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Charlie Hebdo Mocks Europe’s Response to Migrant Crisis With Cartoons of Dead Syrian Boy

SEPT. 15, 2015

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    By ROBERT MACKEY

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    French illustrators have been denounced on social networks in recent days for publishing editorial cartoons inspired by photographs of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose drowning in the waters off Greece this month prompted an outpouring of sympathy for refugees.

    Most of the outrage has been directed at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French newspaper that was attacked in January by Islamist militants for cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. The latest edition of the weekly paper, devoted to mocking Europe’s response to the migrant crisis, features a series of cartoons riffing on the harrowing image of the young boy’s body as it was discovered, face down on a beach in Turkey.

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    #CharlieHebdo made fun of a drowned Syrian toddler. "Je suis Charlie"?

    — Ferrari Sheppard (@stopbeingfamous) Sept. 15, 2015

    As the French edition of Huffington Post reported, the cartoons caused barely a ripple of reaction in France, but the response was “particularly virulent among Internet users abroad.” Indeed, two of the cartoons that circulated online, divorced from their context — rejected covers drawn by a Charlie Hebdo editor, Laurent Sourisseau, who uses the pen name Riss — were described by angry commentators in England, the United States and elsewhere as images that mocked the dead boy.

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    When 'satire' is used to attack the powerless, it's nothing but a pointless attention-seeking jab. #CharlieHebdo

    — Imaan (@helloitsimaan) Sept. 14, 2015

    Even as the outrage became the subject of reports in the international press, some observers, like the Egyptian artist Ganzeer, argued that the cartoons were not mocking the boy, but Europe.

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    Em, the cartoon isn't mocking the death of the kid though. Its mocking Europe. https://t.co/MYCsEUebqo

    — Ganzeer (@ganzeer) Sept. 14, 2015

    And in a scathing editorial introducing the issue, Mr. Sourisseau made it clear that his intended target was what he called the hypocritical response to the crisis by European leaders and the public. After comparing indifference to the plight of the migrants in France to attitudes toward Jews in 1941, the cartoonist mocked statements by the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, who suggested that an influx of Muslims from the Middle East threatened efforts to “keep Europe Christian.” Mr. Sourisseau argued that this vision of Europe seemed to be based on a version of Christianity from which the ideal of Christian charity had been removed.

    One of his cartoons, showing the young boy drowning alongside Jesus walking on water, illustrated this idea. “The Proof That Europe Is Christian,” the cartoon was headlined. “Christians walk on water,” the text read, “Muslim children sink.”

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    L’humour de Charlie Hebdo ne passe pas en Grande Bretagne (voir le Daily Mail) pic.twitter.com/6PTtBQeo1O

    — Gilles Klein (@GillesKLEIN) Sept. 14, 2015

    As the French journalist Gilles Klein noted on Twitter, this cartoon’s meaning seemed lost in translation by the time it crossed the channel and reached British tabloids, which reported on the outraged response to cartoons “mocking the death” of the boy from English observers, including Peter Herbert, a former vice chairman of London’s Metropolitan Police Authority.

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    Charlie Hebdo is a purely racist, xenophobic and ideologically bankrupt publication that represents the moral decay of France.

    — D Peter Herbert OBE (@herbert_donald) Sept. 14, 2015
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    The Society of Black Lawyers will consider reporting this as incitement to hate crime & persecution before the International Criminal Court

    — D Peter Herbert OBE (@herbert_donald) Sept. 14, 2015
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    Sickening cartoons in Charlie Hebdo mocking dead kids inc. Aylan. Really struggle to see the funny side of dead kids http://t.co/2xneLWtxIz

    — Naheed Majeed (@NaheedMajeed) Sept. 15, 2015

    In his written introduction, Mr. Sourisseau also suggested that the response to the photograph of the boy was itself inappropriate and self-congratulatory. “This image is spoken of as a relic endowed with enormous powers, an icon that will bring back our faith and open our hearts,” he wrote. “It must be so, Christian Europe. A Europe that still believes in miracles.”

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    The other cartoons depicting the boy — drawn by Mr. Sourisseau and other illustrators — played on French themes. One showed the xenophobic politician Jean-Marie Le Pen launching his new party and shouting about the fact that the boy’s clothes were the same colors as the French tricolor, which the new far-right group is named for. Another cartoon showed tourists on the beach, apparently oblivious to the dead boy. A third included a friendly dinosaur from a French children’s television program.

