Samuel Paty’s lesson for 13 and-14 year-old pupils on tolerance and freedom of speech is a lesson for the whole of France. It’s a lesson for all of us.
The facts are appalling. They are grindingly familiar and disturbingly novel – a collision between the murderous certainties of fundamentalist Islam; a well-meaning school lecture; and the mendacious, conflagratory power of the internet. On October 6, Mr Paty, 47, a much-liked history and geography teacher in a dull Paris suburb, produced for his middle school civics class a pair of the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed which provoked the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine five years ago.
How can publishing such cartoons be justified, he asked the teenagers, if they offend people of the Islamic faith? Where does the freedom of expression end and respect for others’ feelings begin?
These questions are not easy, Mr Paty explained. That is why fundamental principles exist in democratic states such as France to help people of different faiths and opinions to get along without murdering one another (as they have in not-so-distant parts of French history). The complexities are the lesson. But this lesson cost Mr Paty his life. Ten days later he was dead – decapitated by a 19-year-old Chechen refugee to France as he walked home from school.
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