Since George W. Bush's war on terror anthropomorphized a concept into human form, I have been most skeptical about the use and abuse of this term. Terrorism has become everything from "hate speech," to alternative political thought, to violent acts, to mere disagreement. Terror is everything and anything.
I even had to suffer through an American woman, the first Christmas Eve after 9/11, rant about how "they [Afghan men] treat their women," while our bombs rained down on the heads of Afghan women and children, rendering irrelevant these women's freedom to live.
Now a few days after the horrific attack in Paris, hashtag #JeSuisCharlie floats about the Internet as a neo-liberal nod of solidarity to those who were killed in the attack. While I see its good intentions, in the big picture this hashtag serves as a demonstration of alliance with that coveted icon of western identity: freedom of speech.
But make no mistake, the reasons the perpetrators carried out this attack were more complex than simply freedom of speech. For what is pitifully lacking in most every media representation of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo is the historical background of what this attack was about.
More to the point, what the media fails to discuss is what being Muslim in France means and how the superficial and all-too-familiar echo of "they hate our freedoms" reduces the violence to a familiar tone of the dudes in the black hats are again going after those in the white. Neither fictionalizing the situation into simplistic tropes nor creating a vacuous environment where any explanation that touts the word "hate" repeatedly will suffice to get to the heart of what is going on on in France, or in Europe for that matter.
Let's go back to October and November of 2005 with the civil unrest in Clichy-sous-Bois following the electrocution of two boys, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré who were being pursued by the police, fearful of more of the police checks that Arab youth in France are regularly subjected to.
The situation of civil unrest there after the revelation of these boys' deaths resulted in a public outcry and "riots" which quickly spread to various parts of the country. In the end, very little was done to settle the deepening feelings of distrust of both the police and the larger systemic manifestations of racism felt by most every Arab and North African second generation immigrant under the age of 50. The fact is that France is a country full of Fergusons and its government has done very little to recognize this.
Add to this a country which on the one hand espouses the freedom of expression such as the press of Charlie Hebdo with the "loi no 2004-228 du 15 mars 2004 encadrant, en application du principe de laïcité, le port de signes ou de tenues manifestant une appartenance religieuse dans les écoles, collèges et lycées publics" (literally translated as the "Law #2004-228 of March 15, 2004, concerning, as an application of the principle of the separation of church and state, the wearing of symbols or garb which show religious affiliation in public primary and secondary schools"). On the one hand, nothing is sacred. On the other, everything secular is.
Europe has been a hotbed of anti-Muslim sentiment for decades and has provided a comfortable venue to those who are openly violent to Muslims in recent months. The issues that haunted the streets from Clichy-sous-Bois are far from resolved, and most every Muslim in France knows this. Just glance through the ostensibly equal treatment of all religions in Charlie Hebdo and it is clear that Islam is represented with far more harshness, that Muslims are rendered as animals (as are Africans) and that the attacks on Islam are fierce and frequent.
While I cannot agree with any form of violence such as this week's attacks on Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists, I likewise cannot stand by the ahistoricization of these attacks. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and while these cartoonists did not deserve their violent ends, so too I must argue that the extremism in what Kathy Griffin would call "whitey white-white McWhitey" publications and communities needs to end.
We need to stop demanding that Muslims apologize for these attacks, we should stop running to the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji every time we want a neo-liberal pat on the back to justify our hatred of the Muslim other, and we must stop deferring to 21st-century lackeys of neo-colonialist politics such as Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins who inefficiently mask their racism behind their genuflection to the discourses of "democracy" and "women's rights."
Indeed, hatred of Islam is now rendered hip under the moniker of of "skepticism" and atheism through the mantra of neo-colonialism as the western subject is schooled about how "good-hearted people whisper that they support [Irshad Manji's] mission to reconcile Islam and freedom." The fact is that Islam is not to terrorism what Christianity or western democracy is to freedom and "good-hearted people." And this is where the extremism begins and ends on both sides. Western governments have been bankrolling attacks against Muslim-led governments, evoking every bit the religious war that "we" claim that "they" are waging.
In the foreward to his Muqaddimah (مقدّمة), Ibn Khaldun discounts blind faith in historical discourse, writing, "Blind faith in tradition is congenital" (1377 CE). I suggest that we move forward to understand the circumstances for these acts of violence (not to condone them), beginning with our own countries' bankrolling of perpetual wars against a religion which has for the past 150 years been the focus of orientalist literature, painting, and conquest, ending with our individual and collective soul searching about why we continue to face an "enemy" we have uniquely constructed.
Certainly, journalism should remain open, free and critical. But so too should our readership of such journalism, which includes being critical of hashtags that while well-meaning, can obscure the very racist nature of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons and the ostensible secularism at stake.
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