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.

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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