Political Satire and Censorship in the Middle East

The Danish cartoons started cultural clashes; riots and embassies burned down to ashes. Still there is hope in the dissident voices; who see beyond jihad more civilized choices.

These words begin the chapter on the Middle East, in the book entitled “The Offensive Art – Political Satire and Censorship around the world, from Beerbohm to Borat.” The book can help us understand what’s happening in the Middle East, with the furor over the pathetically-made video that has gotten Muslims up in arms.

Satire in the Arab World

What You Can(not) Talk About

The book, written by Leonard Freedman and published in 2009, is useful today when we consider the backlash from the recent “Innocence of Muslims” movie. It details attempts at the censorship by different parts of the world throughout history, such as in America, Britain, or Nazi Germany.

As Khalid Kishtainy said in his 1985 book “Arab Political Humor,” Arab poets used humour throughout their history. They were adept at using verbal wit to make jokes even on the authority of the prophet Mohammed, who is said to be the only prophet with a sense of humour, even at his own expense.

But the humour was not the same as we see in the West, and it was very rarely about politics. This was because of the oppressive nature of the medieval government – you don’t want to get on the bad side of the authority. Even today, all of the Arab nations in the Middle East are not free, so it’s personal risk to grab the attention of people in power. Kuwait is the only country that’s even partly free, according to Freedom House, an organisation that tracks civil liberties around the world.

Yet there were several instances in Arab history where people rebelled against their authorities with satirical jokes and anecdotes intent on ridicule. But as you can imagine, these instances were rare, and not so damning.

One of the most widely-read satirists in Egypt today, Lenin el-Ramly, has made a name for himself writing not just political satire, but over 30 scripts for film and TV series, and 12 plays, as of 2005. He is now one of the most famous satirist in the whole of the Middle East. But the satire he writes is not as explicit as what the modern Westerner is used to.

“There are four subjects that we can’t touch on,” el-Ramly said in an interview with Egypt Today; “Sex, the president, religion and social values. In other words, it’s not permitted to write directly about them, but you can touch on them in satire.” I’m sure many satirists in the UK – the region with the best satirists in the world – would argue persuasively that this watered-down version of political dissent could not be considered as satire, because these topics are so central to the form. But the fact that he can write this much is, at least in Freedman’s mind, very important.

Shutting Down the Satire

A satirical Syrian newspaper called “The Lamplighter” was first published in 2001 and sold out immediately. It was the country’s first independent paper since 1963, and it was created by the cartoonist Ali Farzat, who wrote satire about topics such as governmental oppression, the poor economy, war, terror, torture, and corruption. One of his cartoons appears below, showing a man being taken away for insisting, against the prevailing authority, that 1+1=2.

Censorship came in 2002 when Farzat was ordered to delete two articles from an issue in addition to a cartoon that insulted the prime minister. Within a few more years, the newspaper was shut down and Farzat’s printing license was revoked. In fact, Saddam Hussein had not only barred him from Iraq, but even threatened to kill him.

Indeed, the threats towards satirists is never greater than in the Middle East. In 1993, two Indian editors were given two years in prison and 500 lashes for printing the American comic strip “B.C.” in the Arab News. The rationale was that they were questioning the existence of God, which demanded harsh punishment. Luckily, intense international pressure ended in a pardon for the editors, but this case exemplifies the level of risk Arabs are dealing with when they print satire.

Here are some of the recent cases of censorship Freedman recounts in Saudi Arabia:

After an episode that criticized discrimination against women in restaurants, the press was full of angry condemnation by religious conservatives. A sequence accusing judges, all of them sheikhs, of working only two or three hours a day, provoked a fatwa, or religious edict, by senior sheikhs declaring that it was a sin to watch the program. And an episode ridiculing terrorist groups within the Kingdom led to death threats against the actors.

After Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, Iraq was a haven for Arab satirists. But after the assassination of Walid Hassan – an actor who appeared on a satirical TV show called “Caricature” – the situation seemed more bleek than ever. Hassan was killed in 2006 because he not only satirized U.S. forces and Iraqi politicians, but also the Shiite and Sunni militias.

