Charlie Hebdo: Inciting backward racist thinking amid EU migrant crisis

Richard Sudan
Richard Sudan is a London-based writer, political activist, and performance poet. His writing has been published in many prominent publications, including the Independent, the Guardian, Huffington Post and Washington Spectator. He has been a guest speaker at events for different organizations ranging from the University of East London to the People's Assembly covering various topics. His opinion is that the mainstream media has a duty to challenge power, rather than to serve power. Richard has taught writing poetry for performance at Brunel University.
A man holds a placard with a photograph of three-year-old Syrian refugee boy Aylan Kurdi who died trying to reach Greece from Turkey, during a demonstration  in Athens, Greece, September 12, 2015. © Paul Hanna
Even with its track record of deliberately offending, insulting, and inciting against Muslims and other communities in the name of ‘free speech’, Charlie Hebdo’s latest cartoon of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi is beyond low, and takes things to a new level of depravity.

It’s two-fold. First, the racist nature of the cartoon suggests all Syrian Arab men are sexual predators. We’ve seen this sick and twisted thinking before in the way black men have been caricatured during slavery and beyond; the complete dehumanization of an entire people for political ends.  And there can be little doubt that demonizing Arab men is the end which Charlie Hebdo has achieved by publishing the image of Aylan Kurdi growing up to be a sexual molester on the streets of Germany.

How do we know this?  Why else would a supposedly satirical magazine operating under the guise of free speech, depict a drowned child -arguably an image which personifies vulnerability and innocence - and then suggest all Arabs, no matter how innocent, even Aylan Kurdi, are destined to become beasts or predators?  

The cartoon didn’t deal solely with grown men.  It exploited the death of a child, whose family was fleeing war, and who drowned in the ocean trying to reach a place of safety.  

It isn’t the first time, Hebdo or other newspapers have exploited little Aylan Kurdi’s death.  The Sun newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, who has a vested interest in ensuring the civil war in Syria continues, last summer used the image of Kurdi, whose family was fleeing bombs, to suggest the bombing of Syria ought to be intensified. “For Aylan” ran the Sun’s caption, as it called for the UK to bomb Kurdi’s homeland further.

The second reason Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of Aylan Kurdi and Arab men is dangerous is because it may incite yet more hate and produce a further backlash in an already volatile climate in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

To suggest and warn against inciting hate and the dangers of using ‘Enoch Powell style’ inflammatory cartoons - and it isn’t just Charlie Hebdo which is guilty here-is not the same as attacking free speech, or even suggesting that mass migration does not come without problems.  

But what is surely needed is a sense of perspective and a cool head to counter the inflamed language of much of the media, and politicians, and also magazines like Charlie Hebdo, when dealing with the issue of mass migration of refugees into Northern Europe.

Over a million migrants and refugees entered Europe last year, and although the numbers are sketchy, a million and a half people are said to have entered Germany during 2015.

The centre piece of Charlie Hebdo’s caricature of Aylan Kurdi, deals with the ugly scenes in Cologne and elsewhere on New Year’s Eve. Mass sexual assaults and robbery were allegedly carried out by groups of men, many of whom were described as being of “North African descent” and “speaking Arabic”.

Here’s the common sense and perspective part.  A few hundred men, of whatever background committing crimes, rape or robbery is clearly wrong, and the only response to anyone committing such crimes is to face due process.

But the vast and overwhelming majority of those fleeing war and entering Europe are the victims of crime, not the perpetrators of it.  This is fact, but one apparently lost to Charlie Hebdo.

I don’t like to state the obvious, but when facts seem to go out the window when politicians and the media seek to drum up the flames of hysteria, basic facts need stating.

A crime is a crime, and states like Germany have developed infrastructures capable of dealing with crime.  Scenes like those in Cologne, for example, cannot be explained with ‘race’, a binary man-made pseudo-scientific category. Arab men are no more likely to commit crime than any other ethnicity, but you wouldn’t think that to look at Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon of Aylan Kurdi.

Remember the images of Jews circulated in the lead-up and throughout WWII depicting Jews as a secret cabal, controlling through economics and war?  This fallacy and racist lie still persists and is popularized by those who pretend to be of the left but who in reality are right wing reactionary populists.  These people actually damage the left.

Or how about the propaganda used in the past to create an image of the black man as a hyper physically and sexualized brute incapable of post-enlightenment thinking? Is this not similar to smearing millions of Arabs based on the actions of an alleged minority?

The use of this kind of propaganda to dehumanize human beings for political ends is a well-known tool.

This is precisely what Charlie Hebdo has done with its latest cartoon whether that was the intention or not.  Apologists of the cartoon have suggested that Hebdo was making a wider more nuanced and subtle point about the MSM, hinting that Hebdo was pointing to the different extremes or lights in which the media often paints refugees.
To me this sounds like an excuse, and Charlie Hebdo get no free pass from me on this one. Its track record is too obvious, too inflammatory, for it to get the benefit of the doubt over its intentions with the latest depiction of a dead child.

The virulent racism throughout France is simply reflected and worsened through cartoons like this one.

Supporters of anti-immigration right-wing movement PEGIDA carry various versions of the Imperial War Flag  during a demonstration march, in reaction to mass assaults on women on New Year's Eve, in Cologne, Germany January 9, 2016. © Wolfgang Rattay

On the one hand, crimes like those in Cologne and elsewhere must be responded to, reported accurately as they happen, and with any of the perpetrators brought to justice.  

On the other hand, casual racism directed at entire peoples-and this is the point here-cannot be justified under the banner of free speech.  

Right wingers claim that liberals (which I would not describe myself as) have their heads in the sand over the refugee crisis.

But ironically, it is only the most perverse form of neo-liberalism, which most of these right wingers unwittingly ascribe to, which can suggest that crimes of rape, sexual assault, or robbery are committed because of race and that some humans are better than others because of their skin pigmentation.

Only an imbecile would believe such pseudo-science. It’s this thinking on a bigger scale, which sought to justify the illegal wars of the last 15 years; i.e. these people with lesser values in this country need liberating.

This is the bigger trap, and is at least as dangerous as the crimes committed on a street level.  The trap of tarnishing any so-called race be they Arab or anything else, however, with the actions of a few, has the potential to cause a very real race war and a very dangerous confrontation.

Idiots like those who assaulted women on NYE in Germany should be held to account and brought to justice. One can only imagine the terror of being a woman and having to go through that ordeal.

But these actions are not representative of the millions who have trekked to Europe, but one senses that instead, by design or by default, this debacle is being used to smear the innocent-including Aylan Kurdi.

And while the fear and humiliation experienced by women on NYE is extremely serious, so too is the fear being felt by thousands of refugees who see Pegida and other groups forming, to call for their expulsion when they have done nothing wrong. Innocent refugees are being blamed for the actions of a group of molesters who they have nothing to do with. This cannot be allowed to happen, especially in the name of free speech.

Backward racist thinking, which we’ve seen blight Europe in the past, in Germany of all places, is the real and overwhelming threat to society, not people fleeing war.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.