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 writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at Follow him on Twitter.


The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

This Scene From All The President’s Men Captures Ben Bradlee’s Genius

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.