Of sticks and stones and beheadings: which poses a greater threat?

With all this talk of ‘Islamophobia’ about, some have real fears of Islam – like teachers beheaded by jihadi students!

Do you remember the taunt on the playground when you were a kid?  If someone said something stupid to you, in the form of a slur, you would retort: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  So there!

It turns out, however, that some reply to perceived insults in much more dramatic fashion.  Like threatening to cut your head off.  Others take the old adage about ‘sticks and stones’ literally: like the Taliban who have re-introduced this barbaric form of punishment for woman adulterers.

But let us get back to beheading…

A school principal in the eastern part of Paris saw no other option than to resign when he began to receive threats online after asking three female students to remove their hijabs (head covering) in class.  France has a very strict set of secularism laws that preclude any overt religious symbols to be worn.

According to letter sent by the school sent to teachers, pupils and parents, the principal left for “security reasons”: others had the audacity to say he had taken ‘early retirement”.  Is that what they call fearing for your life in French?

In a little over a week 150 schools in France report receiving email threats including “tomorrow, I will explode the entire establishment and decapitate all your bodies of kouffars (Arabic for unbelievers) to serve Allah the Almighty.”

This is not a one-time incident.  In the western Hauts de Seine region of Paris a female student threatened to kill a teacher after an argument.  The student is alleged to have said “In the name of Allah I will kill her”.

Now I suppose some would dismiss this as typical female hormones going off and words spoken anger when an exchange escalated.  Except this is France and other teachers have been killed by Muslim students in recent years.

In 2020, a 13-year old girl told her family that her history teacher, Samuel Paty, had instructed Muslim students to leave the classroom so he could show the rest “a photograph of the Prophet naked”.  Ten days later, M. Paty was dead, decapitated by an Islamist terrorist.  Six teenagers in all were put on trialaccused of slander and pointing out Mr Paty to his killer, a Chechen refugee, at the school.

In 2023, a knife-wielding man killed a teacher and wounded three other people at a school in Arras in what officials described as an Islamist terror attack.  French security agencies believe the violent act was tied to the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza.  A society which cannot protect the safety of the very people entrusted with the education of its young is in dire shape indeed.

One can criticize France’s insistence on leaving religious clothing at home.  One can also disagree with French foreign policy in the Middle East or elsewhere.  One can also worry about the rise in popularity of anti-immigrant political parties and the possibility of attacks by the far right on immigrant communities (right of centre political leader of the National Rally Marine Le Pen may very well become the next President of France and some predict anti-Muslim violence in the wake of her victory).

It is, however, one thing to disagree, engage in civil protest and even call for the ouster of the government of the day, by peaceful (i.e. democratic) means of course.  It is quite another to use violence to punish those perceived to have slighted your faith.

French counter terrorism academic Gilles Kepel has called this habit of (threatening to use) violence “atmospheric jihadism”, i.e. an effort to create an ‘us vs them’ narrative that gives some the excuse to attack and kill.

This makes you put all these claims about ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘racism’ in context, doesn’t it?  What should we make of the alleged ‘rise’ in Islamophobia here in Canada and elsewhere since the Hamas attack of last October?  Have any Muslims been killed?  Any decapitated?  If there are some they have not crossed my radar.

Still, some speak as if there has been an equal increase in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.  No, the two are nowhere near the same.

There have been several jihadi attacks planned and executed – thankfully some have been foiled thanks to good intelligence and law enforcement work.  There have not been any comparable uses of violence against Muslims to the best of my knowledge.

How do we compare a dirty look or a verbal insult to having one’s head removed from one’s body?  I’d say we are talking apples and oranges here.  No, racist or ethnic slurs are never nice, but let us not treat words and sticks and stones (or cleavers) in the same category, shall we?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.