01/09/2015 06:27 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2015

What the Paris Attack Is Really About (Hint -- Neither Free Speech Nor the Varied Nature of Muslims)

As with any dramatic, tragic attack on Western civilians, the mass-murder of the staff of the French cartoon satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, and secondary attack on a Kosher supermarket, have generated lot of broad, heated responses. Two easy responses in particular may seem reassuring to American audiences. First is that the event is about free speech, and the importance of supporting it vigorously. Second is that the gunmen, though espousing an Islamist agenda, are not representative in any way of Islam and Mulsims generally. Both of these large points are true in general, perhaps to the point of banality. Yet the first is too general and the second too specific. Both conceal real nuances that are important to moving policy discussions forward.

In fact, Charlie Hebdo and the attack on it are more specifically about French identity than free speech. And, though, of course the gunmen who killed the Charlie Hebdo staff do not represent all Muslims, they do connect to a broader trend in the Middle East, not limited to Muslims, that justifies social solidarity and the repression of diverse ideas over free and open published discourse.

Here is more on each of these points, and why they matter.

1. French "Laic" National Identity under Attack

Affirmations that people stand behind the right of the press to opine freely, without giving in to fear of violence, sound great. But they run the danger of taking the specific nature and meaning of Charlie Hebdo out of context, which can either lead into unproductive debates around parsing the particular cartoons, or generalizations around what to do about offensive free speech.

Charlie Hebdo has particular French cultural roots and resonance, both of which are actually rather traditional for French society. First is the magazine's tendency to flout authority generally, a French impulse as old as mousse au chocolat. Second, and more importantly, is the weekly's reinforcement of the long-standing base of French national identity, a particular sort of secularism known as "laicisme."

For generations, a shared notion of French unified cultural community has been put forward by elite society as more important than any form of subnational identity, particularly of the creedal sort. When Charlie Hebdo pokes fun crassly of religious fundamentalists, not just Muslims, but Jews and Christians, as well as politically dogmatic figures, it falls in line with a traditional French national idea that collective French culture should trump polarizing particularism.

The particularly French traditional grounding of Charlie Hebdo matters because it diverts attention away from whether the magazine was Islamophobic or racist in favor of highlighting why the project Charlie championed in its crude way might seem problematic to some native French Muslims, including the extremely violent ones who led the attack. French laicisme in recent years has lost a good bit of its luster, in that the increased inequalities of French society, often along racial and creedal lines, inspire skepticism regarding the promise of an integrated French culture that trumps more robust religious or other identity. Seen in these terms, Charlie Hebdo is a target that represents a particularly assertive version of a dominant strain of French identity politics. The violent attack on the magazine connects to more protracted, less dramatic conflicts around the promise and peril of "French-ness," such as the place of religious Jews or the head-scarf controversies of recent years.

In particular, moving away from a simple emphasis on free speech to French particularity helps non-French appreciate the broad question that the horrific attack underscores about whether a cultural integrative identity can persist with the lack of opportunities and marginalization that seem particularly cogent among of France. Without in any way justifying the attack, understanding it within the context of French identity politics allows a more nuanced consideration of why France remains very open to such violence, however much the world reaffirms free speech.

2. The Contemporary Middle East and Free Political Expression

But what of the fact that this attack was carried out by Muslims, who shouted "God is Great" and voiced their sense that they were defending the Prophet Muhammed? The deep importance of containing Western tendencies to lump Muslims together, and denigrate them, already a major issue in Europe and the U.S., leads to a chorus of voices reaffirming that what just happened in Paris does not represent Islam.

Naturally, this is true, but it won't necessarily silence the many voices asking why so much violence in the Middle East (and very occasionally in the West) during this particular moment in history is undertaken by extremist Muslims. It is unfair and unproductive to generalize about a global religion like Islam, with respect to violence. Yet, it may be reasonable to think about the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) context as a source for a particular struggle, often carried out violently.

Several points about Middle Eastern Politics 101 are worth keeping in mind. First, the combination of pre-colonial MENA history's successes under Islamic empires and the generally violent encounters with Europe have left many contemporary states seeming unsettled or illegitimate, the product of colonial coercion. Second, and as a result of the first, the comparatively non-democratic nature of most Middle Eastern governments has entailed a great deal of region-based repression of citizens' political and economic aspirations. Third, this repression has been particularly acute in the arena of free expression, where governments (and the opposition movements they have spawned) have often justified harsh treatment of political dissenters and journalists in the name of enhancing social solidarity.

What all of this means in a nutshell is that the MENA has been a region with an unusual level of popular resentment towards governments, and examples of political actors engaging in using force against open political expression against political orthodoxy. Indeed, the pre-2011 frequent MENA state pattern of forcing Islamist political groups to be unlawful and clandestine often remade such groups in the coercive images of the states that outlawed them. With the retrenchment and broad disillusionment in the MENA after the uprisings of 2011, states like Egypt have gone back to their pattern of repressing violently groups, mostly Islamist, who are claimed to undermine social solidarity.

Given this basic, if not monolithic, regional context, violent actors like the Islamists in France are not representative of Islam, but rather stem from a specific, non-cultural, political context in which there are far too many specific examples of the use of violence to silence dissent. If violence can breed violence, the legacy of both violent Western colonialism and post-colonial repressive authoritarianism in the MENA should be confronted and connected more clearly to the broader nexus of the tragedy of Paris.

In short, moving away from broad social platitudes, however comforting, to arguments grounded more specifically in particular countries and more broadly in a regional context is tricky. Yet it may be crucial to make better sense of why the French militants with Middle Eastern ties who attacked Charlie Hebdo are both part of an ongoing internal French and Middle Eastern regional set of problems that won't go away without knowledge of the underlying problems.