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Jan 21 2015

Crossing the fine line: what Egyptian cartoonists say

Two weeks ahead of the tragic attack on its Paris offices, Charlie Hebdo still triggers posts and comments around the question of freedom of expression before and after publishing of the magazine’s issue last Wednesday. Should there be limits to freedom of speech or does free speech include a ‘freedom of offense’? How far the standards of freedom of expression promoted in the West are acceptable for any Muslim?

(Courtesy: Al-Masry al-Youm)

(Courtesy: Al-Masry al-Youm)

Egyptian cartoonists condemned the killing of twelve people, most journalists, in the attack on Charlie Hebdo by drawing more cartoons, signing their drawings with “Je suis Charlie” in solidarity with the victims. Cartoonists wrote statements of support on their public Facebook pages.

Young artist Makhlouf drew a caricature of himself holding up a pencil in the face of an assailant wearing a balaclava as he points a gun at him.

Artist Anwar depicted a French cartoonist, smiling, as he draws a smile with red paint on the balaclava of an assailant holding up a gun, and above the cartoon the statement “Long lives satire!’’

A cartoon by Hicham Rahma depicted three fighters, with turbans  labelled “ISIS”, and one of them saying “It was a hard day,” while another hiding a CIA official inside his turban.

Ahmed Okasha, comics artist at Al-Tahrir newspaper, showed one drawing with two Daech jihadists watching on TV the international solidarity rally in Paris, with crowds waving banners with slogans, and one asking ‘’What does freedom of speech mean?’’ and the other replying ‘’I don’t know’’.

In the wake of the attack, Al-Masry al-Youm displayed on their website a slide show of some Charlie Hebdo cartoons, including controversial ones. The Egyptian daily is proudly staffed with the country’s best known cartoonists.

Amr Selim, head of the cartoonist department at Al-Masry al-Youm, emphasized that no other newspapers in Egypt republished cartoons of the French satirical weekly. Speaking on behalf of all cartoonists, he expressed total rejection of the deadly assault on Charlie Hebdo.

Selim noted that Al-Masry al-Youm was criticized by some Salafists and Muslim Brothers who disapproved the republishing of content from a paper that ‘’insulted Muhammad’’.

‘’We were told that we support Charlie Hebdo’’, the chief cartoonist said, ‘’No, we showed support to the cartoonists in terms of free speech only’’.

When he heard news of the massacre in Paris, Okasha was shocked. He said those who staged the bloody attack could not be Muslims as such act is against Islam.

‘’It was a horrible attack against freedom of press, humanity, everything’’, Al-Masry al-Youm cartoonist Abdallah commented.

‘’The magazine became popular after the terror attack, the number issued one week later was massively distributed and published in 16 languages’’, Selim claimed, ‘’Terrorism didn’t bring its hoped results’’.

Weekly publication continued amidst anti-Charlie Hebdo protests staged in some Arab and Muslim countries.

 ''What do you want to be when you grow up?’’ ‘’I want to be a cartoonist’’ by Abdallah (Courtesy: Al-Masry al-Youm)

”What do you want to be when you grow up?’’ ‘’I want to be a cartoonist’’ by Abdallah (Courtesy: Al-Masry al-Youm)

Leaders of Arab nations including Egypt’s President Sisi denounced the massacre. Post-attack, however, voices of opposition emerged when the remaining staff of Charlie Hebdo announced its new issue would include new cartoons satirizing Prophet Muhammad.

Islamic Sunni scholars ban the depiction of prophets. Most Muslims see any portrayal of their prophet as ‘blasphemous’.

‘’As cartoonists working in the Arab region, we have one limit’’, Selim explained, ‘’We cannot draw Muhammad, Jesus or any religious figures’’.

Similarly, Abdallah admitted that, if a newspaper ever published a caricature of prophet in Egypt, it would be either banned, its office destroyed, or the lives of staff members would be put at high risk.

Before the new edition was released, one of Egypt’s top Islamic authorities (Dar Al-Ifta) warned Charlie Hebdo against publishing more caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, stating that doing so would provoke the feelings of Muslims around the world.

A number of Muslim countries criticized the decision to release the new cartoon with its cover showing what appeared to be Muhammad holding up a sign saying “I am Charlie”, and the headline “All is forgiven” above the cartoon.

A statement by Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Islamic institution, advised to ignore the Charlie Hebdo edition.

‘’People are free to react and protest, Charlie is also free to draw’’, comics artist Okasha maintained observing some level of ignorance vis-à-vis the nature of the French paper.

Likewise, Abdallah believes most Egyptians heard about the magazine through news of 7 January attack, before then they ignored its cartoons.

Okasha pointed out that the satirical publication has been critical of the French government and other religions, not just Islam, as well as religious leaders like the Pope.

‘’A lot of people don’t know anything about the magazine, they just think it’s offensive’’, the cartoonist added, ‘’I’m well familiar with Charlie’s style, and I like the way they make fun of anything and anyone’’.

As a Muslim, Okasha sometimes disagrees with the magazine’s stance towards Islam, but he doesn’t feel offended being used to its provocative satire.

According to senior cartoonist Selim, there was misinterpretation in the Arab press in connection with the cartoon on the new edition’s cover which many Muslims believe was the representation of the prophet. In Selim’s view, the cover displayed an ordinary Muslim man, not the prophet, since the name ‘’Muhammad’’ was not written on his forehead unlike in previous issues of Charlie.

In reference to the image drawn on the front cover, Abdallah suggested that most Egyptians consider it to be a sensitive matter as it’s related to Islam.

No Egyptian media republished any cartoon of last Wednesday’s Charlie Hebdo number. Besides the sensitivity of reproducing a prophet’s caricature, some cartoonists argued, for a large part of the country’s media the release of the magazine’s first issue after the attack was not newsworthy, thus little attention was given to the topic.

Both Selim and Okasha agreed that Charlie presents itself as an atheist publication, and has the right to publish whatever they want to accordingly.

‘’The satirical weekly will continue drawing their cartoons as normal, it’s not going to stop after the attack’’, Okasha said, ‘’They will insist and draw more now’’.

As Charlie Hebdo’s number went to print last week, Al-Sisi issued a decree banning in Egypt any foreign publications offensive to religion.

Egypt’s courts periodically issue jail sentences and fines against individuals who “insult religions”.

‘’We made a revolution on 25 January demanding freedom, no-one has the right to take away our freedom nor restrict it’’, Al-Tahrir cartoonist said standing against the decree.

Freedom of press stays an absolute right as each newspaper or media organization makes its own judgment on what seems relevant in line with its editorial standards, which may include choosing to publish or not content that is deemed offensive and gratuitous.

That’s also the case when it comes to images or other material intended to offend religious sensibilities. This may well be for some the breaking point where free speech clashes with disrespect for religion.

When Charlie Hebdo publishes caricatures mocking Islam, it’s ok for them to do so on the grounds of free speech. At the same time, they must be aware that those cartoons are not funny for all and could uselessly offend people. They certainly know that not everyone will filter messages in ways that are not threatening.

When journalists take freedom of expression as a right to insult, still, no-one should stop them from doing their job. What just needs to be figured out is that the utility and judgment of their actions may as well be questionable.

Breaching that limit of respect through offensive drawings, especially if satire is being directed at some religious symbols more than others, may have a damaging effect and –even involuntarily- lead to hatred, stigmatization and violence.

 

 

 

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