Drowned Migrant Cartoon Pisses People Off — Just as ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Likely Intended
The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is stirring up controversy once again with a series of cartoons about Europe’s migrant and refugee crisis. Its most recent edition features images of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, including a cartoon that shows him face-down in the sand, alongside a grinning Ronald McDonald-like figure.
The cartoons are provoking a range of reactions. Some see a cruel mockery of the hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees now fleeing war zones to reach Europe. Others see a searing indictment of European apathy in the face of a humanitarian crisis.
In short, Charlie Hebdo may be doing exactly what its cartoonists intend to do: Create a buzz.
“I’m not saying these migrant cartoons are a particularly brilliant provocation,” Jonathan Guyer a Cairo-based fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs, and expert on political cartoons, told VICE News. “But with cartoons, you have to keep in mind: there’s never one way to read something… and with Charlie Hebdo they do tend to go for shock value.”
In January, after Charlie Hebdo published images of the Prophet Mohammad, Islamic militants stormed the magazine’s Paris offices, killing 11 staffers, including the editor-in-chief.
The magazine’s most recent issue shows it’s still not afraid of controversy. In perhaps the most shocking cartoon of the issue, the Syrian toddler Kurdi is shown in shorts and a T-shirt face-down on the shoreline beside a billboard advertising a “two for one” kids menu. The image ran with the caption “So close to making it…”
Kurdi’s body washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach in early September after a boat carrying him and his family capsized off the coast. A photo of the toddler’s corpse provoked an international outcry. French Prime Minister Francois Hollande phoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and several other world leaders after the photo was published to talk about their collective responsibility toward migrants.
Using Kurdi’s image in a political cartoon has provoked outrage and even legal threats. Peter Herbert, chair of the UK’s Society of Black Lawyers, tweeted that the group would consider reporting Charlie Hebdo’s work as hate speech before the International Criminal Court.
Charlie Hebdo said it unaware of any pending lawsuits, and Herbert did not respond to repeated request from VICE News to elaborate on the suit.
Others on social media called the cartoon insensitive and cruel: “Mocking a Syrian childs death is freedom of speech? What about if I mocked the people who died on 9/11?” — Khadeeja Ali (@k_ali1997)
Guyers says that people who are outraged may be misunderstanding Charlie Hebdo’s brand of black humor. “There is a certain earnestness of these audiences towards humor that creates red lines,” he said. “It’s important to keep in mind how those lines can be as challenging and formidable as those inscribed by law in other contexts where freedom of speech is limited.”
Still, the “two for one” cartoon is undeniably challenging. “The joke takes a minute,” Guyer admitted. But he’s skeptical of those who see it as having a laugh at the expense of refugees. “Perhaps it’s in fact mocking how the media treats the refugee issue — how we are all galvanized around this single image,” he said.
The final page of the most recent edition of Charlie Hebdo, under a regular section called “The covers you avoided,” features a particularly stark example of the magazine’s “black humor.” The cartoon — written by an artist who survived the January attack — runs with a caption that reads: “Proof that Europe is Christian.” The image shows Jesus walking on water while another, smaller figure wearing shorts drowns. Jesus says: “Christians walk on water.” The drowning boy is captioned: “Muslim children sink.”
That cartoon is accompanied by an editorial that slams European leaders for hypocrisy. “If Europe’s truly as Christian as it claims to be, it should welcome all these exiles with open arms,” it read.
Before gunmen stormed Charlie Hebdo’s office, the magazine was a relatively obscure outlet of the French political left known for its sustained critique of religion. But the attack on the magazine was interpreted by many to be a frontal assault on the principle of free speech. The slogan je suis charlie (I am Charlie) became an international rallying cry, and world leaders descended on Paris to march in solidarity with the magazine’s murdered cartoonists.
Charlie Hebdo had a circulation of around 30,000 at the time of the attack, but afterward it went on to sell millions of copies internationally. Last spring, the PEN American Center tapped the magazine for the prestigious Freedom of Expression Courage award.
Not everyone celebrated Charlie Hebdo. More than 200 prominent authors signed a letter of protest to PEN, expressing discomfort with the magazine’s tendency to publish anti-Muslim cartoons, and its insistence on depicting the Prophet Mohammad, an act Muslims consider blasphemous.
“I don’t expect much from Charlie Hebdo,” acclaimed Arab-American poet Hayan Charara told VICE News. Charara signed the protest letter to PEN, and thinks the most recent cartoons miss the mark. “As satire, Charlie Hebdo is mediocre and not very funny. As political discourse, it’s superficial,” he said.
Still, Charlie Hebdo’s work is now drawing international attention, and the most recent round of cartoons have made headlines around the world.
“Aylan Kurdi’s death mocked by Charlie Hebdo,” read a headline in the Toronto Sun. “Charlie Hebdo Criticized for Dead Syrian Toddler Cartoon,” said the Times of India. Britain’s Daily Mirror declared: “Charlie Hebdo Publishes Cartoons Mocking Dead Aylan Kurdi.”
This sort of reaction may be exactly what Charlie Hebdo wants. Guyer explained that the magazine’s humor has never been about winning admirers. “They are all about preaching to the choir,” he said. “And they like to provoke a certain strand of people by aggressively insisting: ‘you have to have a sense of humor.”
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro