It is the sort of breaking news you can neither comprehend nor believe. When I heard that Father Jacques Hamel, an 84 year old priest, was murdered by having his throat cut in St-Etienne-du-Rouvray, in Northern France, by two men claiming to be part of ISIS, I just could not believe it.
In a way it seems even more horrific than the attacks on Paris and Nice that we have seen over the past year. Those cities may have lost many more lives, but the sheer horror of this elderly and somewhat frail-looking priest being forced to his knees and his throat being slit is such a shocking mental image. It is very jarring because this particularly barbaric method of killing resembles the slaughter we learn of from afar, in some of ISIS' worst atrocities in Iraq and Syria, or in gruesome videos released of Western journalists murdered at the hands of ISIS. The thought of a church in rural France being attacked in this way is terrifying to us all. And I suppose that is exactly the intention of ISIS, if they were indeed behind it, as they claim.
So many of us have passed through a town just like St-Etienne-du-Rouvray on our French holidays. Or we can picture our own elderly vicar from our village back home. This sort of attack seems even more personalised and wounding than mass carnage in a city centre. Again, this must be exactly the intention of ISIS, to bring the worst of their terror tactics onto the home turf of France and Europe.
And how can and should France react? I don't question for a second their right to be robust in their response to ISIS. They can and should remain resolved to defeat the terrorists. My fears are more around how French society, media and civil society react to this new form of wound. I hope the anger is directed solely at the culprits ISIS and does not extend to the peaceful and genuine Muslims of France. I have lived in France for almost five years and I don't think many would question that anti-Muslim sentiment is bubbling beneath the surface. My Muslim friends are fearful that their peaceful religion is becoming more and more misunderstood. From some French friends I once thought liberal, I can see that they are becoming fearful, and that their views of Muslims and wider immigration are slowly becoming poisoned by ISIS. For example they are becoming harder in their views about a Muslim woman's right to wear her own preferred style of dress such a headscarf. I fear the government needs to do more to integrate immigrant communities and create more equality of opportunity, to build more bridges and acceptance.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which included an attack on a kosher Jewish supermarket, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that "France without Jews is not France' which was a very welcome message for all of us to hear. I would argue that France needs to make a similar affirmation that France would not be France without her Muslims either, that they are a wanted and integral part of France. That needs to be shouted louder than the divisive and poisonous messages from the terrorists. If France becomes divided, ISIS win.
In her heartfelt speech to The Democrats Convention on Tuesday the First Lady of the USA, Michelle Obama, spoke impressively on many topics. But what remained with me most was the line "When they go low, we go high." She explained that it was what she and the President teach their daughters about how to respond to attacks on their family and how it was more broadly relevant for the country against the backdrop of Donald Trump's divisive attacks on different groups within the US and beyond. I hope some of Michelle Obama's ethos can be with France as they mourn the loss of a priest and try to comprehend this horrible attack on a place of worship. The terrorists have gone very low indeed. I love France and find so much to admire in this country. I dearly hope France can 'go high' in months that follow this attack. Defend themselves by all means, but preserve what makes this country and Europe so special: our friendship, tolerance and freedom.
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