Togolese journalists hold 'Je suis Charlie'  signs in front of the French embassy in Lome. Picture: AFP PHOTO / EMILE KOUTON
Togolese journalists hold 'Je suis Charlie' signs in front of the French embassy in Lome, on Thursday. Picture: AFP PHOTO / EMILE KOUTON

QUESTION: How do you start telling a joke about Muslims? Answer: By first looking over your shoulder.

Search for "Muslim jokes" on Google though, and you will find hundreds. For the most they are not funny and many are disgusting, much more so, by far, than any of the cartoons the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo ever published about the Prophet Mohammed or the gods of any other religion it satirises.

If anything, they show the extent to which Islam, the religion, and Muslims, its adherents, have come to be casually, but powerfully, portrayed as greedy and bestial thugs in the West.

If there is one broad lesson to be drawn from the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday it must be that we are able to see murder or terrorism committed in the name of Islam as an aberration and a disgrace of which, again by far, Muslims are themselves the victims. In fact, the first person killed by the Paris gunmen on Wednesday was a Muslim policeman.

Just hours before the attack on the Charlie Hebdo newsroom a car bomb exploded outside a police college in Yemen, killing 37 people. It was probably al-Qaeda, which murders Muslims regularly in that country. The bomb got barely a mention in the media.

Africans also bear much of the burden of the jihad. A few days earlier, Boko Haram thugs operating in the name of Islam killed dozens of women and children in northern Nigeria as they took control of the border town of Baga. A month earlier al-Shabaab murderers killed 36 people at a quarry in Kenya after killing 28 bus passengers in the same area a week earlier.

It sounds trite, I know, to remark that these people do not represent Islam. Equally trite, I suppose, is to remember that the Christian killing of Muslims en masse is very recently with us. Just 20 years ago this year, more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men were butchered by largely Christian Serbs at a town called Srebrenica, as the former Yugoslav Republic fell apart. Here is testimony from just one eyewitness about that time at the International Criminal Tribunal:

"I saw how a young boy of about 10 was killed by Serbs in Dutch uniform. This happened in front of my own eyes. The mother sat on the ground and her young son sat beside her. The young boy was placed on his mother’s lap.

"The young boy was killed. His head was cut off. The body remained in the lap of the mother. The Serbian soldier placed the head of the young boy on his knife and showed it to everyone..."

All in the name of Jesus Christ, no doubt. And just as that was primitive, at just about every level, jihad in the name of Islam is a savage and barbaric abomination. These people kidnap, rape and butcher girls because they are at school, they kill lawyers for defending people accused of insulting Mohammed in Muslim countries where such insult is illegal. They behead journalists.

In a way the journalists and cartoonists killed in Paris on Wednesday were victims of a wider war, only part of which concerns the West. Mainly it is a war within Islam and one with which the established Muslim world is ill-equipped to cope.

It is astonishing how, in the wake of the Arab Spring just two years ago, the countries involved have collapsed into civil war or decay. Only in Tunisia, where the political and social rights of women were deliberately established in the aftermath of the colonial era, has the new freedom promised by the overthrow of dictatorships found traction.

The sharper lessons of Paris, January 7 2015, for SA are profound. The first is the centrality of tolerance. Those killed in the newsroom were shot in order to stop them making fun, in cartoons, of Mohammed. It was, unequivocally, an attack on the freedom of speech.

That freedom is central in any truly progressive society, however uncomfortable it may make some people. It is simply nonnegotiable, and if you are one of those people who argue that freedom of speech is fine provided it doesn’t offend belief or tradition, then you are surrendering it not defending it.

Everything, but everything, should be able to withstand mockery. If it can’t, it is probably worthless.

In SA so much is still raw. There is still great anger. In a way, colonialism and apartheid are the least of it. But we are able simply to contemplate a future as a united country because the founding fathers of our democracy had the vision to secure for us a liberal and secular constitution. It is our roadmap.

We may wander off track often but it is intact. We are still able, sometimes in the face of fierce provocation on all sides, to talk to each other. To value each other. We understand (or most of us do) that poverty is our great shame. Richer citizens do not shout down the government for trying to fix it. They may shout it down for doing a third-rate job of it but that is a debate for another day...

But our past haunts us. Partly that is because we misidentify each other. I am no historian, but the more I read the more convinced I become that as a "European", racism is intrinsic to my culture. By that I mean that over the past 1,000 years or so since the collapse of the Roman Empire, European or Caucasian or perhaps even Christian cultures have grown to regard themselves as superior to others.

There is no other way I can think of to explain the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Three centuries in which about 12-million Africans were captured and sold as commodities into North and South America. How do you explain what was in the minds of the people who so brutalised these poor souls other than that they simply did not regard them as fully human?

And hardly had the slave trade ended than the Europeans colonised Africa. They actually held a conference to divide it up. Add another 150 years of European barbarity to Africans, this time in Africa. And it was all just the other day.

Whether or not Africans are, or can be, racist is an old debate that I have only recently been able to make my mind up about. I do not think it can be accurate to argue in SA today that Africans are racist. Africans have never done to Europeans what Europeans did to them. Racism is part of learned, and by now almost unconscious, European culture over many centuries. It is not African.

Are Africans angry about what whites did? You bet. Are Africans capable of racial and ethnic hatred? You bet. All humans are.

But appreciating the sources of black and white enmity in SA is important to having a more honest conversation about our futures here. To be better than the Old World we need to understand who we are and what behaviour we were born into.

Tolerance is the key to our salvation as South Africans. We already have it but we must make it robust. It is what the jihad has lost.