Tolerance for forms of belief and behavior different from our own is an evolutionary achievement of society. It grows alongside increasing social diversity and complexity, finding expression in liberal laws and communication practices. Indeed, cultural progress may be measured by the extent to which societies are able to surpass the repressive intolerance of previous epochs. Not surprisingly, as in most other areas of life, such progress has been uneven.
Modern social institutions, particularly the law, prompt individuals to keep their multiple identities apart, instead of allowing any of these to determine all their interactions in everyday life. Yet, in many societies today, including those that are modern in all other respects, people continue to subject others to discrimination based on race or ethnicity, caste or class, religion, and gender, etc. This unevenness is likewise evident in the varying degrees to which people use the primordial strands supplied by race and religion to weave their personal identities.
These rudimentary thoughts are summoned once again by the need to make sense of a recent event that seems as barbaric as it is anachronistic in the context of a modern society like France. Apart from condemning the deed, what is one supposed to think when masked gunmen barge into the editorial offices of a satirical French news magazine and mow down its entire staff during their weekly meeting, killing 10 of them, including the editor in chief, and the two policemen assigned to secure them?
The magazine, Charlie Hebdo, is known for its distinctive style of reporting the news. It specializes in lampooning and mocking various forms of extremist thinking and conduct. Islamic fundamentalism has been one of its favorite subjects. The paper’s irreverent depictions of the figure of Prophet Mohammad in its recent cartoons have angered many Muslims who consider these portrayals not just insensitive but downright blasphemous and offensive to their faith. Its fearless editor, cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier, who was specifically targeted for execution, once defended his paper by saying that he and his fellow journalists operated only under French laws and not by the rules of Islam or any other religion. It is not difficult to understand this fierce liberalism and secularism when one considers French history, particularly the revolution that dislodged the aristocracy and the clergy from their perch.
The French President, François Hollande, wasted no time calling the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff a terrorist attack, an assault against all the ideals that France represents. “The Republic equals freedom of expression; the Republic equals culture, creation; it equals pluralism and democracy. That is what the assassins were targeting. It equals the ideal of justice and peace that France promotes everywhere on the international stage, and the message of peace and tolerance that we defend—as do our soldiers—in the fight against terrorism and fundamentalism.”
The assassins have been identified as Islamic extremists with links to a Yemen-based al-Qaida group. One of them, an 18-year-old young man, who appears to have served as a lookout, has been arrested. The two gunmen who carried out the attack, the brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, were able to escape on a hijacked vehicle but were subsequently cornered by the police in a small town in the outskirts of Paris where they sought refuge. The latest report says the two men, who had made known that they wished to die as martyrs, have been killed by the French police.
People fear that this tragic episode may not end here, but may signal the renewal of a conflictful process that should have ended under modernity. While Muslims everywhere have condemned the violent attack on the French journalists as unacceptable and unwarranted, there is widespread apprehension that the event could trigger an Islamophobic backlash.
France has the largest Islamic immigrant population in Europe. Like Germany, it has had to confront the serious challenge of growing anti-immigrant sentiments. Indeed, globalization has transported the problematic ghost of the colonial “other” into the very heart of
Europe. It is certainly not a coincidence that the Kouachi brothers are of Algerian origin.
What global migration has done is to inject a new social reality into the capitals of the modern world—a reality that, when viewed through the prism of Western Enlightenment, can only be seen as an irrational attempt to Islamize Europe. Immigrants are expected to see this themselves. Some do, but many others don’t. Their resentment grows with every instance of exclusion they experience in the colonial homeland. In their isolation, they turn to their religion and their ethnic communities for meaning and consolation.
The freedom of expression and of the press is a highly protected right in modern democratic legal systems because of its essential vulnerability to attack by various forms of fascism. In an earlier time, when state-sponsored dominant religions were the norm, that privileged space was given to the right to freely choose and profess one’s own religion and to be entitled to respect for one’s religious feelings.
The world has moved on, and while much of Europe has outgrown its religious past, the rest of humanity holds on to its religions. The two sides are trapped in their respective metaphysics, from which they cannot hope to be bailed out by a higher reason. There is no way to begin to bridge that gap except by building a culture of tolerance and respect for the other.
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