Why is Paris burning?

Nothing justifies the large-scale violence and killings inflicted on the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and on the persons present at the hostage-takings that followed the initial attack of Wednesday Jan. 7, 2015!!

That being said, there are much broader issues surrounding our original question: Why are Paris, France and much of Western Europe being consumed by the fires of religious, racial and cultural strife?

Another related question that imposes itself in this conversation is: How do we address such specific ethical issues as the claim that the irreverent cartoons of Charlie Hebdo constitute unacceptably gross disrespect for the Muslim / Islamic faith?

Both questions are important and both can only be properly understood when they are linked with each other and considered in a broader context. That broader context comprises issues of thinking and attitude on diversity, as well as issues of social and socio-economic integration. In this context, it bears repeating that we are seeking to explain cause and effect, not to justify any type of behavior.

That first set of diversity issues reflects the French society’s thinking and attitude about what constitutes the French identity. Traditionally, the French people see themselves as having an identity that is comprised of three shared components: race (white = “European”), religion (Christian) and culture (French and West European).

Persons from the developing countries and French overseas departments and territories, including former French colonies, who do not share those three characteristics are traditionally perceived to be “foreign”, immigrant and, ipso facto, inferior. Hence former French president Nicolas Sarkozy once referred to the sub-urban groups of mainly French-Arab-Muslim youth which were engaged in violent riots protesting marginalization, poverty and discrimination as “racaille”, that is, scum.

Hence also the importance of avoiding insensitive and inflammatory terms like “barbaric” and “uncivilized” which imply that the perpetrators of the violent acts of protest belong to ancestral societies that are culturally inferior to “our” Western societies.

Two generations of such negative attitudes to French citizens of “foreign” origin, most who were born in France but never accepted as French, have been compounded by the second set of issues related to social and socio-economic integration. Unlike what is still taking shape in Canada, the Muslim youth who stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris have not been provided with avenues for equal opportunities, with social and academic support systems, and with dedicated training and networks for employment and career enhancement.

That absence of caring and nurturing structures to build social inclusiveness and to create avenues for upward mobility for French-Arab-Muslim youth has led to a form of ghettoization, a culture of alienation, a sense of victimization and neglect that denies any hope of acceptance. The most desperate of those youth develop a deep anger born of rejection and they seek comfort and purpose in religion rather than simply in culture. They become zealous “soldiers” of Islam and ready recruits for extremist groups in their country of residence, in the Middle East and in the global battlefields as far away as Australia.

The only approach to reversing those flights of desperation that we call terrorism is to seek to crate open, tolerant and multi-faceted societies that are officially secular and that give all persons, communities, religions, cultures and ethnicities equal respect, status and treatment.

That equal respect includes specifically the responsibility to treat all with sensitivity and to abstain from the demonization of which Islam has been the major victim in western media and western societies as a whole.

It is therefore important to make a stark distinction between the Muslim/Islamic faith and the politically infused, extremist “religious” beliefs of Islamic fundamentalism. “Religious extremism” is a very dangerous force wherever it is found.

That is why we could not condone the actions and “values” of fundamentalist Christians who sought to physically destroy abortion clinics in the U.S. and to harass and even kill the medical personnel of U.S. clinics in which abortion was being practiced. That is why we would not have condoned the historic reign of terror of the Spanish Catholic Inquisition for the violent intolerance, persecution and execution it visited on so-called “heretics” and “infidels” and other persons and groups accused or suspected of being a threat to the establishment centuries ago.

In that vein, we have a responsibility to balance our freedom of expression with sensitivity for the feelings and values of others. Our use of freedom of the press should not take for granted the ability of persons of different backgrounds and values to “take a joke”.

Moreover, it is not the responsibility of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and persons of other faiths to “deal with” their extremist elements, it is our responsibility: all members of society share this responsibility equally.