The Long History of Satire in the Middle East

Contrary to a recent popular claim, Muslims—of course—believe in the freedom of expression. And they’ve been using it to some extraordinary ends.
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Contrary to a recent popular claim, Muslims—of course—believe in the freedom of expression. And they’ve been using it to some extraordinary ends.
A rally in support of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting. (Photo: Thomas Bresson/Flickr)

A rally in support of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting. (Photo: Thomas Bresson/Flickr)

One of the journalists killed in the recent attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, was Georges Wolinski, who was honored in an article published by the Turkish language BBC on Thursday, January 8. The accompanying photograph, taken when Wolinski was visiting Istanbul two years ago, shows him wearing a white skullcap in the courtyard of Sultan Eyüp mosque.

“He wanted to meet with local religious conservatives.... One of Eyüp’s speakers came,” Turkish journalist Tüncay Akgün wrote. “He invited him [Wolinski] to become a Muslim. He gave him a religious skullcap.” It was no accident that Wolinski and Akgün, general editor of Turkey’s own satirical publication, LeMan, became fast friends.

Irreverent, satirical, continually poking fun at all sides of the political, social, ethnic, and religious spectrum, LeMan is well-known for its fanciful cartoons. Originally founded as Limon in 1985, by 2010 it had published its 1,000th issue, lampooning political figures, highlighting corruption, and using humor to shed light on serious issues.

Cartoonist Kianoush Ramezani drew evocative images such as a sinister ballot box wielding a gun and club while an arm wrapped in a green armband bravely places a green ballot in the slot. Ramezani now lives in exile—in France.

An equal-opportunity critic, the January 30, 2008, issue of LeMan depicts then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying, “We didn’t take knowledge and science from the West, we took rudeness,” while raising his middle finger.

Rather than view this latest tragic event as an indicator of the difference between oppressive Islamic states and free Western nations, evidence counters radical imam Anjem Choudary’s claim that Muslims do not believe in freedom of expression.

There has been a long and productive relationship with satire and humor in the Middle East. For obvious examples, look to the Iranian Green Movement, Arab Spring protests, and, most recently, Turkey’s Gezi Park uprisings of 2013.

Iran’s Green Movement used the Internet, songs, and cartoons to mobilize responses against what was believed to be a rigged election in 2009. Cartoonist Kianoush Ramezani drew evocative images such as a sinister ballot box wielding a gun and club while an arm wrapped in a green armband bravely places a green ballot in the slot. Ramezani now lives in exile—in France.

The Arab Spring may have been kick-started by the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunesia that sparked the 2011 Jasmine Revolution and then spread across neighboring states, but collective music making, cartoons and drawings, and clever YouTube songs sustained the momentum.

In July 2013, Muslim Brotherhood cartoonists joined other supporters of now-ousted Mohammed Morsi, lampooning the military, United States-backed politicians, and the Coptic Pope.

And while international coverage of the Gezi Park uprisings that began in Istanbul in May 2013 focused on the Occupy Wall Street-like demonstrations and brutal police responses, it was cartoons, songs, videos, and graffiti that united people across generational, class, educational, and religious lines.

I was witness to these 2013 protests, returning again to Turkey for two more months of research, begun in 1995. I heard from my friends and students—several active organizers—as well as non-participating acquaintances who complained bitterly of the blinding pepper gas and regular impediments to free movement caused by both the protesters and police force.

Satire proliferated at many levels. When Erdoğan labeled protesters as pillagers (çapulcular), community members responded with a host of satirical YouTube music videos. And elderly relatives of so-called çapulcular joined the protests, holding signs that they were the proud parents and grandparents of “pillagers.”

Bosphorus University’s folklore ensemble, Brotherhood of Songs (Kardeş Türküler), created a calypso-style number, “Song of Pots and Pans,” taking the name from the time-honored tradition of banging pots and pans outside of apartment windows to protest government policies. In the accompanying YouTube clip, the group included images of penguins slipping on ice in a satirical jab at the government’s mandate to news stations to replace live coverage of growing protests with a wildlife documentary.

Satire, too, was a staple for mobilizing public responses during times of oppression in the Ottoman Empire. Long-established traditions of shadow puppet plays, improvised folk theatre, and cartoons were used to express discontent and criticisms, and to carry news of unsavory events to the public. In fact, the Ottoman Empire’s first satirical magazine was named after the well-known shadow puppet figure, a trickster by the name of Karagöz or “Black-Eye.”

In the wake of these recent killings that target controversial press, we need to go deeper than simply identifying the differences between those who practice Islam and those who act with violence in the name of Islam. We need to see commonalities in the ongoing struggle for tolerance, productive debates, and respectful dissent among all people, everywhere, and at all times.

We can be inspired by expressions of solidarity among brothers and sisters on the front lines of free speech. Underneath Wolinkski’s picture, LeMan’s general editor Akgün added the photo caption, “He was our friend.”

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