The French magazine Charlie Hebdo has generated yet another controversial, provocative cartoon that has not gone down well because of its racist and Islamophobic undertones. In the immediate aftermath of the despicable and outrageous Cologne assaults, where women were groped and molested on New Year’s eve, by men described by the German police as being Arab/North African in appearance, and where a majority of the suspects have turned out to be asylum seekers, it is but natural that this issue becomes a central topic of discussion within a climate where Europe is facing a refugee crisis. As much as everyone should condemn the Cologne attacks in no uncertain terms, the immediate, knee-jerk reaction of Charlie Hebdo’s artistic response to the attacks also needs to be held to scrutiny.
The cartoon exploits the image of the dead Syrian child Alan Kurdi who was washed up on a Turkish beach in trying to reach to safety. Charlie Hebdo asks, “What would little Alan have grown up to be?” and in the same breath in answers, “a groper in Germany”. And of course, since the French magazine cannot satirise people without reducing them to animals, the grown-up Alan has to be rendered as a pig. Full marks for subtlety in racism.
The attacks in Cologne deserve to be condemned, the culprits deserve to be punished, and Germany, like India and other parts of the world, has to become safe for all women. Reducing the action of a group of drunken Arab-looking men into a dangerous portent is nothing except fanning the fires of racism and Islamophobia.
Seen in another light, if Charlie Hebdo believes that the refugee-child would have grown up to become a groper in Europe, should its satire not be directed at the social conditions in which this child is growing, and that, in fact, it is society that is responsible for what a three-year-old grows up to be? If “groper” is the role that European society (at least that portion of society that goes around identifying itself as #JeSuisCharlie) demarcates for a refugee child, is it also not an indication of how far this white society will allow the child to progress in its ranks? Is this not the classic self-fulfilling prophecy that has been unleashed upon the rest of the world that is not white by the “civilised” western minds?
In the same breath, how should our satire then portray European/western/white men, or rather, the #JeSuisCharlies? Where do we begin? Should we start with the rapes that accompanied colonialism, so that we can start running away at the sight of white men? Should we start with the slave trade and indentured labour? Should we start with the forced prostitution of native women to take care of the sexual hungers and other needs of the colonial regiments? Should we stay silent because white male hegemony over culture has made them into the desired, the desirable, the prototypes that makes women—white or brown or black—simply orgasm at the thought of what they will grow up into, whereas men of other races, other places, are scary and savage? Since satire is also about self-introspection, can we find out which category of men are at the forefront of perpetrating the violence and abuse that one in three women in Europe have faced, and are facing?