BERLIN: Gayeti Singh's recent article in "The Citizen" was shared by several left-wing writers, politicians, poets etc. on social media, along with scathing criticism of Charlie Hebdo's alleged "racism", and subsequently turned into articles like the one by Kavita Krishnan published in Sabrang.

Why am I pointing out the "left-wing" here? Not because I was against these authors' views in general, quite on the contrary. If this were about some right-wing authors writing to 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 like it would not be possible to do so with a "better" cartoon in CH or elsewhere). What bothers me is the fact that in this case, many sane and highly politically aware people criticize a publication (Charlie Hebdo) that is not at all an "enemy", but in fact very much on their own side, i.e. that of freedom of expression, of the press, and of opinion. The sad fact that they so strongly criticize CH in front of their left-leaning audiences is what has prompted me to write this, as they provide these audiences with a totally incorrect and out-of-context view of CH and its intentions. And what really puzzles me is the motivation behind trying to prove that CH is „sexist“ and „racist“. What is to be gained here? This not only go against freedom of speech, but 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 Kavita Krishnan and others. They will say that CH are 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 this is what these authors would advocate. But what else is behind their allegations?

And why is all this so problematic and why should it be clarified, and if possible, revised? Because this current wave of 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 and contex, by way of a Facebook posting that has already been shared widely in the same circles and is used to further criticize and "expose" the magazine.

I will deliberately leave aside the question whether the recent cartoon, which allegedly claims that Aylan Kurdi would have grown up to be a groper in Germany, is in good taste or not (he is being shown with the face of a pig and running after a woman he tries to grope). Whether one approves of the way it uses the picture of a dead child for the purpose of a cartoon is up for debate, and it is clearly a matter of personal opinion more than anything else. However, the cartoon is simply taken at face value here, and the conclusion is made that it shows the cartoonist's (and Charlie Hebdo's) own statement that this is what would have inevitably happened, had he not drowned. However, as context and history show clearly, this is utterly wrong, and thus makes these accusations baseless. Upholding them nonetheless will have the ill effects outlined above.

(Note: The cartoons have been rearranged)

Before going into matters of cultural context and and quoting an example from the history of CH cartoons, it is important to point out that this cartoon was also (deliberately?) taken out of its editorial context to score anti-CH points. This is only one of four cartoons in a column underneath a headline that says "France is not what we say it is", which in fact refers to a song by Michel Sardou, “La France, c’est pas c’qu’on dit” is part of the chorus line, which also says “France is a country where 50 million idiots reside”. The big red header is used here to highlight a common theme between a group of cartoons. In this case, it is French hypocrisy. The first cartoon refers to a discussion in France on whether or not terrorists with double citizenship should be stripped of their french citizenship. Former minister of justice Christiane Taubira, who is depicted here, and who has also been the subject of allegedly "racist" CH cartoons (more on that below), opposed this and has eventually resigned over this issue. The other politician says she will have to accept it or step back.

The second cartoon is well-known now (more on that below). The third one satirizes the fate of cartoonists themselves, it says "Since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, people no longer draw the same way", and the artist in the cartoon says "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 be viewed in isolation, nor taken at face falue, as a straightforward statement against the dead child. Instead, it clearly satirizes and thereby criticizes those who do hold such views, many 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 contains 4 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, though, one will need to look at earlier cases of such cartoons that appear "racist" at first, but turn out to be 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 analyzed and explained them 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 have a long history of saying the unsayable and thinking the unthinkable, and whether or not global readers can and will personally relate to that must not become a base for factually incorrect accusations of "racism" or "sexism" etc. They are still specifically french, not only in their language, but also in the way they make statements. Those who will 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 shown 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?

On 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 of justice, 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:

"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 object to this cartoon, but in fact attended the CH cartoonists' funerals, and held a personal 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 base for accusations and attacks. Sadly, though, that does not seem to be the case, which is what has led Gayeti Singh and others after her to publish scathing attacks. Several of these writers have refused to even reconsider their views 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 considering that this kind of criticism ultimately may endanger the lives of CH cartoonists yet again, and in the interest of the freedom of expression (regardless of personal tastes), I would request Gayeti Singh to give this matter a second thought in the light of context, and to ideally publicly correct or retract her accusations and allegations against CH, which already have and will continue to do a lot more harm than good to the same causes she will otherwise strongly defend.

One of the best articles I have found on the web in this matter explains the "sacred right to blaspheme“ that is so important in France:

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)