Is Charlie Hebdo’s most recent Aylan Kurdi cartoon genuinely racist?

Published: January 15, 2016

This is not the first time Charlie Hebdo has used Aylan Kurdi on its front page for shock value.

Outrage is a natural response to a magazine cover that seemingly mocks a deceased 3-year-old Syrian boy. Yet, there may be more to these cartoons than what meets the eye.

Charlie Hebdo has produced another cartoon every bit as tasteless as that which we’ve learned to expect from this French magazine. It features the drowned Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, and suggests that if the refugee child had survived and grown up, he would have been sexually harassing women in Germany like the other immigrants.

The cartoon refers to the wave of attacks carried out by immigrants in the German city of Cologne on New Year’s Eve, particularly sexual assaults on women.

This is not the first time Charlie Hebdo has used Aylan Kurdi on its front page for shock value. In September last year, the magazine attracted ferocious criticism for allegedly mocking the boy’s failed attempt at fleeing Syria. A similar cartoon made a reference to one of the miracles of Jesus Christ in the Christian faith, captioned,

“Proof that Europe is Christian. Christians walk on water – Muslim children sink.”



Charlie Hebdo cartoons are never easy on the eyes. On some occasions, they may appear so tremendously crass, they force one to question the humanity of the cartoonist.

However, there is another side of these cartoons to be explored and its visibility requires a reminder that Charlie Hebdo is a ‘satirical’ magazine. Satire is always coarse to the extent that it appears staggeringly stupid and offensive, but intends to denote the exact opposite of what it says.

Charlie Hebdo is a staunchly far-left magazine. It is known primarily for satirising the French right-wing, particularly the Christian right. A person unaware of the artists’ political leanings and its modus operandi, might find its cartoons indistinguishable from the everyday rants of a racist troll on the internet.

How you react to Charlie Hebdo’s recent cartoons depends on whether you recognise the sarcasm that is almost always aimed at the French right-wing, or believe that there’s really nothing beneath the surface of the cartoon.

Taken at face value, the most recent cartoon asserts that Aylan Kurdi may have grown up to become a howling misogynist who ‘gropes’ women. Those familiar with the magazine’s brand of crude satire, perceive it as a swipe at the European racist and his assumption that immigrants and refugees are homogeneously uncivilised.


The latter interpretation shines light at the Western bigots’ insincere condemnation of Aylan Kurdi’s death, and their feigned concern for the well-being of such children. For if Aylan Kurdi had survived, these people would’ve subjected him to the same racist stereotypes as they do to every other immigrant.

Many artists and analysts have offered similar explanations for Charlie Hebdo’s previous cartoons depicting Aylan Kurdi. The cartoon about drowned Muslim children was presumably not intended to mock the refugees, but the self-righteousness and arrogance of the Christian right.

Regardless, it may not be unreasonable for people around the world to feel upset about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. Even if one interprets the cartoons as satire aimed at the racists rather than the victims of racism, one may still understandably be hurt by the use of such provocative imagery to make that point.

In a world where Donald Trump runs for the presidency of the United States, sifting out genuine racists from sarcastic liberals has become a tremendous ordeal.

It is an ordeal that Charlie Hebdo should do well to recognise.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat

A medical doctor and bubble-wrap enthusiast from Rawalpindi, who writes mostly about science and social politics (and bubble-wrap). He tweets @FarazTalat (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Brian Stump

    Oh well, the world goes on. No reason to get bent out of shape about something done in poor taste. In a few years they will probably be shutting down again. The only reason they’re still in business is last year’s murders which increased their circulation.

  • Parvez

    Point well made ……. Its hard to defend Charlie Hebdo because they refuse to link ‘ responsibility ‘ with their satire.Recommend

  • Wolfgang Amadeus

    It isn’t racist. It makes a very valid point.Recommend

  • Kaygey

    Why is satire so hard for some to grasp?Recommend

  • Daniel

    If the outcome of not being called a “racist” is the continued sexual predation of women in the streets…then the world is free to call me whatever names they like. Sticks and stones.Recommend

  • naveed

    i would ask you same question if they mock holocaust victimsRecommend

  • naveed

    indeed,neither is Trump calling Mexicans rapists a rascist commentRecommend

  • Gremlin Brenneman

    Brilliant cartoon! People do not understand satire or its importance for
    despite all the outrage, the evidence we have suggests that this
    cartoon is true. People are having a very difficult time handling the
    truth these daysRecommend

  • ventolin63

    Lol,my man, if you ever have a child, that dies suddenly and then some
    far right pos mocks his death just so he can sell a copy or two more,
    please come here and try to make the same argument :)Recommend

  • abhi

    The problem is that some times what they show is not satire but reality.Recommend

