On 13 January 2016, I published a tweet denouncing the racist character of a drawing by a Charlie Hebdo staffer. It provoked outraged reactions from people defending the cartoon. It saddens me immensely that I have to explain them why the cartoon is, indeed, racist, and why it matters.
The drawing is reproduced below for the purpose of this analysis. It says “What if Aylan had lived? He would have become an ass-groper in Germany.”
Why it is racist
Racism is the action of attributing a character to a person solely because of its looks (real or imaginary). On the cartoon, the reader has to understand that Aylan, who died on a Turkish beach as his parents tried to escape the Syrian civil war, is an Arab. The rapists of Cologne are understood to be Arabs. Aylan is an Arab, the rapists are Arabs, so Aylan is a rapist. This is a typical racist reasoning, similar to “some Blacks dance well, you are Black so you must dance well”.
There is a more subtle racist undertone to the cartoon. For the message to be understandable, the reader has to acknowledge that the people who allegedly raped and harassed women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve were Syrian refugees. As of January 13, this fact was not established by the police or by journalists. The idea that Arab refugees were responsible is a construct from the European far-right, whose racist credentials are clearly established. Being a journalist, the author of the cartoon knew this.
Why it is not satire
It can be argued that the cartoon is satire. All the more so as Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonists have long argued that their work was, indeed, satire. Because the cartoon was intended as satire, it cannot be racist, the reasoning goes. Instead, it is meant to denounce racism.
The argument of the intent does not hold. That racist remarks are not considered racist by their author does not make them any less racist. Intent has nothing to do with effect. As long as one believes that the reality of facts matters as much as the abstract ideas that provoked them, one must consider effect at least as seriously as intent. One can publish a racist cartoon while believing and arguing that it is not racist. However, by publishing a racist cartoon, one becomes a racist.
Many drug addicts do not see themselves as addicts, it does not mean that they are not. The same holds true of racists.
The cartoon does not mock the bigots that equate Arabs to rapists. It explicitly mocks Arabs themselves. There are many narrative techniques that make satire transparent, such as placing the racist content of the cartoon in the mouth of a despicable character. Such technique was widely used by Charlie Hebdo staffers, not least by Cabu with his Nouveau Beauf (although it was published mostly in Le Canard Enchaine). Cabu was murdered in the January 7 shootings.
The only way the cartoon could be understood as satire is if its author had a pristine reputation as an non-racist. He does not.
The racist trend among Charlie Hebdo staff and French political cartoonists is nothing new. In 2005, Philippe Val, then editor-in-chief of the journal, equated Arabs with antisemites. He later defended French colonialism, saying that it had “brought culture to Africans and Arabs”. He was awarded a “Yabon award”, given by anti-racist NGO Les Indivisibles, for that sentence (he had left Charlie Hebdo by then). For the past 15 years, Charlie Hebdo has been criticized for its racist stance, including by former staffers. Arguing that a cartoon cannot be racist because it was published in a journal that used to be anti-racist only shows a deep ignorance of the changes at Charlie Hebdo since 2001.
Why it is a problem
Publishing racist cartoons does not and will never justify any other reaction than contempt - and certainly not death. If you read this essay as a justification for the January 7 murders, you are very, very mistaken.
That the French defend the racist drawings of Charlie Hebdo while condemning the antisemite comments of Dieudonne, a local entertainer and politician, is nothing new. It continues to show that the French elite and the police-judicial system consider anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment as the norm, while other groups deserve protection (which they do not always receive). The most blatant proof of the institutional racism in France was offered after the Ajaccio riots of 26 December. After they pillaged a Muslim praying room, some of the thugs declared that they wanted to kill dozens of Muslims. They were not charged. At that time, at least one Muslim who said Je ne suis pas Charlie was still behind bars, doing time for praising terrorism.
Some even argued that by ridiculing Arabs, the cartoonist was taking them seriously, and that this alone proved his anti-racism. Being able to joke about stereotypes is a good thing. Everywhere, regional or national stereotypes are used for jokes. Whether such jokes do not ridicule and humiliate the target is another matter. Arabs in France are systematically discriminated against. They can be sexually assaulted by the police on their way home. They can be chased by the police and left to die with impunity. One cannot laugh about Arabs in the same way one would mock the regional traits of a Breton or a Picard.
That a racist cartoon is so fiercely defended only reflects the racist sentiment that has spread in France. The French elite died long ago. It has now entered a state of putrefaction. Racist cartoons are just some of the toxic gases it excretes as it slowly disappears, eaten away by reactionary vermin.
- In case you’re wondering, I’m just adding this sentence to avoid any copyright issue (this is from article L 122-5 du code de la propriété intellectuelle).
- As of January 12, the German Federal police listed 32 suspects, among which 4 Syrians, according to local news station WDR. A report in ZEIT from a week before (January 6) clearly documents how rumors around the events have been treated as facts by many.
- See here a short article on how Cabu created and used Les Beaufs (in French).
- As quoted in this piece.
- Quoted in Y’a Bon Awards : la gauche plane sur le palmarès 2015.
- Read this great piece by Olivier Cyran: « Charlie Hebdo », pas raciste ? Si vous dites….
- Quoted by Pascal Boniface on Twitter, from France Info. If you have the original recording, do drop me a line.
- Most of the Muslims jailed for expressing sympathy with the January 7 killers were sentenced to less than a year in prison. Longer sentences were given in cases when aggravating factors, such as drunk driving, were present. Read the fantastic analysis by Quartier XXI on the topic.
- Just one of many, many studies on the topic: Discriminations religieuses à l’embauche : une réalité by Institut Montaigne.
- “Finger fucked” would be more precise. Read this Le Monde article.
- As came out from the trial of the policemen who watched “Zyed and Bouna” die (they were discharged). Read this Le Monde article for some of the details.