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On Charlie Hebdo's Aylan Kurdi cartoon

A Charlie Hebdo reader in Paris.
A Charlie Hebdo reader in Paris.
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty

Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, has published a cartoon on Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish shore when he drowned on the journey to Greece, drawing global attention to the plight of refugees. The cartoon, as desired, is attracting considerable controversy.

Here, before we go on, is the cartoon itself:

Charlie Hebdo

The text at top reads: "What would have happened to little Aylan if he grew up?"

At bottom: "A groper of women in Germany."

(My colleague Libby Nelson tells me "tripoteur de fesses" is a colloquialism that literally means "butt fondler" but is often used to describe a man who gropes women in public without their consent.)

The cartoon is a clear play on the Cologne sexual assault crisis, in which, on New Year's Eve, hundreds of young men, apparently many of them migrants from the Middle East or North Africa, sexually assaulted and robbed hundreds of women outside of the city's main train station.

Three points I would make on this cartoon:

1) On the surface, the cartoon appears to argue that had Kurdi survived his journey to Europe, he would grow up to sexually assault women in Germany. However, it seems highly likely to me that Charlie Hebdo is not championing this anti-refugee sentiment but rather satirizing it. Their "point" here is that European anti-refugee sentiment, when laid bare, ultimately leads to the ridiculous and indeed hateful idea that even Kurdi is a threat to European women.

As I have written previously, this sort of two-step satire — portraying a ridiculous idea not to endorse it but rather to mock the people who hold it — is both a long-held theme of Charlie Hebdo's work and a common trope within French satire broadly. And Charlie Hebdo has deployed this tactic particularly when it comes to refugee issues — on which the magazine is quite liberal.

2) Still, even if the ultimate message of this cartoon is to argue against anti-refugee hysteria and to champion the rights of refugees in Europe, it is nonetheless tasteless. Portraying Aylan Kurdi as a young man with a pig nose who is sexually assaulting German women, even ironically, is tasteless. Using Kurdi's death and the Cologne sexual assault crisis to hit at your political opponents, even if it's those opponents who have the hateful views, is tasteless. Even if you ultimately agree that the magazine's desired political point is correct, it does not make the means of getting there acceptable.

To again reference my past writing on Charlie Hebdo, this was one of the central problems in the magazine's supposedly progressive satire. Even if the ultimate political aims were about defending the disenfranchised, it still exploited them along the way, and treated them with a callousness that few members of those targeted communities would appreciate.

3) The cartoon does allow for misinterpretation, and would be easy to misread as endorsing rather than satirizing the idea that Aylan Kurdi would have grown up to sexually assault European women. As was to be expected, this has sparked yet another round of Twitter debates as to whether these misreadings are the fault of Charlie Hebdo or of oversensitive readers who are unable to grasp satire.

I will concede that my sympathies in this particular case lean toward those who put this burden on Charlie Hebdo rather than on readers, given how foreseeable those misinterpretations should have been, as well as the hurt it would inevitably cause the thousands of people who've seen family members, like Kurdi, die trying to cross the Mediterranean. Even if that's pain rooted in misunderstanding, it's pain that is nonetheless real and seems to have gone unconsidered here.