  • ventolin63

    They MAY shut down if Riss gets some incurable disease and then an Arab journal ‘satirizes’ it with some nice picture of him on a hospital bead,connected to various medical apparatuses , caption reading below: ‘Je prépare mon cul pour le Royaume de Satan’. Considering how they’ve been anti-religious, that would be the best satire EVER!Recommend

  • Robert

    Why is it all news outlets all around the world are printing this cartoon, but was terrified to print the cartoon that got 12 cartoonist killed in France, which was much more subdued than this one? Recommend

  • Silent Observer

    The cartoon is based on facts. Nothing offensive whatsoever. Only those who want to get offended will get offended by this. The solution to that problem is not censoring Charlie but shipping the “oppressed” muslims back to their homeland. Problem solved!Recommend

  • JiMaS

    Absolutely right to confront the shifting attitudes towards immigrants with the emphasis on how they are portrayed by the press, and in doing so, our shifting attitudes to Charlie Hebdo itself, who are fully aware of the hypocrisy that emerges from tragedy.Recommend

  • Stan Squires

    I am from Vancouver, Canada and I wanted to say that the French Gov’t should be condemned by all Canadians for its support of Hebdo.This ghoulish attack by Hebdo on the Kurdi family has been condemned by the entire world and the French Gov’t supports it.There should be a rally at the French Consulate here in Vancouver to show the French Gov’t that the people here in Canada don’t like Hebdo.This kind of filth and dirt from France got to be stopped by whatever means necessary.Recommend

  • Brutus

    Another Umma lover’s grieving, lamenting & cursing blog against “inhuman and insensitive” west’s evil cartoon which uses dead child’s caricature to depict pious Muslims in bad light. The Author also seems to be unhappy about the “western bigots/racists’ fears over refugees and their boys turning misogynist (as if they’re already not!) who may grope & rape women’.
    But, wait sir, your biradar”Rapefugees” have already proved their “credentials” beyond any doubt! And you haven’t written a word against them!! By the way, do you know how many of the refugees who arrived into Europe, fall into the category of Aylan Kurdi (children, women & old)?? Believe it or not, they constitute just 13% of an entire population of refugees. The rest 87% consists of able bodies men, aged between 16 and 55. How come that this huge percentage of able bodied refugee men fled their countries leaving their starving, helpless and vulnerable families at the mercy of the terrorists in a war zone?? Are they such a cowards? If yes, they don’t deserve an iota of mercy! Therefore Mr. Blogger, before imparting/preaching lessons on moralities to the west, pay some attention to your umma’s own degraded and pitiful state.

    This good old victimhood rhetoric has lost its credibility, the non-Muslim world is not ready to listen to these bogus cries anymore. Pay attention to the other peoples’ sensibilities, if not, be ready for a backlash.Recommend

  • SD

    Pakistanis are quick to blast every one on foreign shores if any foreigner even SAYS something as appearing against their faith but they are mum when someone or a group from among themselves KILLS anybody.

    Is is because they fear they will be killed next if they talk or they concur with the killings ?Recommend

  • Khalid

    @Faraz Talat

    It IS racist but that is supposed to be the point. The press should be free to criticize and mock.

    Charlie Hebdo even parodied the recent French attacks as well as the attack on its own offices. The editors themselves claim that it is satire which is in bad taste, but should be allowed in a free society.Recommend

  • Kaygey

    My point made again. Satire, look it up. It’s not the child being mocked but the fickle way we as westerners view migrants. Recommend

  • Kaygey

    No one is mocking migrants, they are mocking us and the hypocrisy of the way we view migrants.Recommend

  • Time Is Up

    Muslims are NOT a race. So no question of being racist!Recommend

  • Ahsan Nisar

    I’m sure you would say “brilliant cartoon” if Hebdo were to draw a cartoon mocking holocaust victims.


  • Ahsan Nisar

    Hello Stan. As a Pakistani, I’m grateful to you for not being hypocritic and saying what needs to be said.

    If Hebdo mocked the holocaust victims, do you think people would call it free speech?

    If Hebdo portrayed the 9/11 victims as rapists, would people call it free speech?

    Charlie Hebdo should be outlawed. Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    The French President would prefer Charlie H depicting sickness on its paper instead of showing the President in disguise on the Mofa visiting his mistress at night.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Rajiv

    There was nothing racist about the cartoon. It was based on facts, which are harsh and bitter.
    Aylan was responsibility of his parents not West.Recommend

  • Harrison Lansing

    “Satire is always coarse to the extent that it appears staggeringly stupid and offensive”

    This, of course, is bullshit.Recommend

  • Rafidi

    The cartoon mocks the death of a child fleeing war. how inhumane these people can be. The migrants are fleeing because of the foreign policies of the west because of the war that you started in Iraq. You exploit there resources ruin their lives and when they run to you for help you mock them . Today I feel happy for the attacks on charlie hebdo. Perhaps a day would come when the westerner comes to east for help and is treated the same way.Recommend