Satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has roused controversy with the publication of several cartoons depicting the drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi. The now unmistakable original image of Aylan appears with several additions that have been branded as xenophobic and disrespectful of his memory by some, and as sarcastic social commentary by others. While the controversy surrounding these cartoons is unsurprising, condemning them as an abuse of free speech willfully ignores their wider significance.
Both cartoons are inarguably disturbing and, taken literally, could easily be dangerous. One shows Aylan lying facedown in the sand beneath the caption ‘so close to his goal’ and a looming McDonald’s billboard advertising ‘kid’s meals two for the price of one.’ The other depicts Jesus walking on the surface of the sea alongside a drowned child. The statement ‘Christians walk on the waters, the Muslim children drown’ hovers above, with the child’s death given as ‘the proof that Europe is Christian.’
Interpretation aside, condemning Charlie Hebdo for these cartoons is a narrow-minded mistake; what the magazine has ultimately done is manipulate existing symbols and views that mainstream media and public opinion have supplied. Any condemnation must consider these sources, for interpreting the cartoons as hateful attempts at humour with origins in an individual publication devalues their insights into journalistic conventions, not to mention European cultural attitudes.
Aylan’s image has been credited with provoking one of the first significant outcries of support for refugees in Europe, quickly becoming a symbol for all those displaced by violence and poverty following the publication of his original photo. Mainstream media used him to humanise the ‘migrants’ of previous headlines, and transform the refugee crisis into a crisis of conscience. Despite accusations of poor taste from some, that original image was deemed important, with too much potential to influence debate to be censored.
The disturbing nature of his story did not prevent the public from seeing what Aylan’s death stood for, yet many have claimed that Charlie Hebdo’s use of the image of Aylan is exploitative of the tragedy of his death, and that the cartoons detract from his legacy. They do not account for the fact that Aylan became a symbol long before his image was used by Charlie Hebdo. What differs is that the magazine has been more explicit in its use of Aylan as symbols in an argument, supplemented to strengthen the publication’s editorial intentions in the tradition of satirical media. Blame for these cartoons must include the mainstream publications who made Aylan Kurdi the symbol that he has become, sanctioning Charlie Hebdo’s further use of him in their own arguments on the basis of established conventions of free speech and satire.
The use of a symbolic image, loaded with social significance and common in popular culture, cannot be available to some media and limited to others on the basis that satirical sources will use it as an argument.