Mightier Than the Sword: Political Cartoons in the Middle East

“The best way to escape every day reality is to see cartoons,” says Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer. But cartoonists in the Middle East don’t just entertain. At times, their work is the only way to openly express dissent, in a region where press freedoms remain endangered . Using symbols and allegory to make their point, sometimes cartoonists are the only ones whose message can pass through the censorship.

The first images of Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat after he was attacked in Damascus last year showed him lying in a hospital bed with large bruises on his face – and, most tellingly, with his badly broken hands swathed in bandages. The symbolism was clear. The assault, wrote Committee to Protect Journalists’ deputy director Robert Mahoney, was “the calculated crushing of something seemingly so fragile but actually so powerful as the hand that holds a pen.”

Ferzat had been drawing cartoons since college, working even for state-run publications, never crossing the lines of state censorship. His work was favorably received by then-president Hafez Al Assad, and later by his son Bashar Al Assad, in part because he never depicted anyone in the Syrian government literally. Instead, he used symbols, such as a chair, to depict power.

But last year’s Arab uprisings sparked a change in Ferzat’s work. His message became more direct. In April last year, for example, Ferzat took the bold step of drawing Assad for the first time, showing him fretting over the demonstrations, giving speeches with audiences who were instructed when to applaud. And then, a few days before he was assaulted, Ferzat drew a picture of Assad hitching a ride with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was in the midst of his country’s civil war.


A cartoon Ferzat published in April 2011 showing Assad hitching a ride with Muammar Gaddafi, three days before his hands were broken by unidentified attackers. Photo courtesy of Torsten Adair of comicsbeat.com.

While the cartoonist’s attackers sought to intimidate him into downing his pen, Ferzat – who is now recovering in Kuwait – has expressed his determination to return to Syria and continue his work. Since the attack, hundreds of cartoonists have shown their solidarity with Ferzat, drawing images of Assad being attacked by pens – or images of Ferzat continuing to draw Assad, even with his broken, bandaged fingers.

Ferzat exemplifies the dangerous precipice on which political cartoonists in the Middle East dangle every time they publish. At times, they are able to express dissent more freely, by using symbolism and indirect references to challenge authority. But, when the cartoonist crosses a line, the punishment can be swift and harsh, as Ferzat learned.

Cartoons “capture and insinuate much more than you could with writing or with words. That makes them especially potent,” said Fatma Müge Göçek, a sociology professor at Princeton University and author of “Political Cartoons in the Middle East: Cultural Representations in the Middle East.”

While political satire has been around in the Middle East for centuries, the Western medium of political cartooning first came into the region with the adoption of the printing press and the introduction of daily and weekly newspapers. Political cartoons as a form of dissent gained popularity during the first Gulf War in 1991, according to Göçek. For the first time, the conflict was depicted and viewed by two different parties, as artists in Iraq took a cue from American political cartoonists depicting the war and presented their views to local audiences

“Cartoons are particularly significant because of the political repression in Middle Eastern societies where the circulation of knowledge and information is restricted,” said Göçek. And cartoons are able to reach a wider audience than text in societies that may still have high illiteracy rates.

“Especially in countries where the literacy rate is low, it’s much easier and more convenient to use visual mediums, because anyone who sees these cartoons can get a sense or interpret without needing subtitles,” said Göçek. “It’s easier to see an image in one cartoon and get the gist of the argument than reading a whole article.”

Political cartoonists in countries where free expression is repressed may be slightly less vulnerable to reprisals than traditional journalists in those same countries, said Dr. Fayeq Oweiss, an Arab-American artist and linguist.

“Political cartoons can be interpreted differently so it’s not a direct message like a journalist would say,” he said. “With cartoons, it’s left to the viewer to interpret it in their own way, so in this way, it’s much better for them to express an idea.”

Göçek agreed that even in politically repressive countries, cartoonists often enjoy a bit more flexibility than traditional journalists.

“It’s very hard to argue if they have depicted a donkey, that the donkey refers to the prime minister,” she said. “It’s that symbolism that enables them to introduce a sense of ambiguity and ambivalence which makes it harder to pinpoint.”


An example of how Ferzat used symbolism to make a point, thus allowing his work to fly under the radar of censors. Published in a Syrian satirical weekly Al Domari in 2001, it shows an unidentified authority figure spouting floral language while really representing violence with a gun. Photo: From Ali Ferzat’s Facebook page.


But that doesn’t mean the cartoonists aren’t censored. Censorship may increase during wartime or an election period, when governments are particularly sensitive about criticism. Fear of intimidation by the government, religious authorities, or  extremist groups has driven many Middle Eastern cartoonists into exile – where some continue their work, using the Internet to try to reach audiences back home.

