Are political cartoons popular in the Muslim world?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 13 2010 5:28 PM

Does the Muslim World Have Political Cartoons?

You bet it does.

A man looks at an illustration in the December 16, 2008 edition of the Egyptian newspaper al-Badeel.
An  illustration in the Dec. 16, 2008 edition of the Egyptian newspaper al-Badeel celebrating the shoe thrown at President George W. Bush.

Two blasts rocked Stockholm's shopping district on Sunday, killing the bomber and injuring two. Minutes before the explosions, a Swedish news agency received an e-mail complaining about unflattering depictions of the prophet Muhammad in political cartoons. While it's not yet clear whether the bomber and the e-mailer were one and the same, Islamic extremists still seem fixated on these caricatures more than five years after their initial publication. Are political cartoons—blasphemous or not—a big deal in the Muslim world?

Yes. Most state-run and independent newspapers in Muslim countries carry political cartoons. If anything, the art of the political cartoon is more vibrant in those places than it is in Europe and the United States. For one thing, it's safer in some countries to express controversial ideas in caricature than to spell them out in sentences and paragraphs. Literacy rates also make a difference in the Muslim world: About half the people in Pakistan and Yemen can read, 28 percent of Afghans, and 84 percent of the populations in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. In these places, political cartoons offer a reliable way to get a point across to a sizable group who can't read anything else in a newspaper. In the 1870s, when Thomas Nast was working in the golden age of American political cartoons, the national literacy rate was 80 percent. Now it's 99 percent, and the cartoons are much less influential.

Cartoonists in the Muslim world don't shy away from controversy. They have slammed the Yemeni regime for manipulating polling data and criticized the Iranian government's response to election protests. But artists working in some countries have to be careful. Daniel Corstange, a professor at the University of Maryland, surveyed (PDF) Yemeni political cartoonists about censorship in 2007. Most agreed that caricatures of the president would be met with punishment, while many also confessed to avoiding other important government officials, army figures, or tribal sheiks. As a result, cartoons tend to depict anonymous people, or to use objects as representations of political figures. (Kind of like Doon e sbury.) Religion isn't a taboo topic, but it's not particularly popular. Off-limits subjects include sexuality, sectarianism, and women's rights.

Tehran is among the most aggressive regimes when it comes to the censorship of political cartoons. Manouchehr Karimzadeh was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1993 for depicting an apparently one-armed soccer player that very vaguely resembled Ayatollah Khomeini. In 2000, Nikahang Kowsar drew another Ayatollah who had repeatedly attacked the press as a crocodile squeezing the life out of a journalist. While Kowsar insisted to authorities that the crocodile wasn't intended to represent any individual, the Ayatollah's name (Mesbah) rhymed with the Persian word for crocodile (Temsah). Kowsar spent seven days in Tehran's infamous Evin prison, and has since fled to Canada. Iran arrested another cartoonist, Hadi Heidari, last year. Yemen has also resorted to jailing political cartoonists. Other countries have employed slightly less aggressive tactics. The Turkish government tried to intimidate Salih Memecan by investigating him for sedition in 1997, and Syria has restricted cartoonists to publishing in state-controlled papers.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Like  Slate  and the Explainer  on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.