The slain French teacher and Volkhard Windfuhr; fighter against extremism and intolerance

Sent On: 
Wed, 2020-10-21
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Friday October 16 eighteen year old Abdoullakh Abouyezidovitch A, a Russian refugee of Chechen origin, murdered French history and geography teacher Samuel Paty and decapitated him for teaching a class about freedom of expression around the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed [Muḥammad] published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. These cartoons were originally published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 which created an outcry marred by violence and resulted in calls for boycotts against Denmark. Charlie Hebdo responded by republishing these cartoons in 2006.


We have here two belief systems standing diametrically opposed to each other. Conservative Muslims throughout the centuries believe that God and the Prophet Muḥammad should not be blasphemed. The West, however, has experienced a development in which many people have lost their faith and no longer believe that religion should be spared of critique. This criticism does not only concern traditional Islam but also concerns Judaism, Christianity and any other belief system. The Danish cartoonists and Charlie Hebdo believe also Islam can be criticized. The cartoons in particular claim a link between Islam or the Prophet Muḥammad and violence. Of course, this is offensive, but the proponents of the cartoons believe this should be possible.


The great majority of Muslims are not different from Western Christians and Jews who feel offended by ridiculing important tenets of faith but they would never express this through violence. Islamist Muslims, however, believe they have the duty to defend their faith, also through violence if this is believed necessary.


It is telling that the murderer came from Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim state in the Russian Federation. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 Chechnya wanted independence. This led to the First Chechen war of 1994-1996 resulting in defacto independence from Russia and the Second Chechen war in 1999-2000 resulting in Russians retaking Chechnya. These wars have been widely presented as wars between the secular government of Russia and Islamic insurgents who had radicalized over time. This resulted in terrorism attacks in the name of Islam and brutal Russian responses. Of course, Abdoullakh knew the stories of suppression against his family and community. That is why they escaped to the West and found asylum in France. They also took their beliefs and experiences with them; seeing Muslims as oppressed and here was this French teacher who dared to present the cartoons in his class for a discussion about freedom of religion. Muslim students were told they could leave class if they would feel offended. Of course, that is hard to do for young kids due to peer pressure. A number of Muslim parents complained. Abdoullakh had not been a student in Samuel Paty’s class but heard about it and found he had to act, possibly fired up by members of his family and community, resulting in his murder.

Volkhard Windfuhr was correspondent for Der Spiegel and chairman of the Cairo Foreign Press Association. He has interviewed the majority of statesmen and religious leaders in the Middle East.


On October 19, FPA Chairman Volkhard Windfuhr (1937-2020) passed away. His Arabic was fluent and he was widely recognized as an expert on the Middle East. Windfuhr did not condone the Danish cartoons nor their republication in Charlie Hebdo, but he was also a strong critique of Islamist thinking. He opposed all forms of violence and became one of the founders of the Center for Arab-West Understanding (CAWU). He later became an honorary member.

I would describe Mr. Windfuhr as extremely well informed, a humanitarian, a man with a great understanding for developments in the Arab World, a man showing great respect for peoples of different faiths.


The last time I saw him was on December 9, 2019, when H.E. President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi [ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ al-Sīsī] granted him the First Class Order of Merit, the first time ever presented to a foreign correspondent in Egypt. The medal was handed out by Mr. Diaa Rashwan [Ḍiyāʾ Rashwān], head of the State Information Service (SIS), and attended by many of his old friends and colleagues. Windfuhr was very frail and suffering of cancer.


Volkhard Windfuhr stressed the importance for any journalist to remain independent and search for the facts in his reporting. He was critical of the inept regime Egypt witnessed in 2012-2013 without mentioning the Muslim Brotherhood by name. Egyptian society was rapidly polarizing during the one year president Morsi [Muḥammad Mursī] was in power. After the presentations of Ḍiyāʾ Rashwān and Volkhard Windfuhr the assembled press could ask questions. I referred to the years I was serving in the FPA board (1995-2009) and the many visits we made to both locations in Egypt as well as countries in the Middle East including Sudan, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and the Caucasus. We also visited then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghaly [Buṭrus Buṭrus Ghālī] in Strasbourg and New York. I also asked Mr. Windfuhr about the statement about Human Fraternity of H.H. Pope Francis and Grand Shaykh Ahmed al-Tayeb [Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib] of Egypt in February 2019. Windfuhr commended the statement but this now needs to be applied and given hands and feet.


After the ceremony we went to café Riche for a meal and further talks. Mr. Windfuhr again stressed the importance of being independent but at the same time was extremely critical of much foreign media reporting about Egypt. Much is bordering the sensationalist, focused on the negative sides of Egypt instead of trying to understand the complexities of Egypt. Windfuhr was outright negative about Grand Shaykh Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib. Many Salafis are engaged in deeply anti-Coptic propaganda, worse than what was decades ago espoused by the late Shaykh Kishk. Windfuhr suspected this is funded through Muslim Brothers in Jordan. These anti-Coptic sentiments are also heard in the Azhar and Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib is doing nothing to stop this. It is thus questionable, he said, that Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib is truly standing behind the statement that he signed with Pope Francis. Years ago Shaykh al-Azhar al-Ghazali [al-Ghazālī] criticized the government for punishing the murderers of intellectual Farag Foda [Faraj Fūdah] who had uttered sharp criticism of Islamists since they have carried out what they had to do against someone who considered to be a kafir. President Mubarak [Mubārak] initially let such public speech go but at a certain moment found it was enough and blocked access to Egyptian TV for the Shaykh.


Windfuhr believed President al-Sīsī has everything under control but he fears for the period after him. Egypt then may not be blessed with a president who is able to maintain stability and that could well result in a civil war, certainly with the aggressive intolerant speeches one now finds among Salafis.


Egypt, in the view of Mr Windfuhr, first of all needs stability and this also means that there is a need to address hate speeches. Windfuhr also believed that hate speeches in the West have to be curbed.


French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said that Paty was murdered "for teaching a class that had to do with one of the pillars of democracy -- freedom of expression."


It is, however, not so easy to speak of freedom of expression since it is under the banner of freedom of expression that hate speech is possible that sets up people to use violence in defense of what they believe to be their right.


Volkhard Windfuhr chaired in 2015 a well-attended press meeting of Arab-West Report about the Charlie Hebdo attack. Arab-West Report presented a media overview. Azhar scholar Dr. Anas Abu Shady [Anas Abū Shādī] then presented an excellent paper about how to challenge the thoughts Islamists spread. This paper was highly relevant in 2015 and remains highly relevant in 2020. I strongly recommend you reading Dr. Abū Shādī’s paper.


Not long after our meeting in December Mr. Windfuhr was admitted to a hospital where he has stayed until his death. Mr. Windfuhr kept following developments in the world through a TV in his room and reading newspapers. When I called him, he always inquired how my wife and children were doing. With the passing away of Mr. Windfuhr we have lost an expert on Islamic thinking and a friend.
Please find here the text I wrote for the Cairo Foreign Press Association.



Cairo, October 21, 2020


Cornelis Hulsman, Editor-in-Chief Arab-West Report