The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which made international headlines after being attacked for its depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, has made the news again. Their latest edition features drawings of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian child who drowned off the coast of Turkey, juxtaposed with images of Jesus and a McDonald’s billboard advertising “two kid’s meals for the price of one.”

These publications have sparked outrage from people across the world, who accuse its editors of mocking the child’s death, in addition to being xenophobic and insensitive. This stands in stark contrast to the public’s reaction to the earlier drawings of Muhammad, which was overwhelmingly supportive of Charlie Hebdo’s right to free expression and began the movement, “Je suis Charlie.” What can explain this discrepancy?

Some people have argued that Charlie Hebdo’s latest drawings have overstepped their bounds and no longer constitute satire, whereas the drawings of Muhammad did. I find this distinction arbitrary, but I can see where it comes from. It’s a pervasive misconception about satire that it aims to make you laugh — the sort of neck-whipped-back, bellowing laugh that the likes of John Oliver solicit. And in a culture brought up on “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” it’s easy to believe that this is the only kind of satire that exists. But despite its macabre subject matter, these recent cartoons are clearly satirical in nature. The one featuring a McDonald’s billboard is captioned “so close to his goal … ” and attacks European consumerism and ridicules the idea that refugees are willing to risk their lives for simple economic gains. Hilarious? Not really. Satirical? Undoubtedly.

Another argument I’ve heard is that the latest drawings are so deeply offensive that freedom of expression should be checked. But who, exactly, is the victim of offense? Kurdi? Kurdi’s family? Anyone who has children Kurdi’s age? It also is not at all obvious that Kurdi is being mocked, as many articles have claimed. A level-headed interpretation of the cartoons would reveal that it is Europe’s attitude toward the refugee crisis that is the object of ridicule. The cover featuring a proud-looking Jesus walking on water proclaims: “proof that Europe is Christian: Christians walk on water, Muslim children sink/run” (a play on words: the French word “couler” can mean to sink or to run). This is a scathing critique of European hypocrisy, specifically, recent Slovakian legislation which would allow the country to accept only Christian refugees and not Muslims. To this extent, Kurdi’s image is simply being used to represent Muslim refugees who are the victims of this double standard — hardly mocking at all.

This position also reveals a subtle hypocrisy which should not be ignored. Why is it that these drawings have been widely interpreted as being excessively offensive, whereas the drawings of Muhammad were not? I argue that this is simply due to cultural upbringing. You may not have grown up in a society where this one man has been revered as a prophet — whose name is invariably followed by the complementary phrase “peace be upon him” — and who is considered a supreme example of piety and morality. To a person with this upbringing, the cartoons of Muhammad, which often depicted him in a demeaning and derogatory manner, may even be more offensive than the cartoon of Kurdi. It’s all a matter of perspective.

And this brings up a vital point. Personal opinions about offensiveness can vary dramatically from culture to culture, and person to person. So when it comes to a concept as important as freedom of expression, taste cannot be a consideration. Why should we care about some obscure magazine across the Atlantic? Because the freedom to speak also means the freedom to listen. For some of you, this column may have been the first time you heard about Slovakia’s deplorable laws regarding refugees. If we had let public perception of taste dictate what is and isn’t OK to publish, you may have never heard about it. We should never trust anyone to make that distinction for us.

Farid Alsabeh can be reached at falsabeh@umich.edu.

 

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