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.

Advertisement

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 explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

How Movies Like Contagion and Outbreak Distort Our Response to Real Epidemics

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Everything You Should Know About Today’s Eclipse

An Unscientific Ranking of Really, Really Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Lexicon Valley
Oct. 23 2014 10:30 AM Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 8:51 AM The Male-Dominated Culture of Business in Tech Is Not Great for Women
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 23 2014 11:08 AM Seeing the Familiar in Black and White
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
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.