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Has Charlie Hebdo gone too far with new cartoons? British lawyers think so

Strong responses to the magazine's cartoons of Aylan Kurdi have put freedom of speech in the spotlight. 

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    Gerard Biard, editor-in-chief of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, is interviewed by journalist Ingeborg Moe on freedom of speech during the annual 'Arendalsuka' political forum in Arendal, Aug. 14, 2015.
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    Yemeni men protest caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that appeared in French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in front of the French embassy in Sanaa, Jan. 17, 2015. The satirical magazine is again under scrutiny for its provocative cartoons.
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Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine, was embraced with sympathy and showings of solidarity after twelve Paris staffers were killed in a terrorist attack last January.

Now, however, new images referencing the death of Aylan Kurdi – the 3 year-old Syrian refugee whose drowning death off the coast of Turkey earlier this month prompted outpourings of grief – have moved the Society of Black Lawyers in Britain to threaten to report Charlie Hebdo to the International Criminal Court, calling the magazine "racist, xenophobic and ideologically bankrupt."

Society Chair Peter Herbert, former vice chair of the London Metropolitan Police Authority, expressed his outrage on Twitter on Sunday:

He was not the first to object to the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo, which features several cartoons referencing Aylan’s death. In one, Aylan’s now-emblematic body rests on the beach beneath a McDonald’s billboard advertising "Two children’s menus for the price of one." Another shows a child’s legs sinking into the sea as a Christ-like figure shrugs. The image reads, "The proof that Europe is Christian: Christians walk on water, Muslim children sink." (See images here.)

Newspapers like the Toronto Sun and the Mirror in Britain joined Mr. Herbert in labeling the cartoons offensive, but most of the immediate and impassioned responses to Herbert's tweet were negative, with critics arguing that the cartoons were meant to lambaste Europe’s halting response to the refugee crisis, not refugees themselves. Charlie Hebdo editor Laurent Sourisseau confirmed that policies, not people, were indeed the target in what The New York Times called "a scathing editorial" accusing EU leaders of being "hypocritical."

Hundreds of drawings based on the original, now iconic photograph of Aylan’s body have circulated since his death in early September, but the vast majority have been interpreted as respectful tributes

The Society of Black Lawyers, founded in 1969, seeks to eliminate racial discrimination in the British justice system, and the legal profession in particular. According to its website, "we are widely regarded as the legal arm of the civil rights movement in the UK." 

Controversy is nothing new for Charlie Hebdo; the publication has always attracted equal parts admiration and condemnation for its provocative satire, particularly cartoons depicting religious figures. The past year has left activists more divided than ever over the magazine’s interpretation of free speech.

Before this week’s edition, Charlie Hebdo was notorious mainly for its frequent images depicting the Prophet Muhammad, which many Muslim traditions prohibit. Dozens of scholars and writers have spoken out to caution editors, arguing that although the cartoons are legal, they are unnecessarily offensive; some also criticize them as being "superficial" satire, and of tapping into popular Islamophobia. 

In May, the PEN American Center, dedicated to the freedom of speech, honored Charlie Hebdo with an award. In response, 35 writers, including Junot Diaz and Joyce Carol Oates, composed a formal letter of protest, calling out the distinction between defending free speech and honoring that speech: 

There is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression. In the aftermath of the attacks, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were characterized as satire and "equal opportunity offense," and the magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect....

PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.

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