Tunisians call for prosecution of lawmaker who condoned French teacher’s murder

·3-min read

Dozens of Tunisian artists and intellectuals have signed a petition calling for the country's judiciary to prosecute a lawmaker who justified the gruesome killing of French teacher Samuel Paty by an Islamist radical.

Signatories of the petition accused Tunisian lawmaker Rached Khiari of “condoning terrorism” in a social media post he wrote the day after Paty was murdered outside his school in a Paris suburb.

“To celebrate on social media the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty, in broad daylight, as though it were divine punishment, is a form of indirect murder,” wrote the petition’s signatories on the Change.org platform.

The signatories, who include historian Sophie Bessis and former minister Kamel Jendoubi, urged Tunisian authorities to lift the lawmaker’s immunity and allow prosecutors to pursue their investigations.

Paty, a 47-year-old history teacher, was stabbed to death outside his school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine on October 16, for having shown and discussed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed during a class on tolerance and freedom of expression.

His gruesome killing by a radical Islamist has touched a raw nerve in France, five years after 12 people were killed in an attack on the Paris office of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which had published the cartoons.

>> After teacher’s murder, a hunt for appeasers who ‘disarmed’ French secularism

A day after Paty’s murder, Khiari, an independent who was elected under the colours of the Islamist party Karama, wrote on Facebook: “Offending the Prophet Mohammed is the gravest of crimes. Those who commit (such crimes), must accept the consequences.”

A special anti-terrorism brigade had been tasked with investigating the social media post, Mohsen Dali, a deputy prosecutor in Tunis, told AFP on October 19.

“Condoning terrorism is itself one of the many abject forms of terrorism,” said the signatories of the petition, lamenting the fact that “physical terrorism comes in the shape of verbal terrorism in [Tunisia’s] parliament”.

'Fatwas in disguise'

According to one of the signatories, Franco-Tunisian author and pyschoanalyst Fethi Benslama, the battle against terrorism must focus on the hate speech voiced by people in positions of authority, which often precedes terrorist attacks.

“Today it is clear that we must fight against the people whose words give a green light to terrorist acts," Benslama told FRANCE 24. "These are fatwas in disguise (...) which can sway a fanatic or a youth with psychological problems."

Like France, Tunisia has been roiled by a string of terrorist attacks in recent years, including the murder of two prominent secular politicians by Islamist militants in 2013.

The country is itself deeply divided on matters of faith and free speech. The 2011 Arab Spring uprising has ushered in freedom of conscience and belief, enshrined in a new constitution in 2014. But such freedoms have been challenged amid an Islamist backlash.

In recent days, numerous Tunisians have taken to social media to call for greater respect for the Prophet Mohammed, while others have stressed the importance of defending freedom of expression, including in matters of faith.

The petition against lawmaker Khiari comes as calls for a boycott of French goods have spread around much of the Muslim world, in protest at comments by French President Emmanuel Macron defending the right to caricature the prophet and other religious figures.

Delivered in the wake of Paty’s murder, Macron’s robust defence of French secularism and his criticism of radical Islamists have angered some Muslims, who see them as attacks on all Muslims.

France has urged Arab nations to prevent the “baseless” boycotts, saying they are being “pushed by a radical minority” who distorted Macron’s words.