Charlie-Hebdo, France's Secularism, Islam, and Us All

02/05/2015 05:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, many Americans began to ask themselves: "Why do they hate us?" The mainstream answer was that radical and intolerant religious extremists hated the United States, and behind it the West, for what it does--how its actions go against the "Muslim word." After the recent attack in Paris, the same question would bring about a troubling answer: these groups hate France for what it is, or what they perceive France to represent.

In France, the generation I belong to has learned to laugh, mock, and handle sarcasm or irony from Cabu, Wolinski, Charb and Tignous, the four most prominent French cartoonists, all of them killed in the Charlie-Hebdo massacre. These cartoonists, though similar to others in Holland or elsewhere who took on the Prophet in their drawings, are unique in that they belong not only to a controversial magazine, but to an entire cultural tradition that makes France, at least partly, what it fundamentally is.

Charlie-Hebdo is only one of the remote and natural products of an enduring, well-entrenched French tradition. This collective culture traces back to the "Gaulois" ancestry, an exuberant, turbulent, and undisciplined individualistic mind. It does not accept any kind of authority, or at least its reflex is to mock it without pity. This later became an added Voltairian pre- and post-Revolutionary Enlightenment thinking, one with permanent doubt--especially related to established dogmas and religions, from Popes to Emperors alike. This culture believed in the right to think and to say whatever comes to mind; a tradition later was revisited and nurtured by the French version of 19th Century anarchism, the brief but founding episode of Paris' Commune, and later rephrased by the spirit of the youth revolt of May 68 and its claim of representing a new counter culture.

Over time and in many ways, this essential part of France's mind was also cultivated by confluences of free-masonry, populist trade-unionism, and a philosophical tradition of permanent contradiction. Many traits that could perhaps explain why the French are champions of permanent grumbling, undermining themselves, burning their own idols, and turning quickly against the same leaders they yesterday put on a pedestal.

One corollary aspect of this intellectual tradition, and probably the one most difficult to grasp by the American mind where so often God is at the centre of the Polis, is the relation between the religious and public spheres in France. Distinctive of any other Western country, this sentiment is unique to France, and from it stemmed a strong posture of anti-clericalism and, mainly after the French Revolution and the beheading of the king, a long period of what could be considered as a cold civil-war between the old Catholic Church's France and the Republican State, ending only in 1905 with a "treaty" that organized their coexistence.

In this respect, France's version of secularism, the famous "Laicité à la française," is so typical and idiosyncratic that it is not only quite impossible to translate in to another language, be it English or Arabic, but also conceptually difficult to equate in other mental political systems. It is a different, much stronger and radical kind of secularism, one that--if it is not atheism, closely flirts with it, or at least tolerates it while not overvaluing it.

In brief, irreverence, provocation, impertinence--all about worldly and godly matters--are part of the French conception of "freedom of speech and of thought," that could sometimes to a foreign eye come off disrespectful to some and aggressive to others. However, this thinking is a constitutive part of the French mind and being; and to some extent, it is part of what France is.

In that sense, and if one is to simplify to the extreme and define France solely along these lines, it must be understood that Islam's moral and social ethos, one where religion and social spheres are hardly separable, is much more opposite to the French one than any other country in the West. Yet, Islam and France not only coexist, and they have for more than two centuries now since France became a partly "Muslim nation" through colonization starting with the 1832 conquest of Algeria, but they merge as well, having for some time become intrinsically and intractably intertwined.

The Kouachi brothers who led the bloody attack against Charlie-Hebdo are not, as some Western press have described, Arab or Muslim immigrants freshly arrived to France due to some lax visa policy. In fact, they are born on France's soil, educated in its schools, and socialized in its streets--they are legitimate and full-fledged sons of this same Republic that abides by no God. Ironically enough, Islam has risen to the rank of second religion in a country that makes sacred the hermetic separation between religion and politics, but at the same time, French Islam has come to be a French phenomenon, something both constructed in symbiosis with this French turbulent and contesting culture but also, especially lately, against it.

Yet, besides France's exceptionalism in its relation to religion and to Islam in particular, there is a wider dynamic here: what today is played in the streets of France will also tomorrow be played in the cities of Belgium, in the suburbs of London, or on the docks of Hamburg. In all of these places in Europe and of the West at large, the likes of the Kouachi brothers are not a foreign contingent of new comers that a strict border control policy could solve. Instead, they are the product of a long and sinuous history tying the two shores of the Mediterranean together, one that all right-wing programs and slogans can no more revert or overturn. The terrorists who took the Twin Towers down on a morning of September 2001 were aliens flying from afar; those who took on 12 journalists in Paris were their next-door neighboring compatriots.

From now on, what will be at stake is no longer our future ability as Westerners to coexist on a planet scale with the "Muslim other" after the question of "why do they hate us," but rather our ability, and without too much compromise on mutual ethos, to live together within Western societies for the century or more to come.

Beyond this, another, very audacious, challenge looms: seeing an ever globalized Islam out of its new Western habitat, starting the long-awaited reform that would progressively shape an "other Muslim" or an "other Islam". As if, a few two centuries after the experience of the pioneering thinkers of its social change, it was once again from outside its "Dar" that Islam would renew itself.

It is an ambitious bet, yet an indispensable hope as well. This is why, for better or for worse, though Charlie-Hebdo is so French a phenomenon, one should know that what happened in its offices a few days ago will certainly not remain confined there.