Charlie Hebdo is racist, not anti-racist ‘satire’

Charlie Hebdo’s latest cartoon is ‘satire’ that does nothing to satirise. In uncritically reproducing racist tropes, it can be considered as nothing other than racist itself. Kavita Krishnan explains…

charlie hebdo kavita

The latest Charlie Hebdo (CH) cartoon suggests that the refugee baby Aylan Kurdi would grow up to be a bestial man groping women, like the immigrants allegedly involved in sexual assaults recently in Cologne, Germany.  Those of us who have criticised the cartoon as racist are being told that the cartoon actually satirises racism and we’ve failed to appreciate the French tradition of satire. The CH brand of satire is apparently like fine French caviar or wine – and its brilliance apparently eludes those who are yet to acquire the fine art of appreciating it.

So: is the CH cartoon referencing Aylan Kurdi racist or a critique of racism?

It is true that satirists have often had the misfortune of being taken seriously, at face value, and accused of exactly what they were satirizing. There were readers of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (where Swift suggested with a straight face that the solution to Irish hunger and poverty could be found by selling Irish babies as delicate food for the privileged) who accused Swift of proposing cannibalism and infanticide.

But there are reasons why, in my opinion, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon is not a case of satire misunderstood by those lacking in a subtle sense of humour.

What makes, say A Modest Proposal – that referenced babies – great satire while the CH cartoon referencing baby Aylan remains fairly banal racism?

Those planners and British opinion-makers whom Swift was satirizing were not – and this is important – proposing the cannibalising of Irish babies; they were merely rationalising inaction on Irish starvation and impoverishment. By making a ‘modest proposal’ of cannibalising Irish babies, Swift was using the tools of  exaggeration and parody to make the point that those who had no qualms about starving Irish babies with cruel economic policies, were no better than cannibals. The piece mocked the reasonable, cool tone of ideologues who made ‘proposals’ rationalising poverty and starvation.

My point is that Swift did not just mirror the cruelty and callousness of those he mocked – he wildly exaggerated it, and it is that exaggeration that provides the element of parody, of burlesque, of bitter satire.  After all, satire is a persuasive tool – that uses shock value to jolt its readers/viewers into recognizing the absurdity or cruelty of what otherwise seems ‘normal’.  I will not try to read the minds of the CH artists and decipher their ‘intent’ – that is beside the point. What I argue is that the CH cartoon simply fails as ‘satire,’ because it is indistinguishable from straightforward racist graffiti.

Racists in Europe (and specifically Germany) are already arguing that Muslim refugees are ‘Rape-fugees‘. They are already depicting Muslim as having pig-heads. They are already resentful that baby Aylan should be the iconic image of refugees – while they seek to invoke instead the trope of the Muslim migrant as ‘lascivious’ rapist whose culture is peculiarly violent to women in a way that white European culture is not. How can a cartoon that merely mirrors or performs these forms of racism be a critique of racism? It is – at best – ambiguous and at worst, racist.

To take another example, The Hindu carried a piece by Suchi Govindarajan that expressed shock and horror at immodest attire in Indian men, and proposed a dress code for men and boys. Some comments on the piece obviously misunderstood the point entirely, and asked her to stop moral policing. But most understood that she was using the classic tool of inversion to expose the absurdity of moral policing and dress codes imposed on women: that otherwise passes unnoticed as normal, everyday sexism.

The CH cartoon neither uses exaggeration nor inversion. Inversion could have made for a great cartoon satirising the racist bid to link sexual assault with migrants. Imagine a cartoon that made arguments linking sexual assault with race (as is being done in the wake of the Cologne episode) – but that, while mentioning Cologne, applied the selfsame arguments to profile white Europeans or IMF chiefs as potential sexual offendes, invoking the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. Such a cartoon would truly make an anti-racist point. But the CH cartoon does no such thing. Its performance of racism has nothing whatsoever to indicate that it is not straightforward. Its apologists are claiming the tongue is hidden in the CH cheek – but it is difficult to credit this because effective satire finds ways to reveal a hint of the hidden tongue, while the CH cartoon does not.

