Someone was beheaded in Paris last week. He was a teacher: Samuel Paty, 47. His crime was to have distributed an unflattering depiction of the prophet Muhammad as part of a class on the importance of freedom of speech. A perfect lesson, it would seem. A perfect illustration. A perfect martyr. If the events described had been depicted as fiction in a novel or play, one might have criticised it on the grounds that the message was too neatly wrapped. But this was reality. And reality is often that simple, that perfect.
Islam is a volatile religion. Not all Muslims practice it to the gruesome extent of the preparator, but enough to make a freeze on Islamic immigration obviously sensible.
I have seen the photograph of Mr Paty’s decapitated head, as you may have yourself. The first few times it scrolled into view, on Twitter, I turned away as soon as possible, shocked by something no civilised person should ever have to see. But after a few more exposures (you can’t escape the wretched thing on some forums), I summoned the courage to study the image in detail. It is a quite amazing thing to look at; a head not where it should be, disembodied, the underside of a severed neck visible, revealing red and pink details only biologists and butchers understand.
This isn’t routine for me. I have never sat down and watched a decapitation video. nor any of the big-budget murder-extravaganzas produced by ISIS. Perhaps I am still too squeamish, which is cowardly; but after looking at the picture of poor Mr Paty, who knows what I’ll dare to face next.
The act was evil, obviously. Heinous. Savage. But hardly surprising. France already knew about this problem. The government knew. The media knew. You knew. And yet the anger is raw and purple, as if the problem had just been discovered.
‘Overreaction’ is not a concern we should have at this time. Exaggeration might be. Let us not gift undue confidence to Jihadis. Islamists are not going to ‘take over’ Paris, let alone France. But a condition doesn’t have to be terminal to justify treatment.
There is no need for any scum in Europe. A third-world neighbourhood of Paris is wasted space. Sooner or later we will have to work out what we want and how we can get it; what we love and how we can best serve and protect it.
I remember visiting Paris as a child, and then as a teenager and adolescent. In all, I must have been to the city at least five times. I found the place beautiful and inspiring, the people unfriendly, overrated and rude. I enjoyed using the subway, which for me is the most romantic metro system in the world (and goodness knows what I aim to mean by that). There are memories of mine gathering dust around all the celebrated sites; Tour Eiffel, Champs-Élysées, Montmartre, La Défense, etc.
Hazily I can recall experiences of the non-native Parisians, my pre-political impression of them. The Maghrebi beggar girls (likely of Algerian stock) were strikingly attractive; their elegant black eyes, and sand-coloured, ever-youthful faces produced in me a superficial, decidedly pubescent ‘sympathy’ for their plight. The hijab covering two thirds of their heads didn’t excite any special curiosity back then. I knew nothing about Islam and wouldn’t for several years more.
It was a city more of night than day. I enjoyed the darkness and noticed how it seemed to bring out the beauty and special character of Paris. In the vulgar sunshine, the grand buildings were grey and uninteresting, and the crowded streets more chaotic than romantic. At night I could picture myself as a writer and a bohemian, heir to the great European authors I was beginning to appreciate at home. And that is what Paris remained in my imagination for some time; a writer’s city and intellectual paradise.
The idea that in the future heads would be severed for blasphemy, and that it would come as no surprise to the general population, would have been fantastic. Likewise the idea that those dark-eyed houris rattling cups on the Champs-Élysées were members of a deranged (and deranging) culture of violence; I just wouldn’t have taken it seriously. This was a city of poets and painting, opium and atheism; the deepest West, where reason and freedom were too native to disturb. But here we are.
The Anglo-American myth that the French people are quick to surrender was funny once, if even that, but is no longer. Petty divisions between Europeans are of use only to our enemies; anti-French sentiment, like any vulgar Angloism, should be quickly disposed of. The French are a socialistic, idealistic people – and good for them – but only a fool mistakes this for weakness. Indeed, they can be ferocious in their idealism, as demonstrated by the revolutionary baptism of their Republic.
The murderer in this case – an eighteen year old Muslim with roots in Chechnya – was from a family of refugees. This is relevant. How could it not be? We must stop this senseless, suicidal generosity, however superficially admirable, before it destroys us.
I am relaxed in my faith that the lesson heroically taught by brave Samuel Paty will be understood by his people. There are passionate discussions already underway in his name.
This is our conversation, too, don’t forget – for what can be a solution to the problems of France will inevitably prove a solution to the problems of Europe.