This is particularly problematic because, looming behind the whole Charlie affair, there is a colonial and post-colonial conflict that has been for far too long articulated along exactly the same “us”/”them” binary lines: “We” in the West are rational, good, modern and free (just don’t bring up the sordid legacy of colonialism, slavery, religious wars, etc.), while “they” are backward, bad, irrational and violent. This binary structure has been used since the late 18th century to justify the use of large-scale violence against Muslims, from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the French occupation of Algeria to the current French bombardments of North Africa and Iraq, all of which at least partly set the stage for the recent violent outburst.
Charlie Hebdo has had many satirical targets, but it also has insinuated itself firmly into this structure, with its long-running series of derogatory cartoons directed against Muslims. This strays far from the original function of satire. The great satirists, including Swift, Byron and Molière, didn’t direct their barbs at reviled and vulnerable minorities. On the contrary, they used satire to expose the vices and the flaws of the self-confident and the powerful. Charlie Hebdo’s satire, in contrast, descended into mere racist taunting and baiting.
And, as though on cue, the deluded young men who carried out the Paris attacks fell for the bait. “You” dare make fun of “us,” they said, then “you” will pay the price; “we” will turn the tables.