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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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Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.