On the third anniversary of the murder of Samuel Paty, we publish this guest post by Professor Stuart Russell. Stuart lives in France, and has written a very personal tribute.
When I heard about the barbaric assassination of Samuel Paty I cried my eyes out, and I could not stop crying for hours. Ever since the Charlie Hebdo massacre of January 2015 I have been deeply traumatized by the horrifying and repeated Islamist attacks in France.
Paty was a history teacher at the Collège du Bois d’Aulne in Conflans Sainte-Honorine, a suburb of Paris. On 16 October 2020, he was beheaded by an Islamic terrorist. As part of a lesson on freedom of expression he allegedly showed his students some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, and because of this there was a campaign by local Muslim groups leading to his savage slaughter by an 18-year-old Russian of Chechen origin.
While his murder was ignored by universities, teacher unions and politicians in the UK, in France there was a swift and vigorous condemnation by the university community, coupled with a litany of statements by universities, academics and NGOs, conferences, minutes of silence, and other actions. He was posthumously awarded the Légion d’honneur. Some lecture halls and Squares now bear his name, there is an annual Prix Samuel Paty, and his name lives on as a resounding symbol of courage, free speech and academic freedom.
Perhaps the most significant tribute was the publication of his master’s thesis by his alma mater, the Université de Lyon, Le Noir, société et symbolique 1815-1995 Mémoire de recherche d’un apprenti historien (PUL), published as a book on the first anniversary of his murder.
His assassination sent a shockwave throughout the educational sector in France. Some teachers and academics reacted with self-censorship, fearing their own safety. While others courageously carried on the essential mission of protecting academic freedom and free speech, despite threats, fear, intimidation and even the risk of death.
As I was writing this tribute, I heard the terrible news that another teacher in the town of Arras had been murdered by another Islamist of Chechen origin, just three days before the third anniversary of Paty’s murder. But this horrific murder is not another ‘isolated event. In France today there are some 120 people under police protection due to Islamist threats. The result is that censorship and self-censorship for fear of Islamist attacks is rife. There are many examples, not well-known in the UK. Hamed Abdel-Samad’s book, Islamic Fascism, had been purchased by the Parisian publishing house Piranha, and there was also a release date on Amazon. But at the last moment, the publishing house engaged in self-censorship and did not publish the book. In January 2023 the CNRS researcher, Odile Jacob, published Le Frérisme et ses reseaux, l’enquête and soon after she started to received death threats. In May 2023, the Sorbonne cancelled a conference by anthropologist Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, who was placed under police protection after the publication of a book on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nevertheless the spirit of Paty and Charlie Hebdo lives on in France. Academics and others are prepared to speak out in defence of freedom. In defence of Odile Jacob, eight hundred academics and personalities signed an open letter in her support. Today meetings will be held across France in memory of Samuel Paty and in defiance of Islamist threats and intimidation.
The real tribute to Samuel Paty would be for teachers and academics to be resolute in defence of free speech and academic freedom. Universities, academics, intellectuals and others have a moral, ethical and humanistic obligation to defend these freedoms which continue to be threatened. Silence and inaction are no longer options. #Je suis toujours Samuel
About the author:
Stuart Russell is a Canadian lawyer who was a Senior Lecturer in the Macquarie University School of Law in Sydney Australia, where he was also an administrative judge. In 2006 he moved to France where he is now retired.