Interestingly, many of those defending the CH cartoon as ‘satire’ are also accusing Left feminists of ‘silence’ on the Cologne sexual assault episode – implying that the failure to link the violence with immigrants and their culture amounts to condoning or denying the violence. The fact is that Left feminists in Germany, far from being silent, have argued against the attempts to link the sexual violence at Cologne with the supposed ‘culture’ of immigrants. Silke Stöckle and Marion Wegscheider argue, for instance, that:

“Sexual violence against women in Germany is in general a large and indeed a long-existing problem: women are commonly and frequently sexually harassed at large festivals, at the Oktoberfest in Munich or during the Carnival in Cologne and other cities. According to a new study commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, one in seven women in Germany experiences sexual violence. One in four women – irrespective of education level or socio-economic status – is exposed to domestic violence. The perpetrators are almost always men, among whom no significant distinction according to religion, background, educational level or social status exists…. sexual assaults on women are all too often not taken seriously, and are at first marginalised – as in Cologne, where victims have had the pleasure of being schooled by local politicians about “rules of behaviour for mass gatherings”, as though the victims, in the face of their determined assaulters, had the possibility to negotiate their way out of harm…

“Rather than connecting the events in Cologne and Hamburg to the everyday sexist violence faced by women in Germany, politicians and the media establishment have, from the moment the events occurred, focused above all on the background of the alleged perpetrators, and on questions of public security. Where sexual molestation is acknowledged as a structural manifestation at all, it is only ever in relation to the “culture” in the supposed countries of origin of the perpetrators. In this way, the debate about the attacks has been instrumentalised from the get-go and, in line with a classic racist line of argument, Muslims or refugees have been stereotyped en masse…. As far as the broader German left goes, there must be absolute clarity that women’s oppression in Germany is structurally determined and that in the struggle for women’s rights, we can in no way allow ourselves to be divided by racism – we must confront both sexism and racism with equal determination.”  

In Europe, as in India, it is common for the right-wing to portray Muslim men as sexual predators. The Hindutva right in India, for instance, raises the bogey of ‘love jehad’ – accusing Muslim men of seducing/raping/converting Hindu women. In reality, Hindu women in consensual relationships with Muslim men are beaten and brutalized to coerce them to accuse their Muslim partners of rape, as has been revealed in a recent sting investigation.

The CH cartoon appears tone deaf to the Islamophobic chorus in Europe, the US, India, indeed the world. It has nothing to distinguish it from crude racist or communal graffiti – of the kind quite commonly used in racist and communal propaganda material in Europe, and certainly in India. It will only get nods of affirmation from Europe’s racists (and India’s communalists), not discomfort. It empowers racists in the current climate – not anti racists. And that is where its claim to being anti-racist satire fails.


This article was originally posted on Reproduced with permission.


  1. Rather than stand up to a discussion on Facebook and make an attempt to defend her errant views on Charlie Hebdo, which can easily be shown to be totally wrong, Kavita Krishnan resorts to banning dissent…. Shameful.

  2. Nancy, thank you for your excellent comment, which really sums up how this article totally fails to interpret this cartoon correctly, and how it will cause more harm than good, esp. among the author’s left-leaning audiences….
    I have earlier written a reply to her original article, which appeared on an indian website, whose publisher also provided me with a platform:

  3. I think racist do feel good about their beliefs. And thios cartoon is not going to have the slightest effect on them, since the main thing about racism is the dehumanising of those they classify as “other”.
    Those arguing that the cartoon had an anti-racist effect would be more credible is they could point to a single racist who has changed their views as a result of it or a similar cartoon. Empirical evidence beats abstract argument every time.

  4. It’s exactly the same as Swift: they’re exaggerating.
    You say “Racists in Europe (and specifically Germany) are already arguing that Muslim refugees are ‘Rape-fugees’.”
    That is true, but none of them would dare to drag poor little Alan in their hateful speech.
    So this is what this drawing does, exaggerating their idea, taking it to its extreme but logical end: if they’re all ‘rape-fugees’, than so is he.
    Do you think this notion, and this drawing, makes racist people feel good about themselves and their beliefs?

  5. If journalists would have been bothered to report on the latest Alayn Kurdi cartoon IN CONTEXT, the object of the satire would have been OBVIOUS. Header says “France is not what we say it is” which comes from a popular Michel Sardou song. “La France, c’est pas c’qu’on dit” is part of the chorus line which also says that “France is a country where 50 million idiots reside”. The big, bright, red header is often used to highlight a common theme between drawings. Here the common theme is French hypocrisy… people saying one thing and doing the opposite a few months or weeks later. The strip also includes a self-mockery about the surviving members of CharlieHebdo losing their courage and drawing and more autoportraits.

    To any French-speaking person, the object of the cartoon was CLEAR when it was seen in context : hypocrisy of the French shifting popular opinion towards migrants. The cartoonists wanted its audience to remember how they felt when they saw pictures of Aylan Kurdi on a loop in the media. How they thought his life mattered.

    The context :

    I want to add that English-speaking journalists have been endangering the lives of Charlie Hebdo since 2006 by giving credance to the notion that they are islamophobic and reported on drawings out. Caroline Fourest explains it really well here :

    “Charlie’s cartoons are repeatedly taken out of context, their message utterly distorted.”

    “The despicable accusation that Charlie was “Islamophobic” was not only wrong, it had killed and continued to put its survivors in danger.”


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