On 16 October, an 18-year-old, Abdullah Anzorov, decapitated a history teacher, Samuel Paty, on the streets of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a northwestern suburb of Paris. Abdullah was killed by the police minutes after the beheading.

Sympathy for the teacher and condemnation for the attacker came pouring in from all quarters. Subsequently, police arrested nine people related to Abdullah (including his grandfather and 17-year-old brother) or related to students of the school where Paty taught in connection with the crime.

The French President Emmanuel Macron called the beheading “an act of Islamist terrorism.”

“This was an attempt to strike down the republic,” he said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Jean Castex said, “Secularism, the backbone of the French Republic, was targeted in this vile act.”

Questions about police action

These are certain facts around the incident that should raise various questions in the minds of anyone whose judgment is not clouded by a hatred of Islam.

Why did the police shoot to kill Abdullah when, even by their own accounts, he only had a knife and air rifle? Why did the police arrest nine people when there is no evidence at all that they were involved if it doesn’t arrest the family members of white Christians who murder people?

Why is Abdullah called an Islamist terrorist when Claude Sinké was called a ‘far-right gunman’ and not a ‘Christianist terrorist’ for shooting two people and trying to burn down a mosque in 2019? Why did Macron describe Sinké’s attack as merely a ‘heinous crime’, even when Sinké was explicitly linked to far-right organisations, while calling Abdullah’s attack an ‘act of Islamist terrorism’ even when Abdullah has been linked with no Islamic or terrorist organisations thus far?

If Sinké’s attack on a mosque did not strike down the republic or target secularism, how did Abdullah’s attack on a history teacher do so? Finally, does the French republic even have a backbone which can be broken by Abdullah when its police, supported by its politicians, engages in routine acts of violent repression against its citizens for either being minorities or standing up for the rights of minorities? 

After the police shot and killed Abdullah merely minutes after his attack, the anti-terror prosecutor, Jean-François Ricard, who is in charge of the investigation, said that Abdullah had an air rifle and threatened the police with a knife. This threat is the justification needed by the police to have killed Abdullah instead of incapacitating and arresting him.

In the first place, given the state of the French police, we don’t know whether this threat by Abdullah was actually real or merely concocted by the police after the fact of having killed him. The question mark on the veracity of the account of the French police is a result of the lies they have been caught with multiple times recently.

Claude Sinké vs Abdullah Anzorov

About a year ago, in October of 2019, an 84-year-old Claude Sinké shot and seriously injured two people who stopped him from burning down a mosque. The police found Sinké near his home and arrested him. They did not arrest his family members or others related to him who might have ‘influenced’ him to commit such an attack.

Sinké had stood as a candidate for Marine’ le Pen’s National Front in the 2015 regional elections but that organisation was not condemned by the President or the Prime Minister. Sinké was called a far-right criminal, but he was in no way made a representative of Christians, or even of the National Front, and he was never called a Christianist terrorist. The Prime Minister of France certainly did not come out and say that Sinké had attacked secularism, the backbone of France. 

Abdullah, on the other hand, with no proven links to any organisation whatsoever was made a representative of Islam and called an Islamist terrorist by no less a personage than the President of France. While an 84-year-old man with a long history of engaging in far-right organisations could not hurt France’s secular credentials, the 18-year-old teen with barely any history behind him was found capable of attacking France’s backbone.

Also read ‘How Online Echo Chambers Enable Far-Right Terrorism

While Sinké was seen as acting alone in an unplanned manner, even though he demonstrably belonged to the National Front, it has been assumed without any evidence that Abdullah could not have acted without the conspiratorial planning of shadowy Islamist organisations.  

If the 84-year-old Sinké did not represent Christianity, by what logic can the 18-year-old Abdullah be held as a representative of Islam? Why do Christians get to differentiate themselves into the left and right if the Muslims get thrown into a monolithic block where they are all just Islamists, with no scope for further political subtleties?

If there are left-wing and right-wing Christians who are in a struggle with each other about what Christianity is, then there are also left wing and right wing Muslims in a struggle with each other about what Islam is. If Christianity is a religion and not a political ideology, then so is Islam. Therefore, it is facetious to call Abdullah an Islamist without further specifying his political ideology, especially since Sinké was at no time called a Christian. 

If a Christian man trying to burn down a mosque is defined as a far-right criminal and not as a Christian terrorist, why is a Muslim teen attacking a history teacher not defined as a far-right criminal but as an Islamist terrorist? If Christianity had nothing to do with burning down a mosque, what does Islam have to do with the killing of a history teacher?

