France closes mosque in crackdown following teacher’s killing

Grand Mosque of Pantin shared video criticising teacher victim who showed pupils caricatures of Prophet Muhammad.

A view of the Grand Mosque of Pantin, which will close following a request by the prefect in the northeastern suburbs of Paris [Christophe Archambault/AFP]

France ordered the temporary closure of a mosque outside Paris on Tuesday as part of a crackdown on people who are suspected of inciting hatred, after the killing of a teacher who showed his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Grand Mosque of Pantin, in a low-income suburb on the capital’s northeastern outskirts, had shared a video on its Facebook page before the attack that vented hatred against history teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded last week.

Police plastered notices of the closure order outside the mosque as the authorities promised a tough response against the disseminators of hate messages, preachers of controversial sermons and foreigners believed to pose a security threat to France.

The six-month order was “for the sole purpose of preventing acts of terrorism”, the notice issued by the head of the Seine-Saint-Denis department read.

The investigation into the grisly killing revealed on Tuesday the man who decapitated Paty had been in contact with a parent leading an online campaign against the teacher.

The breakthrough in the case came as President Emmanuel Macron promised more pressure after days of a crackdown that resulted in more than a dozen arrests, the mosque ordered shut, and a pro-Hamas group ordered dissolved.

“Our fellow citizens expect actions,” Macron said during a visit to a Paris suburb. “These actions will be stepped up.”

Police sources said earlier the 18-year-old killer had exchanged messages on WhatsApp with the man who wanted Paty fired after his daughter told him how the teacher had shown cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a lesson on free speech.

The girl’s father was outraged by him displaying a caricature of the Prophet naked, and sought Paty’s dismissal for disseminating “pornography”. The parent was behind an online campaign urging “mobilisation” against the teacher.

The man, now in police custody, had placed his phone number on Facebook and exchanged messages with the killer – 18-year-old Chechen Abdullakh Anzorov – on WhatsApp in the days leading up to the murder, police sources told AFP news agency. Anzorov was shot dead by police soon after the killing.

‘Breaking point’

The beheading of Paty, 47, for his use of religious satire to explore with students the debate surrounding freedom of expression has convulsed the country and shocked the world.

The killing came weeks after Macron expressed concerns about what he calls “Islamist separatism”.

In a speech earlier this month, Macron said, “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today, we are not just seeing this in our country” – comments that led to a backlash from the world’s Muslims, who claimed he was pandering to the far right.

France’s fragile relationship with its Muslim minority, the largest in Europe, is at breaking point.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said this week that France was confronted by an “enemy within”.

Meanwhile, there are rising concerns of collective punishment regarding France’s response to Friday’s killing.

Darmanin, in a post on Twitter, threatened to close the Collective against Islamophobia in France, an anti-racist civil society group, prompting concerns from activists.

“We are concerned by the political pressures, at the highest level of the French government, and intimidation campaign targeting a human rights organisation whose work is to address discrimination and hate crimes against Muslim citizens,” said the European network against racism.

Macron added that a pro-Hamas group active in France would be dissolved for being “directly implicated” in the murder of the teacher.

The decision to shut down the “Cheikh Yassine Collective”, which is named after a Hamas founder, will be taken at a Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, he said.

Cheikh Yassine Collective’s Abdelhakim Sefrioui is currently being held by police for publishing a video on YouTube insulting Paty.

In a statement, Hamas stressed it has no links with the French group.

“Hamas condemns any media attempt to defame the movement by mentioning its name while covering domestic battles that the Palestinian movement has no tiny relation with,” the statement said.

Prime Minister Jean Castex told parliamentarians on Tuesday the government was now targeting “all associations whose complicity with radical Islamism has been established”.

‘No room for violence’

The rector of the Grand Mosque of Pantin, M’hammed Henniche, this weekend expressed regret over sharing the video on social media, after it emerged Paty had become the victim of a vicious online campaign of intimidation before he was killed.

In the video, the Muslim father of one of Paty’s students said the history teacher had singled out Muslim students and asked them to leave his class before showing the cartoons. He called Paty a thug and said he wanted the teacher removed.

Henniche told Agence France Presse he shared the video, filmed by the father of a student at Paty’s school, not to endorse the complaint but out of concern for Muslim children.

“There’s no room for violence in our religion,” the mosque said in a statement published on Facebook on Monday. “We strongly condemn this savagery.”

One Pantin resident, who gave her name as Maya and said her husband prayed at the mosque, called the closure “sad for our community”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies