For freedom’s sake

Why the current criticism of Charlie Hebdo is not only factually wrong but also dangerous

Kavita Krishnan’s recent article ( makes a scathing criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s alleged racism. This article and one other was shared widely on social media and Facebook, including by several left-wing writers, politicians and poets. Another such was in the Citizen:
Why am I referring specifically to the left-wing? Not because I am against their views in general; quite the contrary. If such articles were written by some right-wing authors writing for a right-wing audience, I would not even bother to comment on a single FB posting, as there is little to no point trying to change any views there. (Just as it would not be possible to do so with a “better” cartoon in CH or elsewhere).
What bothers me, and what has prompted me to comment on Krishnan's FB postings to a point where she almost blocked me (Thanks to her for not doing so and apologies for having been a nuisance), is the fact that many sane and highly politically aware people are criticising a publication (Charlie Hebdo) that is by no means an “enemy”. In fact it is very much on their side; for freedom of expression, of the press, and of opinion.
The sad fact that they so strongly criticize CH in front of their own left-leaning audiences is what causes me to write this, as they provide these audiences with a totally incorrect and out-of-context view of this magazine and its intentions. What really puzzles me is the motivation behind trying to prove that CH is sexist and racist. What is to be gained here?

Such castigation not only goes against freedom of speech, it ultimately plays into the hands of those who have said all along that CH deserved what they got last year. As it were, these voices have already been seen in FB comments underneath the postings of Krishnan and others. It will be argued that CH is despised (not only) in the West as racist and sexist, plus they insulted the prophet, so it was right to kill them? I refuse to believe that is what Krishnan and others would advocate. But how else is one to understand the allegations?
Why is left-wing damnation of CH so problematic and why should it be clarified, and if possible, revised? Because such criticism of CH is in fact not a matter of opinion, but arises from a complete and utter misunderstanding of the cartoons themselves, their socio-cultural context, and the history of such specifically French satire, which is sharp and often extremely direct. To make things worse, a CH cartoon from 1970 (!) was also dug up to show their “sexism“, in another crass misrepresentation of facts, by way of a Facebook posting that has already been shared widely in the same left-wing circles and is being used to further criticize and “expose” the magazine. This however will not be discussed in detail here and now.

I will deliberately leave aside the question whether the recent CH cartoon – which supposedly alleges that Aylan Kurdi would have grown up to be a groper in Germany – is in good taste or not. Whether one approves of the way it uses the picture of a dead child for the purpose of a cartoon is a matter for debate, and it is clearly a matter of personal opinion more than anything else. But as argued above, what is definitely not a matter of opinion is whether this cartoon (and others in CH) may be considered openly “racist“, as Krishnan and others have claimed, based on how a hypothetical adult Aylan Kurdi is shown with the face of a pig running after a woman he wants to grope.
The cartoon is simply taken at face value here and the conclusion drawn that it shows the cartoonist's (and Charlie Hebdo's) own statement or conviction that this is what would have inevitably happened, had he not drowned. However, as context and history clearly show this is utterly wrong and therefore the accusations are baseless. Holding on to such accusations nonetheless will be self-defeating as argued above.

Before going into cultural context and quoting an example from the history of CH cartoons, it is important to point out that the allegedly racist cartoon has also been taken out of its editorial context (deliberately?) to score anti-CH points. This is but one of four cartoons in a column, appearing below a headline that reads, “France is not what people say”. The first one refers to a discussion in France on whether or not terrorists with double citizenship should be stripped of their French citizenship. French Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, who is depicted here, and who has also been the subject of allegedly “racist” CH cartoons (more on that below), opposes this. The other politician says she will have to accept it or step back. The second cartoon is the one being hotly debated. The third one satirizes the fate of cartoonists. It says, “Since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, people no longer draw the same way”, with the man in the cartoon commenting, “We now do self-portraits”. The fourth one refers to protests against the construction of an airport, and says, “All united except in Notre-Dame-des-Landes” (the name of the place). The policeman's shield refers to “Je suis Charlie” and says, “So am I, normally, but not today”.

This context alone might provide ample evidence of the fact that the Aylan Kurdi cartoon can neither be viewed in isolation, nor taken at face value as a straightforward statement against the dead child. Instead, it clearly satirises and thereby criticises those who do hold such views, some of whom may have earlier shared the dead child's photograph out of compassion when it was first published. As an aside, this issue of CH also contains four drawings by the same cartoonist (‘Riss’), which are anti-clerical and anti-theist in nature, equally attacking Christian, Jewish, and Islamic clerics.
If this is not enough evidence, one will need to look at earlier cases of such CH cartoons that appear “racist” at first, but turn out to being the exact opposite if seen in the right political and socio-cultural context. I will pick one example, and provide a number of links for a better understanding of CH cartoons, as others have already analysed these in a way far better than I could.
It is important to realize first of all that CH cartoons never were, and still are not, meant to cater to the tastes of a streamlined global audience, and its expectations of what “good satire” may or may not be, say, or do. CH has a long history of saying the unsayable and thinking the unthinkable. For CH, whether or not global readers are able to personally relate to it must not become a basis for factually incorrect accusations of “racism”, “sexism” etc.
CH is specifically French not only in its language, but also in the way it makes its statements. Those who claim that good satire should not need an explanation might want to look at political cartoons in their own country and ask themselves whether these would be accessible to global audiences without a solid background knowledge of who is being portrayed how and in what context. This certainly applies to Indian cartoons (anything beyond Modi cartoons will likely not be understood elsewhere), but also to specifically American or British caricature. Obama and Trump will need no explanation, but what about Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders?

Now to a prime example of how CH cartoons are prone to be misunderstood if taken at face value: This is a cartoon showing the French cabinet minister Christiane Taubira. CH's then editor-in-chief, the late Stéphane Charbonnier, aka ‘Charb’, actually drew her as a monkey. Now, is that not blatantly racist? No. Not at all. A quote from the website ‘Understanding Charlie Hebdo' (now offline, archived version here explains it as follows:

“The cartoon was published after a National Front politician Facebook-shared a photoshop of Justice Taubira, drawn as a monkey, and then said on French television that she should be ‘in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government’ [Le Monde] (she was later sentenced to 9 months of prison). The cartoon is styled as a political poster, calling on all far right ‘Marine’ racists to unify, under this racist imagery they have chosen. Ultimately, the cartoon is criticising the far-right's appeal to racism to gain supporters”. (The red/blue logo in the corner is that of the neo-fascist French ‘Front National’, a kind of BJP/RSS/VHP conglomerate…).
Now Christiane Taubira not only did not criticize this cartoon, she later went to the CH cartoonists' funerals, and held a eulogy on one occasion, where she made the following statement: “Do taboos exist? Well, yes, according to them, it’s better to avoid drawing and caricaturing the CGT trade union for printers, for daily newspapers. [Laughter.] But otherwise no, no taboos. One can draw anything. Even a prophet. Because in France, in the France of Voltaire and of irreverence, one has the right to make fun of religions. A right. Yes, because a right, that’s what democracy is about. Democracy is the rule of law, according to the philosopher Alain.”
This one example could suffice to show that one must simply not draw conclusions on CH cartoons from what one sees on the surface, much less make these conclusions the basis for accusations and attacks. Sadly, though, that does not seem to be the case. This is what leads Krishnan and others to publish scathing attacks, despite being presented with ample evidence (and personal statements directly from France) that clearly debunk these allegations. In the interest of the audiences they are catering to, and in the interest of the freedom of expression (regardless of personal tastes), I hereby request her and others to seriously reconsider their position, and better yet, publicly retract and correct the accusations and allegations against CH, which already have and will continue to do a lot more harm than good to the same causes they otherwise strongly defend.
A few more links for a better understanding of CH cartoons follow:
(The writer is a concerned reader from Germany, a staunch atheist, who spent two years in India, mostly in Delhi between 1985 and 1994)



Related Articles