Think of some famous dead children, and then try to work out who might use their suffering to raise a satirical smile. For the sake of argument, make one a Jew, one a Christian, and one a Muslim.
Nazi sympathizers and other anti-Semites might well suggest Anne Frank, the Dutch Holocaust victim who, aged 15, succumbed to severe illness in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Ivan Cameron, the British Prime Minister’s son, who had cerebral palsy and suffered from epileptic fits prior to his death in a London hospital, aged six, could be the choice of anarchist hate-mongers who blame “Tory Scum” for what they see as the demise of the country’s health service. And then there’s Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee whose corpse was found washed up on a Turkish beach less than three weeks ago.
No need to contemplate what kind of people might go for Aylan, because it’s already happened: the French magazine Charlie Hebdo has run a number of depictions of his dead body, using them to make obtuse points about geopolitics and religion. Self-styled experts in “Je Suis Charlie” humour joined with bigots who hate Muslims, and especially powerless immigrant ones, to offer all kinds of reasons for laughing at a dead boy.
Pompous, or unspeakably cruel
Justifications ranged from the embarrassingly pompous to the unspeakably cruel. One cartoon exposed “the West’s Orientalist condescension”, wrote one blogger, adding that only “the Islamist-liberal left cartel” would object to the “art of satire”. There were claims that a reference to Ronald McDonald pointed to a critique of “western consumerism”, and the irony of feeble migrants seeking sustenance in fast-food Europe. Quite what this had to do with Aylan and his late brother and mother is anyone’s guess (they were all fleeing war, not hunger), but perhaps his surviving father will one day appreciate how clever the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are.
Aylan’s religion allowed the magazine to juxtapose Christians who “walk on water” with – wait for it – “Muslim children who sink”. Drawings of a Jesus-like figure gliding across the surface of the sea next to an upturned (presumably dead) boy illustrated the hypocritical side of Christian charity, it was claimed. Brilliant!
Beyond such high-minded excuses for the cartoons, more basic ones multiplied on comment threads and social media sites. These included suggestions that Aylan somehow deserved his fate because he had irresponsible, brown-skinned parents who should have stayed in Syria “with their own kind”.
Underpinning all the macabre – and often blatantly racist – votes of confidence in Charlie Hebdo was the heroic myth applied to the magazine’s staff brutally murdered by sociopath gunmen acting in the name of Al-Qaeda in January. The idea was that a disgusting terrorist crime ended all debate about the ethics of published material that mocked religious, cultural and ethnic minorities.
Champions of “free speech” were particularly angry that Muslims might actually object to being vilified, both before and after the atrocity. Never mind that French Muslims like me were as outraged and saddened by such barbarism as anyone else – our job was to shut up and accept the abuse.
‘Bastion of Gallic exceptionalism’
Miraculously, the vast body of usually strictly enforced French legislation aimed at combatting hate speech, anti-Semitism, and discrimination, was ignored, as Charlie Hebdo became a state-subsidized bastion of Gallic exceptionalism. It remains heretical to say so, but I still can’t work out how the magazine’s nastiest material was allowed to be published in the first place, let alone that its “right” to spread hatred is now supported by millions of pounds worth of donations, including plenty from alleged liberals in Britain.
The by now woefully hackneyed Charlie Hebdo routine is to insert convenient “jokes” (often unfathomable – always unfunny) alongside badly drawn doodles depicting racial and religious stereotypes. If you’re part of the gang, you’re meant to “get” that a portrayal of a black minister as a monkey actually mocks people who think that black ministers look like monkeys, for example. It’s a variation of the old “some of my best friends are black” banter which precedes racist anecdotes, with Charlie Hebdo apologists going on to claim that it all represents something deep and meaningful about the world we live in (cue expressions like “Orientalist condescension”).
Well, four cartoons reducing Aylan Kurdi to a figure of fun prompted Peter Herbert, Chair of the society of Black Lawyers, to ask: “Humor and satire is to be applauded but a child’s tragic death is never acceptable. Do we joke about the Holocaust or genocide?”
No, Mr Herbert, we don’t joke about the Holocaust, and we certainly don’t joke about Anne Franck or Ivan Cameron either. Britain is a country which, like France and all other nominally civilized nations, endeavors to protect children to the Nth degree.
True, white middle-class children are far more likely to benefit from state supervision than those from disadvantaged communities. That’s why you won’t get away with photographing the offspring of famous politicians and celebrities without their parents’ permission, and why the search for a missing son or daughter from a privileged background will attract the most resources. But the sacred principle is that all minors are vulnerable, and deserve appropriate care at all times.
What is certain is that there is nothing humorous about dead children, least of all ones caught up in a global refugee crisis. This view is not a minority one, not a radical one, and not an ignorant one offered by censorious killjoys. Like Mr Herbert, a highly educated barrister, I “get” exactly what Charlie Hebdo is trying to do, and what the magazine represents. And like millions around the world I find it all utterly repulsive.