Iranian Satirists and the Culture of Hypocrisy

A Better Life Abroad

Satirists in Iran also feel the pressure from authorities, despite a long tradition of political satire in their history. Nowadays, many satirical performers leave for the West, in which they are welcomed to perform in comedy clubs and criticize their bureaucracies from the safety of radio or satellite TV (which people can watch in Iran).

For example, after Ebrahim Nabavi was jailed twice in Iran, he left for Belgium where he now writes for BBC News in Persian, and broadcasts on a Holland radio show. Also, Ardeshir Mohasses, who died in 2008 at the age of 70, was a cartoonist who continued to work in New York after he fled Iran in the 1970’s. Many others fled to the West after creating work that was getting a little too much attention from the authorities.

But today in Iran, satire is not so much written in order to criticize its own people as it is to criticize others, which isn’t exactly what most would consider “edgy.” After all, it’s easy to hate someone else for being different, but it takes some real insight and introspection to criticize yourself or others like you. And extremists from Iran are not generally known for their ability to introspect.

The Danish Cartoon Controversy

In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published several images of the prophet Mohammed, which is forbidden in Islam, and which were also satirical. The point of this was to highlight freedom of speech and provoke intellectual thought, but it ended in violence much like we are seeing in the Middle East today over the Innocence of Muslims video. As is everything negative Iran experience, Israelis and Jews were blamed for this, despite there being absolutely no connection to either.

Therefore, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri went on to create an International Holocaust Cartoon Contest, which was intended to highlight the “Western hypocrisy on freedom of speech.” While I’m sure anti-semitics considered it to be a big success, anti-semitic satirical cartoons are basically a daily occurrence in Iran, so it was nothing ground-breaking; it was just more famous.

In fact, it just showed the fact that Westerners were not hypocritical at all – they didn’t react the same way that Islamists did whatsoever. Furthermore, just a week after Iran’s announcement to hold this anti-semitic cartoon contest, several Jewish cartoonists decided to start their own cartoon contest. Ordinary Jews from all around the world were absolutely thrilled, saying that it was a great ideaOnly, it wasn’t an anti-Arab contest; it was an anti-Jewish contest.

“We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published! [. . .] No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!”

If Iranians like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who sponsored his own anti-semitic cartoons in the past) were attempting to show the hypocrisy of the West with regards to free speech, they didn’t just fail – they were obliterated like a bomb strapped to a torso.

But evidently quality isn’t a particularly important part of satire for many Muslims, or else they would not have been so upset with the Innocence of Muslim, which is one of the worst videos anyone has ever wasted fourteen minutes of their life watching. Instead, it seems that the quantity of hatred matters more for extremist Muslims, as one video or one cartoon may be enough to cause this much anger. And yet, there’s never enough anti-American or anti-Israeli cartoons to go around, which is why anti-semitic cartoons in Iran continue to this day. The first annual International Wall Street Downfall Cartoon Festival wrapping up just a few months ago managed to lump their hatred of America and Jews together.

Is Satire Important for the Arab Nations?

Satire is absolutely necessary. It’s as necessary as the art, theatre, and music. These are sometimes made to evoke an emotion or make an interesting point, but they are all often created to send a message. Keeping people in power accountable – a completely foreign concept to Arabs – is what makes people have the freedom to justifiably live without fear. No one has the right to take a life if they are merely displeased, and no one should ever have that power. So the way Arab authorities are governing is obviously awful, but we’ll slowly see a move to democracy, which is what Egypt is going through now.

But here’s one thing we have to keep in mind; Arabs like reading satire. This is why satirists are being shut down. There are so many people who read these critical newspapers and books that officials eventually get word of it, and begin getting upset. They feel threatened, and they don’t know how to stay in power if they’re losing the ability to brainwash the ordinary people – those people who want to be able to read or write satire.

Perhaps if there was less censorship in the Arab world, they wouldn’t be so shocked when they see satire from another country – let alone really poorly made, stupid, unfunny satire (i.e., the Innonce of Muslim film).

I do believe that they will eventually get used to it – and there are already plenty of Arabs saying that these extremists do not represent Islam – but I hesitate to think how much bloodshed there will be before the extremists grow up.

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2 Responses to Political Satire and Censorship in the Middle East

  1. Pingback: Creating Political Humor that Shows and Tells

  2. jose says:

    Reference the first cartoon. One is a drawing of a Prophet. The other is a practitioner of a religion. Very big difference!

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