Freedom of expression is today presented as a right threatened by 'Islamist fanaticism' or 'Islamofascism'.
Large words are used to stir the French population against an odious act – the barbaric slitting of the throat of the school teacher, Samuel Paty, for having shown in class the cartoons of Mohammed published by Charlie Hebdo.
Everyone become absorbed, certainly rightly at first, by the emotion. But one must try to go beyond this stage and understand the mechanisms.
Let's return to the attacks which were carried out as an act of vengeance for the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo magazine.
They were perpetrated by four people: Chérif and Saïd Kouachi on January 7th, 2015, the Pakistani national Ali H on September 26th, 2020, and Abdoullakh A, a Russian refugee of Chechen origin, on October 16th, 2020.
How could four individuals, albeit certainly influenced by third parties, threaten our freedom of expression?
The struggle for freedom of expression is against a higher authority that uses censorship. But these are isolated individuals, who represent only themselves and do not threaten any freedom, only the safety of those they consider their enemies.
To attribute to these four individuals the power to undermine a fundamental freedom is to show ourselves to be very vulnerable. Using high democratic ideals in public discourse is of no use against them because they seek exactly this confrontation.
We are faced with the danger of a media frenzy that risks transforming the terrorist of Conflans into a negative hero, fascinating young people in search of an anti-hero to challenge the society in which they cannot find their place.
Dying as a martyr becomes for them a glorious act, which will leave them with a posthumous media notoriety.
A similarity between this individual and the women who wear the niqab ful face veil who I have studied for ten years in France is their egocentricity: both groups act on their own accord in seeking to resolve a personal problem – often a sense of injustice that can go as far as a death wish – without concern for the image they reflect of the community with which the general public associates them.
They are individualistic characters who don't care about others, whether they are peaceful or murderous.
Taking individual revenge is more important to them than their fellow-believers and their relatives, who will have to bear the guilt without any responsibility.
A question that I frequently asked the niqab-wearing women in my study is: “Aren't you afraid that your niqab may tarnish the image of Muslim women in France?”
Their answer was always: “No, it's not my problem, I feel better that way, that's what counts.”
This shows their isolation in a 'Muslim community' where they are not necessarily accepted because it damages the image of the group.
My work has shown that 2010 law prohibiting the wearing of the niqab actually had an incentive effect on the wearing of the niqab by creating an affirmation of Muslim identity in women who had not received it from their parents.
Some then became locked in opposition to society, and some went to Syria and Iraq, while others attempted attacks in France.
Social isolation is another common feature of these individuals, even though they do not live alone. They feel excluded from society and brood about this failure in front of their computers.
The Conflans attacker is very close to the cinematic model of Taxi Driver and Rambo: defeat, social exclusion, dark ideas, revolt against society.
The windshield of the cab of Travis Bickle – Martin Scorcese's film hero – is close to the terrorist's computer screen, as well as to the niqab – the three filters cut these people off from a reality that seems unbearable to them. They have access to it through their eyes but are not part of it, and are cut off from social interactions.
The acts of the Conflans terrorist have been unanimously condemned by Muslim associations in France and high-figures of maghrébin (North African) origin.
Yet the Interior Minister wants to inflict collective punishment on Muslims by targeting associations that have no direct link with the murder.
The more Muslims as a whole are conflated with terrorists – individualistic and isolated – the more some will adhere to this deadly ideology, because that is the role they are assigned.
Since 2008 French sociologist Agnès De Féo has been studying the subject of the niqab – the full Muslim face veil worn by women – in France. She has spoken to over 200 women who wear it and written a book on the subject: Behind the niqab. 10 years of investigation of women who have worn and removed the full veil, preface by Olivier Roy, 2020.