In Depth

Charlie Hebdo: is Alan Kurdi cartoon racist?

Controversial magazine's drawing of drowned Syrian refugee sparks racism debate around world

A controversial cartoon published in France's Charlie Hebdo magazine has sparked a global debate about racism, satire and freedom of expression.

The image depicts three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, who drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean last year, showing him as an adult committing a sex crime in Germany.

"What would have happened to little Alan if he'd grown up?" it asks, before answering: "A groper of women in Germany," in a clear reference to the sexual assaults committed in Cologne last month.

More than 100 women claim they were assaulted by men of apparent North African or Arab origin during the German city's New Year celebrations, triggering outrage and heightening existing tensions in the country.

Many took to social media to condemn the magazine, which they labelled "racist" and "revolting", with ABC's Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill calling it "outrageous".

Alan's aunt, Tima, said she cried when she saw the cartoon. "To hurt us again, it's not fair," she told CBC News.

However, Financial Times journalist Christopher Thompson said the drawing could simply be poking fun at "sweeping stereotypes about migrants".

It might also represent how the pendulum of public support for refugees has swung back the other way, suggests the Washington Post's Adam Taylor.

"Charlie Hebdo may well have been satirising the fickleness of Europe's sympathy for refugees and migrants, or highlighting the absurdity of linking the many fearful refugee families to the alleged sexual assaults by grown men," he says, but adds: "Even if that's true, however, the satire misses the mark for many."

Journalist Max Fisher, from Vox, agrees. "Even if the ultimate message is to argue against anti-refugee hysteria and to champion the rights of refugees in Europe, it is nonetheless tasteless," he says.

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