Sinké was a Christian who did not like the intrusion of Muslims into what he took to be a Christian country. So, he tried to burn down a mosque. But, Christianity in general was not blamed. Only Sinké was for holding extremist views in contravention to the ‘real’ beliefs of Christianity which do not support such violence.

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Abdullah was a Muslim who killed a history teacher due to his personal convictions. Why blame Islam in general for the actions of one man when ‘real’ Islam also does not support such violence? 

Further, Abdullah’s family has been arrested with no proof that they were in any way involved. Killing a person with a knife on the street in the middle of the day could not have required a lot of conspiracy so there is no reason to assume that Abdullah was not acting alone.

The families of white Christian shooters in New Zealand, US, Britain, and even France, have never been arrested merely because they could have been influential. If Abdullah’s family influenced him into Islamism, does not every Christian family also influence their children into Christianism?

It is not too far-fetched to assume that a person who takes his father’s gun and shoots up minorities in schools and bars could have a family that does not look too kindly upon minorities. Is the family arrested for all that? No, because the family is not held responsible for the actions of an individual. A thief’s family is not arrested because they told him thieving was good. The police clearly acted in a biased manner not only when it shot Abdullah but also when it arrested his grandfather and younger brother.

Isn’t the backbone of France already broken if its police force discriminates based on religion and ethnicity; if its President keeps supporting the police force and refuses to condemn it; if its President and Prime Minister themselves attack secularism by the kind of discourse they have built and supported, which discriminates between a Christian man and a Muslim man?

La Grande Mosquée, Paris | Photo: LPLT, Wikimedia Commons

Confronting police cover-ups

On 9 March 2020, the Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT) issued a detailed report titled Maintaining Order: At what price?, which highlighted, among other things, the tendency of the French police to lie to cover up its gratuitous use of force.

One case the report mentioned was that of Geoffrey Tidjani. In 2010, a police officer injured Tidjani with the use of a ‘non-lethal’ projectile and justified his actions by saying that Tidjani had thrown a stone at him and was preparing to throw another. As it happened, witnesses had recorded the incident on video, which showed that Tidjani was pushing a wheelie bin when he was hit and had thrown not a single stone at the police officer. 

The capacity to take videos has been a boon that has broken the monopoly on evidence that the police had enjoyed. Earlier this year, an app made by family members of those who have been injured or killed by police violence in France was released, which allows users ten minutes of video time, the video being geo-localised and transmitted in real time to the secure server of the organisation that the family members have set up.

Amal Bentounsi is one of the activists behind the app. Her brother was shot dead in 2012 by a police officer, Damien Saboundjian, who tried to justify the murder by saying that the suspect had been aiming a gun at him when he had to fire in self-defense. The autopsy revealed that Amal’s brother had been shot in the back.  

Also read ‘The Media Needs to Be More Responsible in Linking Islam and Islamist Terrorism

Three people from the terrorist gang responsible for the slaughter at Bataclan in 2015 were killed by the police as they were holed up in a fourth floor flat in Saint-Denis, part of the northern suburbs of the capital. The police claimed that they had been under intense fire from AK-47s, which necessitated the killing of the three terrorists. The police even said that a grenade had been thrown at them.

Later, it was revealed that the only spent cartridges found at the scene belonged to the police because the three in reality had only one pistol among them and 11 bullets, and certainly no grenade. 

After Adama Traore was killed in police custody in 2016 in the Parisian suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise, the police kept telling his mother that he was alive long after he had died. They framed and jailed his brothers for raising concerns about him. Finally, the police tried to rush his body to burial in Mali to avoid a proper autopsy. The truth came out and led to massive protests in France over police brutality. 

In 2017, Liu Shaoyo was killed by the police at the door of his flat in the capital’s eastern suburbs. The police officer who shot Liu claimed that Liu was attacking his colleague with a knife. That also turned out to be a lie. In a book published about Adama, the author reports the question that one of Liu’s daughters kept repeating, ‘Why do the police tell lies?’ 

Why does the French police lie?

The police tell lies because according to the French penal code, ‘Unjustified violence resulting in mutilation or permanent disability is punishable by ten years’ imprisonment and a fine of €150,000.’

Article R. 434-18 of the Code of ethics of the police and gendarmerie in France mandates that ‘Police and gendarmerie personnel use force within the framework established by the law, only when it is necessary, and in a manner proportionate to the purpose to be reached, or to the gravity of the threat, depending on the situation’.

