Lessons from Charlie Hebdo: terrorism is same everywhere

These days terrorism is never far away – the actual acts or news of them. This is not new. Terrorism has always existed in various forms.

These days terrorism is never far away – the actual acts or news of them. This is not new. Terrorism has always existed in various forms.

As we also know, it is often spawned by extremism and intolerance. Reactions to acts of terrorism, as we have seen, are equally extremist and intolerant.

Both these were present in Paris nearly two weeks ago when Islamic extremists attacked the weekly satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and killed twelve people.

The French reacted by marching through the streets to reaffirm the right to freedom of expression. The world responded by declaring solidarity with the French. A lot has since been said from all sides - mostly intemperate and even provocative.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo and the heated reactions of its aftermath have some very important lessons that we seem to keep forgetting.

It reminded us that politics and religion form a very unstable and explosive mix. Matters of faith and politics are usually strongly emotive and excite irrational and base reactions.

Although both preach forbearance, understanding and humility, ironically they also breed intolerance and arrogance. All these were present in Paris, from the attackers on Charlie Hrbdo, its publishers and journalists and even the marchers and commentators.

Pope Francis and President Paul Kagame were some of the few leaders to counsel a common sense view of the issue. For the Pope there has to be respect for the world’s different faiths and that necessarily places limits on both the exercise of certain rights and reaction to provocation.

President Kagame advises that managing extremism requires level-headedness and sobriety, not rash action.

In a world with many faiths, cultures and divergent views, understanding and tolerance are key to harmonious existence. Yet these are the first casualties of extremism.

Charlie Hebdo has been important in another sense. It has shown how common sense gets lost in the clash of extremes. Extremism exists on the fringes; it is never mainstream.

But when we allow it to dominate, we lose the middle ground, that common space on which all mankind meets to live harmoniously on our shared earth. We lose that spirit of accommodation that enables people to share the same space.

Examples abound. In the United States governing becomes almost impossible when extremists, such as the Tea Party, want to turn their sectarian agenda into national policy. Afghanistan under the Taliban was the classic example of the effects of political intolerance informed by religious fundamentalism.

Another lesson from Charlie Hebdo: who has the right to accuse others of intolerance? In Africa, the attackers on the magazine, its owners and the leaders of the countries who went to Paris to march in support of freedom of expression (some, of course, went only to pledge their loyalty) share the guilt of intolerance.

Several centuries ago, their ancestors came here and did what the Charlie Hebdo people and those who killed them have been doing. They called us pagans, heathens and infidels, and burnt our shrines and icons. They called our priests witchdoctors and outlawed them.

We were declared new creatures made in the image of their choice. In doing all this, they showed scant regard to our sensibilities and deeply-held beliefs.

Today, some of these are probably the real pagans but still have the same arrogance and insensitivity. Good manners, however, prevent us from calling them such and treating them as some sort of sub-human species. Well, of course, only those with similar levels of prejudice or greater fanaticism will do so as we continue to see.

As is usual these days, a” tweetable” phrase or #-tag will be used to both capture and galvanise attention. In the aftermath of the Paris attack, it was “Je suis Charlie” that was used to express solidarity. In another sense the tag brings to mind an old English saying: what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Terrorism is the same wherever it takes place and must be equally condemn.

What happened in Paris was terrorism and was rightly denounced. Similar attacks happen in other places and are sometimes met with silence or indifference. On occasion they are even explained away as legitimate political expression – when they happen far away, of course.

For instance, a few years ago, terrorists hurled grenades in different places in Rwanda and killed dozens of innocent Rwandans. Rwanda said these were acts of terrorism and proceeded to investigate and arrest suspects.

In many Western capitals, the grenade attacks were portrayed as acts of political dissidents fighting for political space. How would it sound if one said the attackers of Charlie Hebdo were merely responding to provocation and asserting their right to differ? Insensitive, of course.

Thousands of police and soldiers have been deployed in Paris to protect its inhabitants from terrorist attacks. In Belgium troops now patrol the streets for the same reason. These are obviously legitimate security measures any responsible government will take to protect its citizens.

Following the grenade attacks in Rwanda, the government stationed police and soldiers in some strategic places to offer protection to Rwandans. This sensible security measure was condemned in some quarters as intended to intimidate the Rwandan public and to keep it docile.

It is a strange world of extremes, none more so than what has over the years come from the land that gave us the lofty ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. And surely what is good for the goose is also good for the gander.