Home Social Justice Featured Blog: Charlie Hebdo’s dangerous dialogue on migrant crisis

Featured Blog: Charlie Hebdo’s dangerous dialogue on migrant crisis

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You probably remember the attacks at Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters in Paris last year. You also probably remember the stark image of the child named Alan Kurdi (alternately Aylan Kurdi) who drowned in a failed attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea in September 2015. And if you read American newspapers, you probably don’t know how these two events are connected.

A week after the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a new satirical cartoon referencing the death of Kurdi appeared on the cover of the magazine. Charlie Hebdo has used images of the child on the cover of its magazine in provocative ways before, but this new cartoon made an extra provocative statement. It is titled “Migrants” with the caption roughly translated to: “What would have become of little Aylan if he had grown older? A harasser in Germany.” It shows the dead body of Kurdi on the beach in a corner with the majority of the space taken up by two screaming women followed by two “migrants” with hands outstretched towards the women’s backsides.

“What would have become of little Aylan if he had grown older? Fiddler of the butt in Germany.”  (Translation by Annie Chester) (Photo from CNN)
“What would have become of little Aylan if he had grown older? Fiddler of the butt in Germany.” (Translation by Annie Chester) (Photo from CNN)

The moment I saw the cartoon and read the caption, I was struck by the racism. The artist was drawing connections between the sexual predators that had attacked women in Cologne, Germany, and a dead child. It suggested that people should see this dead Syrian child not as a loss, but as the removal of a future threat to the safety of German women. As shocking as the cartoon is, the more you think about it, the worse it gets. How could someone stereotype a dead child as a “future rapist”? And the stereotypes don’t stop there. The styling of the men in the Charlie Hebdo depiction, described accurately as “male creatures” by the Jerusalem Post, is clearly degrading because of the ape-like features drawn onto the men’s faces.

The stereotyping of migrants as sexual predators has entered the news all over as governments rush to stem theflow into Europe and the European Union. Some have called for harsh measures to be taken against migrants. One right-wing German party has even suggested that police “should shoot migrants” entering the country illegally. The Danish government has passed a bill allowing the government to seize up to 10,000 kroner (approx. $1,500 USD) worth of assets from refugees entering Denmark.

Clearly, the mood on migrants has changed drastically since September in light of the Cologne attacks. However, in the last few days, the European Commission has released notes from its meetings, where they discussed “that there is no link between the migration crisis affecting the continent and attacks on women in Germany.” The attacks led the Commission to worry about “xenophobic” attacks on the million migrants who have entered Europe.

When this cartoon appeared, it was met with enormous criticism, many called out Charlie Hebdo for racism. And rightfully so. No matter how the cartoon is meant to be interpreted, the image itself presents a racist idea of migrants as animals bent on sexual predation. The only good thing for these migrants, according to the image presented, is death to them and their children.

But what if this cartoon, as many other critics have suggested, is much deeper than that. What is the question they are trying to pose? Are they trying to show the discrepancies between the European human rights rhetoric that supports care for all people and the language and policies being used against Middle Eastern migrants and refugees? From one view, yes, the image does juxtapose the images of Kurdi and the “migrants.” This leads the viewer to consider what else is starkly contrasted between these contexts and think about the sudden decrease in support for migrants after the recent Cologne attacks. This new attitude is against the moral code which caused Europeans and Americans to be outraged by the image of Kurdi in September. Unfortunately, these questions are deeper than Charlie Hebdo will ever openly answer, so it is up to the reader to interpret this for his/herself.

Queen Rania of Jordan saw the cartoon and was upset by the image it gave Kurdi.  She asked Osama Hajjaj to create a new cartoon that shows the progression of life she would have wished for Alan: his progression into a doctor. She tweeted a comment with a link to the cartoon, “Aylan could have been a doctor, a teacher, a loving parent.”

The world will never know what Alan Kurdi could have done. The unfortunate circumstances of his death seem to have already been forgotten by the general public; the image of the migrant man as a sexual predator has outweighed the image of destruction and violence in the region. No matter your opinion of either cartoon, it is time to remember the humanity of the people who risk and lose their lives everyday fleeing their homes in search of a better life as migrants and refugees in Europe.

Juniors Annie Chester and Alena Klimas also contribute to this featured blog, “Critical International Media Perspectives.”

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