On using weapons to kill somebody, they have to prove that their life or the life of someone else was in imminent danger and no other option was open to them to save the said lives except for killing the suspect. 

The police have a very good incentive to lie after they have killed somebody and they have a history of such lying. Thus, we can’t actually believe them when they say Abdullah threatened them with a knife and air rifle. But, let’s be generous and believe them anyway.

Anti-riot police in Paris | Photo: Kristoffer Trolle, Wikimedia Commons

Let’s assume Abdullah did have a knife and air rifle and that he threatened the police with it. The question still arises, so what? Does a knife and air rifle form a credible threat to warrant murder? The police could have easily incapacitated him instead of killing him. Isn’t that what police officers are trained to do?

The police couldn’t actually have felt threatened enough by a knife and an air rifle to lose control of the situation and kill in self defense. We can’t reasonably believe that Abdullah could have hurt the well-armed and well-protected police officers with a knife and air rifle.

If an investigation is being held to ascertain whether the assassination was ‘linked to a terrorist organisation’ and whether Abdullah was associated ‘with terrorist criminals’, shouldn’t an investigation also be held to ascertain whether the police officers actually had due cause to shoot to kill or whether they acted out of racism?

Were they punishing Abdullah in an act of instant vigilante justice or were they performing their duties as a responsible civic police force? 

Many victims, one police force

The police force in France has a long and sordid history of irresponsibility and unjustified use of violence. In France, the police focus on repression more than solving conflicts because as Mathieu Zagrodzki, a researcher at the Centre for Sociological Studies on Penal Institutions (CESDIP), says, “the state designed the police force to surveil and control its citizens” and not serve their interests.

Social workers have pointed out time and again how the police force is sent to poorer communities like they are being sent to a war zone. The French police, moreover, have extremely insufficient training to deal with minorities, whom they do not understand beyond negative stereotypes and whom they treat as uniformly hostile.

As this article by Sarah Leduc and Benjamin Dodman points out, mobility and reaction are what the French police are trained to obsess about, not forging links with the community on the ground. Even members of the police union have called for ‘more comprehensive training, which brings in relational skills, psychology and sociology’ to improve how the police interact people. 

Also read ‘Why #BlackLivesMatter Is Relevant to India: Similar Culture of Police Violence

In Abdullah’s case as well, the police reacted with speed, killing him in minutes, when it could have spent a little more time in trying to keep him alive. Even if the police saw him commit the murder, they had no reason to kill him unless he posed a credible threat. Even if the police know someone has committed a murder, they have to treat that person as innocent till the court gives its judgment. That is the rule of law. The police in France do not see it fit to follow the rule of law. 

Earlier this year, 30-year old Mohamad Gabsi was subjected to a strong-arm stop and search, called the ‘interpellation musclée’ in French, for being outside after 10 pm during the COVID-19 curfew. The police said they handcuffed him and put him in the back of their car on his stomach, with an officer sitting on his buttocks, because he allegedly kicked the bumper of their car. Gabsi was confirmed dead 45 minutes later.

Witnesses reported that four police vehicles were blocking the streets at the time and that Gabsi had been dragged by a couple of police officers to their car. There is no way that an unarmed Gabsi could have posed enough threat to a number of well trained police officers to warrant their using anywhere near enough force to kill him. 

In 2017, Théo Luhaka intervened when he saw the police conduct a stop and search. He ended up in the hospital with a ten centimeter tear in his anal sphincter. The police officer claimed that it happened by mistake as he was merely trying to hit the back of Luhaka’s thigh. The video from the CCTV cameras says otherwise. The investigation is still on. 

In December 2018, during the ‘yellow vest’ protests, Zineb Redouane, an 80-year old Algerian woman, died after getting hit in the face by a tear gas grenade while she was closing the shutters of her fourth floor flat. The police were tear-gassing a demonstration happening on her street and claimed that the tear gas grenade hit Zineb by mistake. She had been speaking to her daughter on the phone when the grenade stuck and according to the daughter, Zineb said, ‘The officer targeted me.’ 

Tear gas grenades were also used by the police to disperse a crowd at a music festival in Nantes in June 2019 that had continued after the time allotted to it by the authorities. In the panic, 24-year old Steve Maia Caniço disappeared. The police claimed that he had not been there at all. Hid mobile phone records said otherwise. A few weeks later, his body was found in the rive Loire on the banks of which the festival was being held. 