    Photo A screenshot of a cartoon published by Charlie Hebdo, the French weekly, showing the anti-immigrant politician Jean-Marie Le Pen standing over the dead body of a Syrian child. Credit Charle Hebdo

    A second rejected cover, published at the back of the issue, showed the drowned boy close to a billboard for McDonald’s.

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    What a stupid way to try to be funny #shame pic.twitter.com/fO7O68JcZF

    — Paulo Coelho (@paulocoelho) Sept. 15, 2015

    Corinne Rey, who uses the pen name Coco, drew one of the cartoons and responded to criticism of the McDonald’s image on Twitter, writing that “we are not mocking the child. Instead we are criticizing the consumerist society that is being sold to them like a dream.”

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    @GonzaguePetit t as bien compris qu on se moque pas de l enfant. Mais qu on critique la société de consommation qu on leur vend comme 1 reve

    — Corinne (@cocoboer) Sept. 15, 2015

    In a subsequent interview via Twitter, Ms. Rey explained that the magazine’s cartoonists used the image of the dead boy to denounce “the inertia of Europe and capitalist society,” in failing to deal with the migrant crisis before it led to such tragedies. “Europe, racism and capitalism are the targets of these cartoons,” she added, “Aylan is the victim of that.”

    “The reference to McDonald’s,” she explained, is to “the capitalist dream that the smugglers” have sold to parents so desperate to reach Europe that they risk the lives of their children. “Refugees are instrumentalized.”

    She also used the social network to reply directly to Mr. Herbert, arguing that the cartoons were a critique of the European Union’s response rather than incitement against the foreigners dying on Europe’s shores.

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    @herbert_donald this is a critic of EUROPE! Buy yourself a brain to have a little bit reflexion! #charliehebdo

    — Corinne (@cocoboer) Sept. 15, 2015

    The cartoons were also defended on Twitter by Nathaniel Tapley, a writer for the BBC’s comedy show, “Have I Got News for You,” which often features darkly humorous commentary on events. Mr. Tapley lampooned the response of those who took offense at the Charlie Hebdo drawings by sarcastically deploring other editorial cartoons that used distasteful imagery of victims to make bitter political points and Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay, “A Modest Proposal.”

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    Appalled by Nate Beeler's going out of his way to mock the victims of the Sudanese genocide. #charliehebdo pic.twitter.com/c05mBLENCa

    — Nathaniel Tapley (@Natt) Sept. 14, 2015
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    Can't believe David Low is mocking those who were hanged for refusing to collaborate with the Nazis. #charliehebdo pic.twitter.com/fr3U7FZf8L

    — Nathaniel Tapley (@Natt) Sept. 14, 2015
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    Just read an appalling Jonathan Swift article where he mocks the poor, starving Irish children. #charliehebdo

    — Nathaniel Tapley (@Natt) Sept. 14, 2015

    Even as anger at the cartoons spread online, drawings and paintings of the dead boy clearly intended to pay tribute to him continued to appear on social networks and in the real world.

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    17 heartbreaking cartoons from artists all over the world mourning the drowned Syrian boy http://t.co/7epZLnkSXG pic.twitter.com/JlaDIGlmGD

    — BuzzFeed (@BuzzFeed) Sept. 3, 2015
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    On the road to Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan pic.twitter.com/nnL5m0kJug

    — Molly Crabapple (@mollycrabapple) Sept. 13, 2015

    In France, there was more attention to the outraged reaction to the work of another cartoonist, Emmanuel Chaunu, who reportedly received death threats after publishing an image on Facebook of the dead boy wearing a school backpack to satirize the public’s obsession with the start of the new school year.

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    #Aylan Ce dessin, en dehors de toute morale, est de #Chaunu http://t.co/6ohFxkVYSc PAS de #CharlieHebdo pic.twitter.com/pmZzzculWN

    — Cécile C. (@CilouCiselee) Sept. 6, 2015

    In an interview with Le Figaro, the conservative daily, Mr. Chaunu said that he was amazed by the angry reaction to what he considered a tribute to the dead boy. When the image was published at the start of September, the cartoonist explained, the French media were in the throes of a frenzy of reports about the stress of children going back to school and the anguish of parents. “Then, this photo unleashed an emotional tsunami and shook us,” he said.

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