In Tunisia a couple of months ago, I heard an academic speculate anxiously about the possibility that his country's elections would bring an Islamist party to power. Like many Arab intellectuals, he was making tentative plans to move to France if Tunisia's secular state appeared to be in danger of being dismantled. In the event, the largest party after October's elections was an Islamist organisation, Ennahda, although its leader has so far been careful to sound moderate.
In Libya, meanwhile, the lynching of Colonel Gaddafi was followed by an announcement that sharia would in future be the basis of all legislation. The leader of the National Transitional Council Mustafa Abdul Jalil declared that a secular law banning polygamy was to be repealed, horrifying Arab women who had supported the revolutions.
It was in response to these developments that the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo decided to rename itself Charia Hebdo – charia is French for sharia – for a week, and announced the Prophet Mohamed as guest editor. A cartoon of Mohamed appeared on the cover, accompanied by a speech bubble in which he threatened "100 lashes if you don't die laughing". In no time at all, the magazine's offices in Paris had been destroyed by a fire bomb. Its website was attacked by angry Muslims, who took down the content and replaced it with the chilling phrase "No God but Allah".
No one was hurt, but the clear intention was to intimidate journalists. In any other week, the attack would have been a major news story – or that's what I'd like to think. It was a relief to see politicians from France's main parties uniting to condemn an act of terrorism. But it didn't take long for a predictable chorus of "Islamophobia" to start up, directed against the magazine. An assistant producer at France 24, Romina Ruiz-Goiriena, accused Charlie Hebdo of contributing to "burgeoning anti-Muslim sentiment" apparently failing to consider that hurling a petrol bomb is a guaranteed way of achieving exactly that.
But the prize for moral idiocy has to go to Time magazine's Paris correspondent, Bruce Crumley, who found it "hard to have much sympathy for the French satirical newspaper firebombed ... after it published another stupid and totally unnecessary issue mocking Islam". Crumley admitted there was "no excuse" for the attack, but made a feeble joke at the magazine's expense, wishing it "good luck with those charcoal drawings your pages will now be featuring".
Last autumn, I marched through London to protest against the Pope's visit, walking alongside placards with slogans just as mordant as the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo. There's a crucial difference between attacking ideas and putting lives at risk; last week's arson attack in Paris isn't the first time Islamists have wildly over-reacted to "offensive" images in publications no one is obliged to buy, as though faith removes the basic obligation to exercise self-control and refrain from violence.
But there is a larger point here: if it isn't possible to unequivocally condemn fire-bombing in the capital city of a secular European nation, what message does it send in countries where there is no separation between religion and state? Many Arabs are secular and they – not the Islamists who respond to satire with incoherent rage – are the people who need our solidarity and support.