PARIS — Eight months ago, people around the world declared “Je Suis Charlie,” or “I Am Charlie,” in the aftermath of horrific terrorist attacks in Paris which included a deadly attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
More recently, a photo of a drowned Syrian boy provoked a similar outcry of global support and outrage, this time centered around the massive refugee crisis brought on by Syria’s civil war.
Charlie Hebdo took the global attention on the photo of the boy as an opportunity to mock the dead. Two cartoons in the magazine’s September issue have provoked outrage on social media over their depiction of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was photographed after it washed ashore on a Turkish beach following his family’s attempts to flee the violence in Syria.
“Welcome to migrants! So near his goal …” is written in French over a drawing of Kurdi’s body. A nearby sign, depicting a clown similar to Ronald McDonald, the McDonald’s fast food mascot, reads “Promo! 2 Kids menus for the price of 1.”
The other cartoon shows a Jesus-like figure walking on water while the legs of a child’s submerged body emerge from the water next to him. The caption of this carton reads, “Proof that Europe is Christian. Christians walk on water — Muslim children sink.”
According to RT, many people took to Twitter and other social networks to protest the offensiveness of the perceived racism of the cartoons, with several asking “#JeSuisCharlie now?” echoing the hashtag that was widely used to show solidarity with the victims of the terrorist attacks.
“The images were drawn by artist, Laurent ‘Riss’ Sourisseau,” wrote Alice Harrold in The Independent. “The political cartoonist has had to be chaperoned at all times by armed, plainclothes police since the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters.”
Although Charlie Hebdo has sometimes championed liberal causes like the anti-nuclear movement, it’s also frequently drawn criticism for its depictions of the Prophet Mohammad, which provoked the terrorist attacks, and for its handling of other disasters, including cartoons that mocked the missing victims of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
After the attacks, support for Charlie Hebdo was framed as a freedom of speech issue, but critics of the magazine suggest it does more to support a racist status quo than free speech. In an essay published in February, MintPress News’ Editor-in-Chief Mnar Muhawesh questioned why world leaders from nations with appalling human rights records marched after the terrorist attacks, supposedly in support of a free press:
“[A]re events like the solidarity march about defending free speech in its broadest sense? Or is it about defending attacks on an already disenfranchised community — attacks which perpetuate offensive stereotypes, promote dangerous hostilities, and ultimately contribute to maintaining the ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy to justify modern-day colonialism in Muslim nations?”
Muhawesh also noted that France is far from a supporter of absolute free speech, as it bans speech ranging from Holocaust denial to pro-Palestine rallies. In their annual Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked France at 38 out of 180. It was well below many other European countries, though it fared better than the United States, which ranked 49th. The authors of the index noted:
“Journalists were often the targets of violence during demonstrations in France in 2014, while the level of conflicts of interest in the media was high … a ‘Military Programming Law’ allowed the authorities to carry out surveillance without getting permission from a judge. At the same time, the media offences of ‘condoning terrorism’ and ‘provoking acts of terrorism’ ceased to be covered by an 1881 law that protects press freedom.”
Harrold did note that some have suggested these new cartoons are meant to mock Europe’s lackluster response to the refugee crisis, rather than being intended to satirize the refugees. However, given that some have doubted the reality of the crisis simply because many refugees own cellphones, the cartoons remain open to interpretation.
Whatever the meaning of these images, they are an example of the cartoon’s power to provoke debate. As Muhawesh wrote,
“By poking at sensitive issues through satire and a no-holds-barred attitude, are magazines like Charlie Hebdo providing us a mirror to reflect upon our own biases and attitudes and possibly the attitudes of elitists who want to dehumanize the victims of our endless war on terror in Muslim nations?
No matter the answers to these questions, one thing is certain: Cartoons are powerful. They influence thoughts and attitudes in a way that demands that we hold their creators accountable for the events their work can give rise to.
Indeed, rather than using cartoons to push agendas full of hate, fear and segregation, artists should be harnessing the massive power of the image toward positive ends, like raising awareness around inequalities and social issues or calling out abuses of power and hypocrisy.”
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