A French high school teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to his class was beheaded on Oct. 16 by an 18-year-old Muslim refugee in what France’s President Emmanuel Macron characterized as an “Islamist terrorist attack.”

The killing is the latest high-profile attack by a Muslim extremist in France, coming after the 2015 massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine and the 2016 truck attack in Nice. It also occurred two weeks after Macron gave a controversial speech defining Islam as “a religion that is in crisis today all over the world.”

France, which colonized many Muslim-majority territories in Africa and the Levant in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Algeria and Mali, has Western Europe’s largest Muslim minority – 6 million people, or 9% of its population.

Macron’s Oct. 2 speech outlined a legislative proposal to fight “Islamist separatism.” If passed in Parliament, it would essentially ban home-schooling of all children aged 3 and up and prevent foreign-trained imams from leading French mosques. The goal, said the president, is “to build an Islam in France that can be compatible with the Enlightenment.”

Macron’s analysis concludes, simply, that Islam is somehow at odds with modern Western society. But my research on state secularism and religion shows that the reality is much more complicated.

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