instead of returning to Tunisia travelled on to Nice on 27 October before carrying out the attacks.
Speaking to various western and other news outlets, Issaoui’s family in the southern Tunisian coastal city of Sfax said they had been surprised when Issaoui had spoken to them on the telephone before the attacks, as they had had no idea he was in France. “He said he had decided to go to France because there were better work prospects and there were too many people [seeking employment] in Italy,” his brother said.
His sister said he was planning to sleep near the Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice and had shown no signs he was planning any kind of attack. Issaoui was shot by police after carrying out the attacks and is now under guard in hospital. According to French Interior Minister Gerald Damarnin speaking to the French newspaper La Voix du Nord on Sunday, Issaoui had “obviously” come to France “in order to kill”.
“How do you explain otherwise why he was armed with several knives when he had only just arrived” in Nice, the minister asked. “He obviously didn’t come in order to get [work or residence] papers.” By earlier this week, six men had been taken in for questioning by French police in connection with the attacks.
Following the attacks, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Nice and called the incident a “terrorist attack”, calling for firmness and unity in response and announcing that the number of police and army personnel guarding schools and places of worship in France would be more than doubled from 3,000 to 7,000.
“Our country suffered an Islamist terrorist attack,” Macron said. “It is very clearly France that is being attacked,” he added, echoing Damarnin’s comments that France was engaged in a “war against Islamist ideology” and that more attacks could not be ruled out. “We are in a war against an enemy that is both inside and outside,” Damarnin added.
The attacks were immediately condemned by French Muslim organisations, with the Conseil français du culte musulman (the French Council of the Muslim Faith), an umbrella body, saying it “forcefully condemns the terrorist attacks” in Nice and calling on French Muslims to cancel events organised to mark last week’s moulid celebrations on the birthday of Prophet Mohamed.
Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb called the killings an “abhorrent terrorist attack” and added that nothing can “justify such disgusting terrorist attacks which defy the peaceful teachings of Islam.”
US President Donald Trump tweeted that “our hearts are with the people of France. America stands with our oldest ally in this fight. These radical Islamic terrorist attacks must stop immediately. No country, France or otherwise, can long put up with it.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that “I condemn the heinous and brutal attack that has just taken place in Nice, and I wholeheartedly support France. The whole of Europe stands in solidarity with France. We remain united and determined in the face of barbarism and fanaticism.”
The attacks in Nice come two weeks after the beheading of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty, killed near Paris by Abdoullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old refugee of Chechen descent, after he had used cartoons of Prophet Mohamed published in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in a class discussion intended to deal with freedom of speech. The cartoons had earlier sparked an Islamist terrorist attack on the magazine’s offices in Paris in 2015 in which 12 people were killed.
In a ceremony in Paty’s honour held on 21 October at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Macron awarded the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest award, to Paty’s family, and described him as someone who had “embodied the [French] Republic which comes alive every day in classrooms and the freedom that is conveyed and perpetuated in schools.”
Paty was “the face of the Republic, of our determination to disrupt terrorists, to curtail Islamists, to live as a community of free citizens in our country… [he was] the face of our determination to understand, to learn, to continue to teach, to be free,” Macron said.
Referring to the cartoons of Prophet Mohamed used by Paty to illustrate notions of freedom of speech, Macron said that “we will strongly proclaim the concept of laïcité [secularism]. We will not disavow the cartoons, the drawings, even if others recoil. We will provide all the opportunities that the Republic owes all its young people, without any discrimination.”
Anger escalated across the Islamic world in response to Macron’s words defending the publication of the cartoons, with demonstrations against France taking place in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and some Arab countries and calls being made to boycott French products. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a boycott of French products in Turkey, saying that Macron “should go and get your mental health tested”. At a rally of the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party Erdogan asked, “What is Macron’s problem with Islam? What is his problem with Muslims?” In response, Macron tweeted in French, English, and Arabic that “our history is one of a battle against tyranny and fanaticisms… We respect all differences in a spirit of peace. We will never accept hate speech and we defend reasonable debate. We will continue. We hold ourselves always on the side of human dignity and universal values.”
France recalled its ambassador to Ankara, saying that Erdogan’s comments were “unacceptable” and accusing Turkey of “whipping up hatred” against France. In a statement, the French Foreign Ministry called for boycotts of French products and the “occasionally hateful” protests against the country to end.
“These calls distort the positions defended by France in favour of freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the refusal of any call to hatred,” it said.
According to editor of the French newspaper Le Monde Jerome Fenoglio writing in a front-page editorial in the paper on Saturday, a “double threat” now faced France made up of “a new wave of Islamist terrorism” associated with the Paris and Nice attacks and the new lockdown the country had introduced to halt the spread of the coronavirus on 30 October.
“France must now face a combination of threats that very few countries have had to face in peacetime conditions,” Fenoglio wrote. “After the murder of Samuel Paty two weeks ago, the murder by an Islamist terrorist of three worshippers at the Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice has brought back echoes of the attacks in 2015” when 130 people were killed in Islamist attacks on the Bataclan music venue and other places in Paris in November 2015 only ten months after the attack on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 when 12 others were killed.
“After the killings on the Promenade des Anglais in July 2016 [in which 86 people were killed by Islamist terrorist Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel], Nice has once again been struck to the heart. After the murder of father Jacques Hamel in the same month of 2016 at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray [by 19-year-old Islamist terrorists Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean], jihadist terrorism has once again struck the Church.”
It was very important, Fenoglio said, that in responding to such attacks appropriate policies were found. “Our country has the capacity to annihilate this terrorist enterprise that seeks to impose fundamentalist totalitarianism through civil war, provided that it continues to uphold democracy and peace as the very opposite to terror,” he added, referring to the “verbal escalation” that had been taking place in France claiming that the country was in a state of “war”.
In meeting both crises, of Islamism terrorism and Covid-19, it was important that appropriate mechanisms of democratic debate and decision-making were maintained, Fenoglio wrote, whatever the temptation to introduce harsher responses to each might be.
“Faced with shocks as violent as a terrorist offensive and a pandemic accelerating out of control, it is only natural that there should be opposing options and diverging opinions. But anger and fear could carry the rhetoric of war beyond merely rhetorical bounds, feeding the kind of polarisation that could undermine the national solidarity” required to meet such challenges, he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly