Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Real Clear Politics on November 1, 2020.
On Thursday morning, a man armed with a knife entered the largest church in Nice, France and brutally stabbed three people to death. The incident has shaken France, and the government officially raised its terrorism threat warning to the maximum level. Tensions have been high since an Islamist refugee beheaded a schoolteacher earlier this month and Muslim countries criticized the French government for its attempts to deal with Islamist terrorism.
Thursday’s attack affirms the need for France to defend free speech and religion inside its borders. Islamists are retaliating because France refuses to completely acquiesce to radical demands to silence any speech deemed offensive to Islam. Yet, France should stand firm in the face of gruesome violence, and the rest of the world should stand in solidarity.
Victims of the attack at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de L'Assomption included an elderly woman whose throat was slashed, a man who was stabbed to death, and another woman who was chased outside the church and killed in front of a café near where she had tried to hide. The man is reported to be a church caretaker who was well-liked by the parishioners. None of them deserved to die that day.
The attacker was eventually shot by the police. While he lay on the ground wounded, waiting to be taken to the hospital, he repeatedly shouted, “Allahu Akbar,” according to the Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi, who said, “The meaning of his gesture left no doubt.”
This attack comes just weeks after an 18-year-old Chechen refugee beheaded French high school teacher Samuel Paty after he taught a class on free speech that included caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Such caricatures are considered blasphemous by Muslims.
The French government responded to this horrific attack by raiding the homes of Muslims listed in police files for having previously shown signs of extremism. President Emmanuel Macron defended his county’s secularism and the right to freedom of expression. The measures earned support from the people of France, who have grown weary and angry after suffering 36 terrorist attacks -- two alone of which took more than 200 lives -- inspired by ISIS over eight years.
This reaction from the French government — and specifically Macron’s defense of free speech that Muslims find sacrilegious — prompted outrage from Muslims not just in France, but around the world. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been at the forefront of criticizing of France in recent weeks, with personal attacks against President Macron. “Macron needs mental treatment,” Erdogan said in a speech. “What is the problem of this person Macron with Muslims and Islam?” Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan similarly accused Macron of Islamophobia. And in Bangladesh, approximately 40,000 people showed up in the capital to protest France.
Muslim leaders' outrage would be better directed elsewhere. It is hypocritical for the Muslim world to condemn the French president’s defense of an offensive cartoon when over a million Uyghur Muslims are arbitrarily detained by China, and Muslim leaders remain largely silent. If the leaders of Muslim countries are looking to criticize a government that truly oppresses Muslims, they should turn their attention to China.
France faces intense challenges that have started a national conversation about the values of the French republic. Radicalized Islamists in France, such as the young man who murdered Samuel Paty, won’t be satisfied until France outlaws all speech they consider blasphemous and penalizes any perpetrators. Blasphemy laws across the Muslim world notoriously punish perceived insults to Islam and are often abused by neighbors to settle unrelated disputes. That is not the kind of future the French want or deserve.
Macron may have angered Muslims around the world by defending the right to free speech, and specifically offensive speech. Yet, this freedom needs to be reaffirmed, as does the freedom of religion. No one should have to fear for their lives by entering a church. Terrorist attacks targeting houses of worship are intended to stoke that fear.
Today, the French are mourning, and we mourn with them. But soon, national conversations will be had about the future of French society. Politicians should be ready to defend basic Western values, and the rest of the world should be ready to support them.
The people of France have every right to practice the religion of their choice in safety and every right to express their opinions, even controversial ones. No radicals should be able to threaten or punish anyone for exercising those freedoms. As cancel culture threatens free speech, and hostility toward religion gains steam in the West, free countries ought to stand in solidarity with France during this fearful time. The challenges they are facing may soon be our own.