Charlie Hebdo has reared its ugly head again. Previously, on January 7 this year, when their offices had been attacked by terrorists, two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, for depictions of the Islamic prophet, the “liberal” world united against this blatant disregard for freedom of speech. Our right to say what we want, about whoever we want, is an unshakeable right that cannot be tampered with, they said.
Protests were organised; en masse, the public took to the streets to condemn the attack, in which 11 people were killed, including Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief, Stéphanne Charbonner, and 11 others injured. “Je suis Charlie,” they said: I am Charlie. We all were Charlie after the incident, standing in togetherness against the extremist oppressors that had infiltrated our ranks. The movement, if it can be called that, was laudable; the organised denouncement, commendable.
Charlie Hebdo’s response, right after the attack, was worthy of applause too, in a drawing which showed a rather downcast prophet holding up a placard with the words “tout est pardonné:” All is forgiven. And in these three words, rather poignantly, they encompassed all that needed to say: We will continue to be ourselves. We will continue to fight for our freedom of expression. No hard feelings, for we understand that this violence is not your fault, really, but a product of a culture of hate perpetrated by figureheads living in the past.
Fast forward to now, and the refugee crisis grips Europe, while the world, with popcorn in hand, watches on. Out of the countless pictures of brown, downtrodden faces screaming for a place in a first-world country, comes forth one defining image: A Syrian boy, red t-shirt, blue shorts, face down on a beach, dead, as waves wash over his infantile head.
This captures our hearts like nothing else does. The picture travels across the world to show us the plight of these refugees, the vulnerability of the migrants which are now fleeing across borders. It makes us ask: Are these European nations and its citizens really so selfish as to turn down an innocent child? It makes them ask: Even if it’s not our duty, shouldn’t we let them in just because we should, because we’re both humans, worthy of a second chance?
There were very few who could deny the veritable pathos of the image of a drowned child. People, once again, were united for a cause.
And then, Charlie Hebdo’s new cover started making the rounds. It showed a drawing of the child next to a McDonald’s billboard, featuring their mascot Ronald McDonald, with the tagline: “Promo! Two children for the price of one.”
Social media went into another one of its sporadic frenzies. A lot of the same “liberals” who had defended Charlie Hebdo’s right to freedom of expression, came down on them to feast on their political incorrectness. This was a mockery of the child’s death, they said. This is not satire.
Famous voices joined the cacophony of social judgment. Paolo Coelho, that mass producer of pseudo-depth, said: “What a stupid way to try to be funny.” Someone else retorted: “If satire is used to attack the powerless, it’s nothing but a pointless attention-seeking jab.”
Some called them racists and xenophobic; others criticised them for going with a cartoon that was in such poor taste. Others echoed similar sentiments. They were really struggling to “see the funny side of dead kids.”
There are two issues to be addressed here. One, most obviously, that Charlie Hebdo’s “satire” was inconceivably misconstrued. The drawing was neither attacking the child nor making fun of the refugee crisis. It was, in fact, a commentary on the “consumerist society that is being sold to them like a dream.”
Charlie Hebdo had another subsequent drawing. It featured a similar beach setting, with a Jesus-like figure standing on top of the water, while two upside-down child’s feet protrude from within right next to him, drowning.
The heading reads: “Proof that Europe is Christian.” One arrow points to the Jesus and says: “Christians walk on water.” And another arrow, pointing to the drowning child, echoes: “Muslim children sink.”
Both of these are indubitable representations of Charlie Hebdo’s critique of the recipients of the immigrants, and not the immigrants themselves. The latter cartoon was in response to a comment made by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban “who had suggested that an influx of Muslims from the Middle East threatened efforts to ‘keep Europe Christian.’” Anyone who knows anything about Charlie’s history would know what their primary intentions were.
And, secondly, let us presume, for the sake of argument, that the sole intent of Charlie Hebdo’s caricature was to mock the death of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian child. So what? Freedom of expression is not dictated by a line that society draws around itself. If they could see humour in the Islamic prophet, they could see the same in a dead Syrian child.
Of course, that these critics aren’t doing anything in the same vein as what the extremists did; there was no violence involved. Which is definitely true. No one, least of all me, is stopping them from speaking out. That would defeat the purpose of an open dialogue.
But let us, at least, agree, that Charlie Hebdo should keep doing what they’re doing: Crossing lines, breaking preconceived notions of what can and cannot be said. Even if we disagree with the message that they perpetrate, I am and will remain one with them. I was Charlie, and I still am. Toujours.