On October 16, a French history and geography teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded by one of his students – an 18-year-old Chechen Muslim – on the outskirts of Paris. It came shortly after Mr. Paty had shown his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad from French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo during a lesson on freedom of expression.
The incident sparked outrage in France, with President Emmanuel Macron immediately condemning both the murder and the apparent motive behind it. Speaking at a televised memorial service on Wednesday, October 21, the French premier reiterated that France "will not give up our cartoons", and that Mr Paty “was killed precisely because he incarnated the Republic. He was killed because the Islamists want our future.” Mr Paty was also buried with the Legion d’Honneur medal, France’s highest honor.
State actors around the world have differed in their reactions to the French president’s words, with some praising Macron for his uncompromising stance and others accusing him of stoking anti-Islamic sentiment. In Iran, too, senior figures have seized on the remarks. Foreign minister Javad Zarif, without a trace of irony, accused Macron on Twitter of fueling “extremism” by not condemning the cartoons of “extremists”.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, declared that Macron’s “irrational behaviour” displayed his “crudeness in politics”, adding in a tweet that Macron’s comments showed “his lack of experience in politics, otherwise he would not have dared insult Islam”.
Iranian regime-controlled media outlets have also been quick to condemn Macron. On October 26, the newspaper Vatan-e-Emrouz newspaper published a front-page cartoon of the French president entitled "The Devil of Paris”. The ultra-conservative daily Javan ran with the headline “Evil!” over a photograph of Macron, while Kayhan newspaper demanded the expulsion of the French ambassador from Iran. Iran’s foreign ministry has since summoned a French diplomat and warned Paris’s response to the murder was “unwise”.
One of the most histrionic responses came from the Student Basij at the University of Tehran, a group with a long history of suppressing student activism. The Student Basij called for Neauphle-le-Château Street in Tehran, which is named after the street in Paris where Ayatollah Khomeini resided in exile, to be renamed.
On Monday the Revolutionary Guards also waded into the fray, accusing Macron of “inciting Islamophobia” and claiming the “flagship of freedom of Expression in Europe” was used “to cover up their failures to prevent the development of Islam”. The IRGC also issued a muddled warning: “The leaders of the hegemonic and Zionist regimes would not be able to save the crisis-stricken and inhumane West from its quagmire, and in the not-too-far future they must wait for appropriate answers from the Islamic nations beyond boycotting French goods and street protests.”
Iran to Fight Satire With Satire
The murder of the French teacher came little over a month after Charlie Hebdo had republished its satirical drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, to mark the eve of the trial for some of those involved in the terror attack on its offices in January 2015.
On January 7 that year, two gunmen entered the magazine’s offices on Nicolas-Appert Street and opened fire on those inside. Twelve people were killed and 10 others were wounded in the assault. The two men, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, were members of al-Qaeda and the primary motive is thought to have been Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and jokes about Islamic leaders.
On Wednesday, January 14, a week after the atrocity, a new issue of Charlie Hebdo was published featuring a front-page illustration of the Prophet Muhammad crying and holding a placard that read Je Suis Charlie (I am Charlie). More than three million copies were distributed across France and quickly sold out. “It’s very hard,” columnist Patrick Pelloux told the media, of the decision to go to press that week. “We are all suffering, with grief, with fear, but we will do it anyway because stupidity will not win.”
When the magazine re-published its cartoons at the start of September, Macron refused to condemn the team’s actions “because in France there is freedom of the press”. This, too, provoked the ire of Iranian officials, with foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh declaring it a “derogatory act”.
Masoud Shojaei-Tabatabai, director of visual arts at Iran’s Art Bureau, said the republished images were “creating and promoting hatred” and that Charlie Hebdo was working for “the Zionist regime”. For his part, Shojaei-Tabatabai has organized two previous editions of the infamous International Holocaust Cartoon Contest in Iran. In the same breath as condemning Charlie Hebdo, he said the Bureau’s response would be to host yet another international cartoon exhibit on the Holocaust.
Thus far, no-one in a position of authority in Iran has made reference to the catalysts for either of these “provocative” incidents: neither the 2015 terror attack on the magazine’s offices, nor the cold-blooded murder of the teacher Samuel Paty.
Freedom of expression, including the freedom to criticize political and religious beliefs, is a principle now firmly accepted in many parts of the world. Satirical material about Christianity and Judaism is published by countless media outlets throughout the year and the Iranian state has no compunction with satirizing the Holocaust. But “insulting Islam” continues to cost Iranian journalists and reporters dear, with countless people down the decades forced to flee the country outright or else face imprisonment, taking all their talent with them. Many, as it happens, have gone to Paris.