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Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of drowned children shows the very prejudice it claims to criticise

The image of a drowned child is not a successful way of satirising western capitalist decadence.

Another day, another Charlie Hebdo controversy. The latest brouhaha to embroil the French satirical publication, which was the target of a violent attack on its staff in January this year, involves a series of images concerning the ongoing refugee crisis. In particular, it focuses on the now-emblematic image of drowned Syrian toddler, Alan Kurdi*, whose death galvanised debate in Europe. Among the images which have courted controversy are an image of Jesus walking on water, next to a drowning Muslim child with the statement, “Proof that Europe is Christian” above it, an image of an orange dinosaur character depicted on the beach beside Alan’s drowned body with the caption “welcome to children’s island” and by far the most controversial, an image of McDonald’s golden arches on a sign reading “Promotion! Two children’s meals for the price of one” beside the washed up body of baby Alan, above whom the caption reads: “so close to the goal…”

I should begin by pointing out that Charlie Hebdo occasionally hits the mark with its satire. Its depiction of Prophet Mohamed being beheaded by extremists captures the essence of the issue, while its recent image portraying Jesus floating on water as Muslim children drown is an incisive critique of European double standards. But as is so often the case with the magazine, its poorer satire doesn’t just fail to provide insight or draw a laugh, but rather plays into the very prejudice it claims to want to critique.

Its protagonists typically argue that those critical of what is deemed an insensitivity in the depiction of dead children simply misunderstand the nature of French satire – they just don’t “get it”. Because of course, only the enlightened can understand the subtlety of French humour. Those who see in it a cruel and callous exploitation of people’s misery for shock value are merely too sensitive or uncultured to discern the subtlety of the humour. Another excuse to dress up casual racism as a sophisticated inside joke that apparently only those depicted as victims are unable to detect. There surely is no more apt sign of cultural arrogance than dismissing criticism from those you claim to defend as somehow unworthy of consideration. Another variant on white voices dominating the discourse even when those they claim to represent are seeking to convey their own version of events. Using drowned children to drown out the voice of their parents, as it were.

To those who have sought to defend the images as a clever critique of western decadence, the question surely arises – how do you think Alan’s father feels about this image? Do you really think he risked his entire family drowning before his eyes for a McDonald’s happy meal? How would you – if you’re a father – feel about your child’s body being used in this way to sell a magazine, or more precisely, a narrative of your condition at complete odds with the very reasons which led to your child’s death? How would we feel about an image of a dead Baby P used to satirise the failures of social services, an image of his bruised body and broken back commodified – because make no mistake, the media is a mode of consumption – in order to make a point? The truth is of course, we wouldn’t. Because dead blond babies just aren’t that funny.

Alan’s father lost both his young sons and wife that day. They were fleeing the city of Kobane in Syria, which has experienced intense fighting and where he says he was both tortured by Syrian state security services, and subsequently persecuted by Isil. Was it really the promise of consumerism that drew his family to Europe, another variant on the claim these are just unruly economic migrants chasing the American dream to European shores? A subtle allusion to an unwarranted gluttony for western standards when in fact, the majority of those drowning in the Med are fleeing for their lives, with 62 per cent of those who reached Europe by boat this year from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan, countries devastated by war, dictatorships and violence.

This wasn’t just poor satire. In its failure to identify the true causes behind the refugee crisis, it reflects a quiet complicity in a narrative of benign European consumerism, with no reference to Europe’s responsibility for the state of current global inequality.

The reality is that Europe is actively involved in the conditions which render the countries of origin unliveable for many refugees – from fomenting wars and instability, to actively arming violent groups and states. As the MP Caroline Lucas recently pointed out during Prime Minister’s Questions:

“The ongoing harrowing refugee crisis is fuelled by conflict, which in turn is powered in part by the global arms trade. The UK has supplied the weapons being used in many areas from which people are now fleeing, including Yemen and Libya.”

Europe doesn’t deserve a benign depiction as a hollow consumerist haven when it is in fact an aggressive military force and ruthless economic exploiter of the global south. To quote the ever brilliant Frankie Boyle: “Yes, Britain is a beautiful place to live, and we are lucky to be born here. Because of other people’s oil, other people’s sugar, other people’s tea, other people’s money. You weren’t born in a country – you were born in a getaway car, and the victims have been chasing you down ever since by boat, by lorry, and on foot.”

For a magazine that prides itself on producing biting satire, Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of Europe an overly consumerist society innocently drawing people to their death via the capitalist dream, however hollow it truly may be, is strikingly tepid. And if – as some defenders claim – the critique is in fact of Europe’s view of itself in such terms, then the satire is even meeker, failing to highlight the gulf between European delusions and the reality of those fleeing persecution, choosing instead to merely echo the charade.

Alan’s body doesn’t belong to Charlie Hebdo to be used to advance some pseudo clever critique of western society. There is a sacredness to death – particularly when it comes to children – we treat dead bodies, in all cultures, however differently, with deference. The dead may be gone, but their bodies deserve ceremonies and burials, sheaths and rituals. In deceased children, we honour the extinguishing of innocence. Of a life yet to be lived.

Alan wasn’t a convenient symbol washed up on a beach. He was someone’s son, a brother, he was the baby his parents had nurtured and tried to protect. He was a person, who’s body deserves far more than to serve as cheap and shallow “satire”. The appropriation of his death by the media is truly a final insult to those who have no voice to counter their depiction as the naive chasers of a higher standard of living, rather than the desperate victims of war and persecution.

As Charlie Hebdo so often manages to achieve, it insults the very groups it claims to be defending. The image of Alan speaks of no solidarity with the human condition, no sympathy with the plight of those fleeing terror. It speaks only to a callous desire to court controversy, not by actually challenging the powerful, but by quietly mocking the desperate flight of the wretched of the earth, recast as risking their lives for a McDonald’s happy meal. 

Just as its depiction of the French justice minister as a monkey was no clever critique of racism through its alleged “play” on racist imagery, nor was its image of Boko Haram’s rape victims as crudely racist drawings of state sponging pregnant Muslims a critique of French sensibilities, the latest Charlie Hebdo images are perfectly aligned with the Charb tradition – it reinforces the very narrative of the disenfranchised which it claims to be critiquing and in so doing, cements rather than challenges the ocean of prejudice in which Alan and his brethren’s bodies float.

*This is the Kurdish spelling of his name, rather than the Turkish “Aylan”, based on his Kurdish family’s preference 

Myriam Francois is a writer, broadcaster and academic with a focus on current affairs, the Middle East, Islam and France. She currently works as a broadcast journalist for TRT world, a global news network, and was the presenter of documentaries including BBC One's “A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited”.

She is a Research Associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS) at SOAS University, where her research focuses on British Muslim integration issues. She also undertakes the centre’s media outreach and research dissemination in relation to its work on British Muslim communities.
Myriam is currently a PhD (DPhil) researcher at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco. 

She tweets @MFrancoisCerrah

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear