The hubris of what Edward Said calls the "orientalist" imagination that constructs the non-western world within parameters defined by western knowledge knows no limits. Embarking on a "civilizing mission" they still think that the people and the beliefs of those living in the ex-colonies need to be given a healthy dose of what it means to be modern and by extension "free".
The Charlie Hebdo tragedy is a thinly disguised parody of what used to be the "white man's burden" in the heydays of colonialism. It is therefore racist too by extension, a racism hiding behind discourses such as free speech within the "comfort zone" of western democracy (a comfort zone which is more and more beginning to look like the besieged city of Constantinople with Mehmet the Conqueror standing at the gates) and the right to express what you believe irrespective of how others feel about it.
Seriously this is not about free speech. It was never about free speech or liberty to begin with. It was and is about dirty politics. I have no sympathy for the ideology of the men who committed the ghastly murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Non-state actors who do not emerge from a broadly inclusive social movement but rather are guided by personal ego or sub-nationalist aspirations should be dealt with an iron hand because they do not have the legitimate backing of the victims of state violence. They simply did not have the general consent of the majority of Muslims in order to do what they did with impunity.
At the same time I have little or no sympathy at all for the kind of "satire" which is actually humor of the basest kind that motivated the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. I understand French and I understand the cartoons as well -- I see nothing in them which is worth being provocative to a point where you have to lose your life in the hands of thoroughly indoctrinated men desperately searching for a cause.
Both, in my view, are extremists standing for two different nationalisms though basically with the same arrogant disdain for the feelings of the rest. If it is about intolerance it is happening on both the sides. Who started it at first is what we need to take note of. World-weary men in their obsession with being noticed find ways and means of being destructive. They resort to banality merely because they are incapable of looking at things in more subtle or complex terms. In the west these people have the backing of the state and the corporations. In the Middle East they are the self-appointed guardians of religion in this case Islam.
The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are a mediocre lot who ought to be reading the history of colonialism in order to educate themselves on what and who they are dealing with. Lawrence of Arabia may have been deceptive in not letting the Hashemite, Faisal I of Iraq, know about the Sykes-Picot Agreement which divided the Middle East. But Lawrence understood the Arabs and he understood colonialism too. He was an uncannily intelligent man guided by the realities of what he saw on the ground. That's what the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists ought to have kept in mind: not to be irresponsible and vainglorious but to understand the people they are making fun of and do it in a way that would not take away the dignity of those people as human beings.
The Charlie Hebdo attitude is anti-immigrant and anti-minority because it wants to show the cheap immigrant labor that is exploited on a day-to-day basis that they come from backward parts of the world and that they should be thankful that they are in the west and not in the third world. It wants to divide the working classes and make sure that the poor in Europe or America never join hands with the poor in the third world.
The official policy of western governments has been to systematically support extremist elements in the third world for fear of the spread of communism at the grass root levels. Governments that do the job of suppressing their own people enjoy extraordinary support in western capitals. But the periphery never dies. Those who survive at the margins come back to haunt the center.
I remember when President Clinton had come to Hyderabad, India where I live. They removed the beggars from the streets almost overnight because they are not a pleasant sight to look at for an American head of State. The day Clinton left the beggars promptly returned to the streets. It was an epiphanic moment for me: I suddenly saw that this whole "development" slogan that was being parroted night and day by the politicians and the media was a charade. The poor are not going anywhere. They are there to stay. They also understand that the cynical agenda of the governments is about using their labor while excluding them.
For adopting a state policy of a soft line towards extremists and a hard line on the leftists (with the tacit approval of his American bosses), Anwar Sadat paid for it with his life when the extremist officers in the army murdered him in 1981. There is no serious left in any part of the third world that one could boast of as role model for intellectual and political leadership. It is a trap that western governments have created for themselves and their citizens.
In the absence of an educated, intellectual and liberal elite who would have played a positive role in keeping the masses relatively nonviolent, they have to deal with reactionary forces whose goals are definitely commercial and consumerist and whose agenda is primitive and far from sacred. In the medieval ages, Attila the Hun stood at the outskirts of the Roman Empire and fortunately for the Romans was defeated by Flavius Aetius at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.
The radicalized Islamists are unfortunately not somewhere "outside" where they could be defeated by a brilliant general and sent back home, but very much situated in the heartland of Europe and the United States. It is imperative that their personal feelings and private beliefs are given due respect. It is equally imperative that they are accommodated both socially and politically. You cannot be giving passports to people and continue to make them feel like outsiders or second-class citizens because you have an imaginary notion of what it means to be free. It just never works that way. They deserve to be given the same kinds of privileges and protection of their social and emotional rights to live a certain way of life as long as it does not directly conflict with the fundamental goals of the civil society at large.