On July 26, two terrorists slashed the throat of a priest in northern France as he was celebrating the morning mass in the small city of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.

This barbaric act, immediately condemned by the representative of the French Muslim community as it was in complete contradiction with the teachings of the Quran, shocked the country less than two weeks after the horrendous attacks in Nice on July 14 which had claimed 85 innocent lives.

While most of the previous Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) supported acts on French soil had been concentrated in Paris, the latest attacks took place outside the capital city.

Terror having struck a large provincial city and a tiny peaceful town, the feeling of insecurity has now spread to the entire French population, which now feels at risk everywhere in the country.

Fomenting fear

This change of strategy is in line with ISIL's objective of fomenting fear and a desire for vengeance in France, hoping to encourage acts of retaliation against the Muslim community, the vast majority of whom strongly support French republican laws and condemn terrorist attacks.

An increase in hatred and mistrust between communities, a victory for the xenophobic National Front party in upcoming elections, or an aggressive reaction against mosques or Muslims would only facilitate the recruitment of new terrorists to join the ranks of ISIL.

The day after the killing of Father Jacques Hamel, a man assaulted a Senegalese in his 70s a few kilometres away from the attacked church.

In Nice, Muslim French citizens were insulted and told to leave the country - in which most of them were born - by a handful of angry citizens.

The peaceful religious co-existence in France - a country that is home to the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in Europe - is the main target of ISIL, as the terrorist group regularly calls for eliminating what it refers to as a "grey zone" incompatible with its religious dualistic vision of a world divided in two camps: the Muslim and the unfaithful.

ISIL hopes to create a milieu of stiffening security policies and extremely negative public opinion against the Muslim community to convince them that they should turn against Europe.

 

Father Hamel was a known advocate and architect of religious co-existence. The small town was an example of cooperation across religions as the priest and the local imam, Mohammed Karabila, regularly worked together to build interfaith bridges, including joint after-school care and summer camps.

The parish had provided the land on which the mosque was built. The town of St Etienne-du-Rouvray itself is also quite symbolic as the residents have always voted for a Communist mayor since the 1950s, thus strongly supporting the secularism defended by this party - which is also a central pillar of French republicanism.

Political and religious reactions

Aside from National Front attempts to promote populist lies through the media and attempts by right-wing presidential candidates such as Nicolas Sarkozy to seize momentum to secure his party nomination, one must underline the responsible reactions from religious leaders and the French President Francois Hollande.

In the hope of ensuring the persistence of a peaceful religious coexistence in the country, Hollande immediately gathered all confessions at the Elysee Palace.

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Local imams refused to prepare the body of the terrorist for burial, stating this would "taint Islam", while the French Islamic authorities encouraged devout Muslims to go and pray in churches the following Sunday.

The Pope himself refused to address the topic of religious violence, stressing that neither Islam nor any other religion advocates such acts.

The permanence of those mature reactions is essential because the war against ISIL will not be won with bombs in Syria or by the intelligence services.

French society, through its capacity to remain united and to defend its secular and republican values, holds the key to victory.

ISIL hopes to create a milieu of stiffening security policies and extremely negative public opinion against the Muslim community to convince them that they should turn against Europe.

In ISIL's propaganda, the narrative mentions the George W Bush dichotomy of "for or against us" to encourage weak-minded Muslims to join the war in Syria.

It is essential for the people of Europe to avoid falling into ISIL's trap, and instead reaffirm the humanistic roots of Europe and reject communitarianism.

In that sense the decision by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to maintain her welcoming policy towards Syrian refugees despite the recent attacks in Germany was key.

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As academic Scott Atran explains, a welcome to Syrian refugees clearly represents a winning response to ISIL's strategy.

Celebrating diversity and tolerance in the "grey zone" has a badge of honour, and is a powerful response against sectarianism and fundamentalism. Turning to xenophobic parties or populist answers is playing into the terrorists' hands otherwise.

Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Aljazeera