The threat to cartoonists’ freedom of expression has not gone unnoticed. Several organizations have been set up to protect journalists and political cartoonists.

Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani’s work and journey has been supported by International Cities of Refuge Network, which offers “persecuted writers a safe haven where they can live and work without fear of being censored or silenced,” according to its website, which includes cartoonists among those it protects.

The United Nations has also recognized the need for cartoonists’ rights to be championed. In partnership with France’s Le Monde newspaper, the UN founded the Association for the Cartooning of Peace Foundation to “promote better understanding and mutual respect between people of different faiths and cultures with cartoons as a means of expression of a universal language.”

Cartoonists Rights Network International, a nonprofit group, connects a network of over 600 editorial and social cartoonists throughout the world who agree to assist each other in free speech campaigns.

“More often than not, you can basically tell the degree of democracy in a country by the way the cartoonists are treated,” Göçek asserts.  “But they do have a better chance in court because the legal system usually requires literal proof, and it’s very hard to do that with cartoons, so they may have a little more flexibility.”

Iran is one of the countries in the Middle East where political comics and cartoons have flourished as part of Persian society for centuries. However, as the current regime increasingly tightens its grip on free expression, it has become more and more difficult for Iranian cartoonists to work within their own country, leading many of them to work in exile and use the Internet to share their cartoons back home.

“The attitude of the Iranian authorities towards the domestic comic book scene has changed over time,” says Dr. Farian Sabahi, professorof Islamic history at the University of Turin. During the term of former Iranian president Muhammad Khatami between 1997 and 2005, Sabahi said, “Cartoons were a means to criticize the politics of the different factions, as well as the wrongdoings inside the municipality of Tehran.”

But the 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad led to new restrictions on media – including a ban on cartoon format publications, such as the magazine Golaghah. Under Ahmedinejad, cartoonists having been arrested, jailed for indefinite periods of time, and even received death threats, forcing many into exile.

One of the exiles is cartoonist Nik Kowsar, who was jailed repeatedly and received death threats for drawing satirical cartoons of clerics and their attitudes towards free speech. Kowsar and his family now live in exile in Toronto.

“As a cartoonist in Iran, you should be nuts,” he told the Washington Post in an article in July 2009. “I was nuts.”

Kowsar is determined to continue publishing his work, which he does on his own website, displaying his . cartoons in both Farsi and English.

“With the Internet they have found a much freer place to express things that they would not be able to do in traditional media,” says Dr. Oweiss.

Hopes that last year’s Arab uprisings would give rise to greater democracy and freedom of expression in the region have begun to fade. Tunisia was the starting point of the Arab Spring and is one of the success stories of the revolution. With popular unrest leading to then President of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali being ousted, it launched a wave of inspiration for the revolts that would sweep the Middle East.

But on April 5, Tunisia sentenced two cartoonists, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, to seven years in prison for posting cartoons showing a naked Prophet Mohammad on a Facebook site. Even in the freer atmosphere of Tunisia, there are still red lines, and some worry that new Islamist rulers will curb free speech as sharply as the dictators deposed last year.

Dissident Kacem El Ghazzali, a board member of a leading coalition of Moroccan bloggers, said both Ghazi and Beji have always been outspoken about breaking down the taboo of religious representations in Islamic societies. The two cartoonists have published many inflammatory and provocative cartoons on the Internet, including one of a pig sleeping on the Kaaba, an Islamic shrine in the city of Mecca.

The Tunisian Justice Ministry called this cartoon a “violation of morality and disturbing public order” as the images have inflamed people with strong Muslim values. Religion remains a sensitive issue for cartoonies; even after the political revolutions of the past year, Arab countries are still grappling with the role religion and religious leadership should take in the post-revolution era.

What needs to be addressed, Göçek argues, is the fact that the Prophet Muhammad was a religious figure, not a political one.

“Freedom of expression and thoughts only apply insofar as you do not undermine the freedom of belief of others,” Göçek says. “And so the teachings of Islam and Judaism in particular are against depicting images of their prophets, and that should be respected.”

Regardless of where this debate goes, what remains clear is that political cartoonists in the Middle East will not be silenced. In fact, there are signs that some, like Ali Ferzat, are growing in influence. The horrific beating of Ferzat drew such attention to him that TIME magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in world recently included him.

Video by Erinn Cawthon.  Story by Yumna Mohamed and Purvi Thacker.

Yumna Mohamed is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter @yumzazzle
Purvi Thacker is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter @purvi21

Erinn Cawthon is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter @erinncawthon