Of poor teachers and the sad ‘machete’ end of our road

A French Republican Guard holds a portrait inside Sorbonne University's courtyard in Paris on October 21, 2020, during a national homage to French teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded for showing cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed in his civics class.

Photo credit: Francois Mori | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Both Mwalimu Paty and his attacker, Anzorov, are dead, the latter gunned down by police shortly after his act.
  • Terrorists are terrorists and their subscription is to terror, and not to Islam, as such phrases wrongly suggest.
  • If you teach what we do not want to hear, we cut off your head.

Beware, teacher. If you teach what we do not want to hear, we cut off your head. That is all. C’est tout. We are in Paris, France, in the fall of 2020, and teaching has become, literally, a matter of life and death. Or maybe it has always been and we did not know it.

Mwalimu Samuel Paty of the Bois d’Aulne Secondary School, some thirty kilometres northwest of Paris, did not know that teaching his class would lead to his being beheaded by a machete-wielding maniac. Well, it did, Friday last week, when Abdoulakh Anzorov waylaid the good teacher just outside his school and, in broad daylight, made him “shorter by a head” with a big knife.

Both Mwalimu Paty and his attacker, Anzorov, are dead, the latter gunned down by police shortly after his act. The powers-that-be and the French masses have since denounced and condemned Anzorov as an enemy of the Republic and an “Islamist” terrorist. We will return to this “Islamist” label presently.

Mwalimu Paty, on the other hand, is a national shujaa (hero), conferred with a posthumous “Legion d’honneur”, France’s highest civilian decoration. It is an emotional and complex story, and it is difficult to choose on what aspects of it the commentator should focus.

Pedagogical experiences

My simple teacher’s mind, however, is hovering over three interrelated angles, directly connected to our own pedagogical experiences of education, terrorism and freedom of speech. Since I am a teacher, and the incident we are discussing started within a classroom situation, it will not surprise you that my rap will begin and end with what we teach, how (and why) we teach it and what outcomes we might expect.

Mwalimu Paty was reported to have given his students a lesson on freedom of expression. He used as his visual aids some of the infamous “Mohamed” cartoons by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten.

Republication, 15 years ago, of these cartoons in the French weekly Charlie Hebdo led, and continues to lead, to horrendous terrorist attacks in Paris, including the one that claimed Mwalimu’s life. The Danish Prime Minister at the time called the anti-Danish response to the cartoons’ first appearance the country’s “worst international relations incident since the Second World War.” Was Prof Paty not aware of these facts when he chose the material for his class?

He almost certainly was, and this is what brings us to the delicate problem of “freedom of speech”. The moral principle is that there is no such things as absolute freedom. Any claim of “freedom” that infringes on another’s freedom is only irresponsible egotism. In our increasingly pluralistic societies, consideration of the views and sensitivities of our neighbours is imperative.

Sexist chauvinism

Reckless and aggressive indulgence in racist, sectarian, tribalistic and sexist chauvinism cannot be justified as freedom of expression. Whether you are a cartoonist, a politician, a newspaper columnist, a preacher or a teacher, and especially a teacher, total sensitivity to and respect of your fellow human beings is indispensable. Indeed, that is the main value of the humanities, like history, which was marehemu Paty’s subject.

Mere competence, like the much-vaunted STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) model, cannot get us out of the depressing cycles of violence that we witness in such disasters as the “Muhammad” cartoons. Apparently, Abdoulhak Anzorov, who killed Mwalimu Paty, was an adept user of modern technology. Coming from more than 60 kilometres away, he was able to liaise with his local cell of terrorists at Bois d’Aulne, and even know who to bribe to point out his victim to him.

What was particularly lacking in his education, and in his grasp on reality, was the human factor. This is seen in his lack of understanding that, since he did not have the “creative utterance” to make a human life, he simply had no right to take one. Equally pathetic was his total unawareness that violence only breeds violence and it does not offer viable solutions to perversions like racial or religious intolerance.

 Sadly, this ignorance was displayed by even some official quarters, responding to Mwalimu Paty’s murder with threats of using the “full force of the law to crush and exterminate” all the pockets of intolerance and terrorism in our society. It is true that the law and the demands of public security have to take their course. But we must understand that radicalisation and the resultant dehumanisation and terrorism are a multi-faceted problem, requiring a multi-pronged approach, especially through education.

This brings me to the two most important points I would like to make. The first is about religion and the second is, of course, the mwalimu’s or educational role in the avoidance of insensitive social relations and the resultant violence. I believe I have mentioned to you that the term “mwalimu” has indelible religious and spiritual connotations in my native Uganda.

Spiritual guides

I share those assumptions about all teachers, especially those of the humanities. We are moral and spiritual guides to our charges. When, indeed, we have to educate our young people in matters religious, we must ensure that we make to them as clear as possible the difference between genuine faith and false opportunism and perversity.

Otherwise, evil self-seekers will, and do, hide behind claims of “faith, religion, salvation, ideology” and suchlike to mislead and misuse our youth, for their own evil ends. There is, for example, no Islam, jihad or divine service in the slaughter of innocent unarmed people, as we have witnessed in many instances. I should also make it a point here to caution those people who jump up with such thoughtless phrases as “Islamist terrorism”.

Terrorists are terrorists and their subscription is to terror, and not to Islam, as such phrases wrongly suggest. Islamic leaders, scholars and teachers must make every effort to make those distinctions clear in the minds of their followers, and most of them are doing so. Enlightened followers of other faiths should meet their efforts with equal diligence.

They should endeavour, for instance, to avoid and discourage those islamophobic attitudes and expressions common in these “toxic” times.



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