In January, 42-year old Cédric Chouviat was stopped by the police as part of a general check of vehicles and drivers. He ended up on the ground with an officer kneeling on his back because the police did not appreciate him filming them on his smart phone. He died two days later in the hospital. 

From these examples, one can see that the French police is prone to reacting in a knee jerk way and using way more force than is warranted by the situation. The police lack proper training to engage with civilians and instead opt for instant violence to bring the situation under immediate control at all costs. 

ACAT has pointed out time and again that the authorities do their best to not compile information about the use of force and have no interest in punishing any abuses by the police. The culture of protecting the excesses of police is entrenched.

The director of the Inspectorate of the National Police (IGPN), Brigitte Julien, says that police officers should not be judged because they are merely doing their duty of maintaining order. If they are pulled up for making mistakes in performing their duty, Julien says, then they won’t be able to do anything and law and order will break down.

In an interview in 2019, Macron had said, ‘Do not talk of repression or police violence, these words are unacceptable in a State of law’. If the President of France and the director of IGPN say that the police cannot be held accountable for violence, then the police can have no trouble shooting someone like Abdullah. As this article by Chris Myant points out, in Macron’s State of law, law enforcers seem to exist above the rule of law. 

The French president Emmanuel Macron, during a meeting with the Russian president Vladimir Putin, 2017 | Photo: Office of the President of Russia, Wikimedia Commons

Singling out Muslims, from Paris to Delhi

While the actions of a Christian man are individualised and not blamed on Christianity, the actions of every Muslim man are generalised and blamed on Islam. While the actions of a Christian man linked to organisations with a clear agenda of ‘Christianising France’ merely count as a heinous crime and not as Christian terrorism, the actions of a Muslim man automatically become Islamist terrorism even without any evidence to prove that he was in any way or form linked to any Islamic or terrorist organisation.

While the attempt to burn down a mosque does not strike down the French republic, the murder of a history teacher does. Does it mean that the secular republic identifies itself as Christian and is only threatened when Christianity is attacked and not when Islam is attacked within its borders? Does this not amount to the state taking a discriminatory position vis-á-vis the two religions? Where, then, is the fabled secularism that the French Prime Minister is fondly referring to? 

It does not take a very incisive mind to see that this kind of biased discourse is being peddled in all liberal-democratic societies of the West where Muslims are targeted specifically on the pretext of Islamic terrorism. According to this discourse, while Christians become criminals despite of being Christians, Muslims become terrorists because of being Muslim.

Also read ‘Revisiting the Northeast Delhi Violence: Policing Failures and How to Fix Them

This is also the discourse that is prevalent in the Hindu ruling classes of India. The destroyers of Babri Masjid were declared innocent by a special court because the court said they acted in an unplanned manner. At the same time, students and activists who participated in protests against NRC/CAA have been arrested by the police on the pretext that they carefully planned the riots in Delhi to destabilise the government.

Leaders of a political party that openly advocate destruction of the Babri Masjid were not trying to destabilise the government and were not even responsible for the said demolition, but students with barely any power somehow had the capability not only to engineer riots in the nation’s capital but also to destabilise the government. 

Many people have come forward to condemn Abdullah for his act of murder. Not many have come forward to condemn the French police for their act of murder. Is Abdullah with his knife more dangerous for the citizens of France or a police force with state-of-the-art weaponry and government backing to unleash violence without the fear of repercussions?

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France is not an isolated case. The discourse being built in France has a direct bearing on us in India. The denigration of Islam as a religion that produces terrorists justifies actions taken in India against Muslims. It justifies the arrest and indefinite detention of students and activists like Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam. It justifies the encounters done by the police in the name of preventing terrorist attacks.

It justifies the hanging of people like Afzal Guru to satisfy the nation’s ‘collective conscience.’ If Muslims are a menace everywhere, then the Indian government is right in whatever measures it takes to counter this menace. 

What we learn from Abdullah’s case is that the people in power are all too willing to use the pretext of terrorism to suspend the rule of law. While we condemn Abdullah in a knee jerk manner because our news channels and our social media feeds tell us to do so, we must reflect on whether Abdullah is more dangerous to us or the suspension of the rule of law.

Should we be willing to allow those in power to act with impunity because we hold deep biases against the people of a certain religion? Maybe it is time to question our biases so we can preserve the rule of law that we have fought so hard to institute and maintain thus far, because, god knows, those in power have never been too keen on submitting to the law and will use every opportunity to denigrate the law and assume powers beyond it.

Views expressed are the author’s own. 

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