Charlie Hebdo has been at it again. The sombre anthems and sober reflections of the anniversary commemorations of January 2015’s terrorist attacks have barely subsided, and once again the provocative magazine is engulfed in a controversy of its own making.
This time, it is a cartoon imagining Aylan Kurdi (the three-year old Syrian refugee whose body washed up on a Turkish shore) has grown up to become one of the Cologne sexual offenders. The cartoon thereby condenses, in one image, two of the most tectonic events to have recently shaken the continent’s attitudes to the current refugee crisis and to “foreigners” in general and Muslim/Arab foreigners in particular.
“What would Aylan have grown up to become?’ the caption asks, providing the response: "An ass groper in Germany.”
Predictably, the cartoon has generated controversy. On the one hand, there are those who see it as “racist” and “disgusting”, among them some former defenders of the magazine’s irreverence who now think that it has pushed the limits of taste and decency — and of “humanity” — beyond breaking point.
On the other, are those who approve of it because they interpret it as an anti-racist satire on racism. Commenting in The Independent, Jessica Brown opines that the “cartoon isn’t an attack on migrants. It’s an attack on our own fickleness”:
After exhorting that every life matters and that we have a duty to help those born into dangerous circumstances, we are now at risk of taking one isolated event and conflating it with everyone under the same identity.
Significantly, much of the media seems to be covering the controversy by simply cutting and pasting diametrically opposed Twitter responses, augmented by a little commentary, as if the Twittersphere is the entire universe of discourse.
The extent to which a work is controversial is, it seems, determined by the extent to which it generates starkly contrasting positions via the medium of a tweet. Within this mediating frame the space for alternative viewpoints is understandably reduced almost to the point of nullity, and the possibility of introducing nuance is rendered even less likely.
The real danger
But there is a third position that can and has been adopted, one that is barely noticed because it doesn’t adhere to the polarization that media coverage both relies on and generates. Occasionally it surfaces in below the line comments on the coverage, but it remains unconsidered within the coverage itself.
In a response to Jessica Brown’s article, for instance, one “lancastrian14” writes:
That cartoon hits the nail on the head and the filth who are complaining are just the usual appeasers of jihad. Remember that jihad is not just bombs and guns but the softer methods as well including sexual jihad.
Clearly exhibiting all the usual motifs and tropes of Islamophobic “Eurabian” discourse, responses such as these eschew the irony identified by liberal defenders of the cartoon and instead take it entirely at face value. They approve of it because it is racist, not because it is anti-racist.
I suspect that this third position is rather more popular than the genuflections of the twitterati would lead you to imagine and, for anti-racists, it is this one that should cause most concern.
And it is in relation to this that we should assess the moral value and effect of the Aylan cartoon. What I find most disturbing about the cartoon is not that it is racist, as there is enough ambiguity in the image to suggest the opposing view. And it is precisely this ambiguity that makes me uneasy — and the thought that such semantic uncertainty has been deliberately cultivated so as to generate maximum controversy.
The question is whether, in the current febrile and increasingly racist climate — there have already been reprisals against foreigners in response to the Cologne attacks — there is a responsibility incumbent on anti-racists (and that, after all, is the moral and political position of the cartoonist according to those who defend the cartoon as satire) to weigh their words and deeds with all the care necessary in order to avoid giving succour to racism.
In all artistic endeavours there are always choices to be made. The cartoonist could have chosen to be less ambiguous in his composition, but he chose otherwise. What are we to make of that choice?
At best it suggests a carelessness that some see as typical of Charlie Hebdo and its cavalier attitude to freedom of speech. Less charitably, it perhaps signals an indifference to the possibility that many readers might take the third, racist view that believes the cartoon has “hit the nail on the head” because all foreigners – especially Muslim and/or Arab foreigners – are sexual predators in their core being.
In other words, it suggests that Charlie Hebdo does not particularly care if the cartoon actually reinforces the very racism it purportedly is trying to satirise, if indeed it is. But those of us who truly are anti-racist cannot be indifferent to those consequences and the “collateral damage” that might be faced by migrants and refugees themselves.