Sharing the Blame: Of 'Offensive Cartoons' and Persecution in Today's World

By criminalising Hattar for sharing an 'offensive' cartoon, the Jordanian state and the assassin operated with a mutual logic of accountability that makes all viewers/readers of the cartoon co-conspirators.

A Jordanian police officer stands guard next a picture of Jordanian writer Nahed Hatter, who was shot dead, during a sit-in in front of the prime minister's building in Amman, Jordan, September 26, 2016. Credit: Muhammad Hamed/ Reuters

A Jordanian police officer stands guard next a picture of Jordanian writer Nahed Hatter, who was shot dead, during a sit-in in front of the prime minister’s building in Amman, Jordan, September 26, 2016. Credit: Muhammad Hamed/ Reuters

The assassination of Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar for circulating a cartoon, The God of Daesh, on Facebook to expose ISIS’s dubious Islam is the most recent in a string of attacks on the world of cartoons and caricatures. According to the Jordan Times, Hattar was arrested in August and charged with “incitement to racism and sectarianism and insulting religious feelings and beliefs under Article 278 of the penal code.” On September 25, when summoned to court in Amman on the Jordanian state’s charges of ‘insulting God,’ Hattar was struck by an assassin’s bullet. Moroccan cartoonist Khalid Gueddar is now seeking protection against a death threat for the cartoon in question. In response he has also invoked Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier, who was killed in 2015,

It would be tempting, though hasty, to neatly knot Hattar’s summons, his assassination, Gueddar’s cartoon and Islam. One can begin to untie this knot by turning to the burgeoning evidence of the persecution of cartoonists and the censorship of cartoons. For those tuned into the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), the stream of petitions advocating on behalf of threatened, incarcerated and exiled cartoonists makes one breathless. Needless to say modern states, democracies and upholders of the sacrosanct free speech — are among those who are persecuting and prosecuting.

The case of Eaten Fish

Eaten Fish (Ali), an Iranian asylum seeker and winner of the 2016 CRNI award (An annual recognition of a cartoonist of exceptional courage), is currently interned in the notorious Manus Island Detention Center – an offshore facility of the Australian government. His cartoons have relayed to the world not only his own three-year and ongoing devastating experience but also the violence undergirding the very existence of this brutal camp. Cartoonists, former detainees, human rights activists and scholars have joined voices demanding the release of Eaten Fish and calling for the dismantling of the unconstitutional and illegal facility.

Eaten Fish and the Manus Detention Center capture a haunting reality of our times: the struggle for reclaiming our humanity. That is an uphill task in the age of the privatisation of prisons and internment camps. Off-shore internment allows governments to off-load state violence. Manus Detention Center is “damage by design.”

Eaten Fish’s cartoons pry open and tear down the fabrication of the Australian government, holding it culpable and questioning its human rights record. It is Eaten Fish’s cartoons that implore us to see the unabated violence; “They show the damage we inflict by design, licensed in the name of care for humanity.” Such complicity – violence-as-care – has been repeatedly unmasked at various institutional settings. Nevertheless, the faith in the logic of institutions, especially those that serve as care-centres for vulnerable populations, remains undeterred. Cartoons, such as those by Eaten Fish compel us to ask: why?

US cartoonist Rick Friday’s firing and re-hiring (after an apology by Iowa-based newspaper Farm News) for his cartoon comparing the paltry income of farmers and the fat paycheck of CEOs of Monsanto, DuPont and John Deere is a startling revelation of the violence we can refuse to see. Such proscriptions do a little more: the cartoon proliferates.

The cartoon that got Rick Friday fired. Credit: Rick Friday/Facebook

The cartoon that got Rick Friday fired. Credit: Rick Friday/Facebook

Take a step back to 2012 and to democratically elected chief minister Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. Her brush with cartoons, caricatured brilliantly by the Hindu’s Surendra, should give us much to reflect on. The proliferation of Mamata Cartoons, under the aegis of the Kerala Cartoon Academy’s online exhibition was a fitting reply. The arrest and acquittal of Ambikesh Mahapatra for his Facebook post of the Mamata Banerjee cartoon, is a reminder of the contradictions one glares at in other places that are separated by degrees — the prosecution and sad killing of Hattar, the internment of Eaten Fish, Jordan and Australia.

Co-conspirators in the age of social media

Hattar’s cartoon post, his explanation and subsequent deletion of the post, and the condemnable assassination strikes at a pedagogical task mistakenly bestowed on cartoons. When confronted by critics, his FB posting of Gueddar’s cartoon to explain the God of Daesh and expose ISIS was not enough. His words didn’t count. Why did Hattar post? Why do we post?

Cartoons are a form of speech generative of more speech. Such speech, which I have called “cartoon talk” is not exclusive to cartoons — it is intrinsic to the domain of media. In its capacity to invite all to be critics, cartoon talk is distinct. It multiplies by the simple click of a FB share or a retweet. The age of social media has not only accelerated the dispersal of cartoon talk, it has traded the creator (cartoonist) with the distributor (interpreter). Hattar, an accomplished author, could certainly have not been wanting in words to question a misguided reading of Islam or to critique ISIS. Yet, he turned to a cartoon. This was a deferral of his speech. In using the cartoon, Hattar reported, indirectly, against the ISIS. This deferral was punishable, according to the Jordanian state; God was insulted.

By criminalising Hattar’s Facebook share of an ‘offensive’ cartoon, the Jordanian state and the assassin operated with a mutual logic of accountability. Extending this logic makes all viewers/readers of the cartoon co-conspirators.

Now, at a time when social media has made critics of all, online praise, slurs and threat are a cartoonist’s conundrum. Anne Telnaes’s thought-provoking piece on the barrage of deprecatory posts on her Ted Cruz cartoon should give pause. Freedom of speech? Social media has changed our world. The world too has changed social media, stretching our human dispositions to reveal more of ourselves.

Hattar’s assassination and Gueddar’s worries return us to an exhausted question since the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005 – does curtailing the freedom of cartoonists counter freedom of speech or should one advocate for an ethics of caricature and cartooning which accommodates religious sensitivity?

Cartoonists and Islam

Despite a long history and continuing restrictions on cartoons of various types of offences worldwide, the question about cartoons and freedom has steadfastly clung to Islam and the caricature of the Prophet Mohammed.

A Pew survey conducted a year later brings the data to bear on conflicting interpretations of the episode: “Most people in Jordan, Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey blame the controversy on Western nations’ disrespect for the Islamic religion. In contrast, majorities of Americans and Western Europeans who have heard of the controversy say Muslims’ intolerance to different points of view is more to blame.” Two newspaper editors in Jordan arrested for blasphemy after they re-published the Danish cartoons.

This unsurpassed attention to cartoons and caricature of the Prophet Mohammed has generated a mapping of the social life of such representations, leading back to the outcry and fatwa following the author Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (1988) and moving forward incorporating every Prophet Mohammed episode ever since.

From another perspective, a response to the divisive discussion about Islam, freedom of speech and liberalism can be situated with reference to a remarkable book, Covering Islam (1981). In this investigative book, Edward Said pieces together a story of “how the media and experts determine how we see the world.” Among lessons to take away is the sustained misrepresentation of Islam and the Middle East facilitated by the objective eyes and ears of experts and newsmakers. Here one is invoking passion of another kind — journalistic and expert objectivity. The result of objectivity and expertise is the covering of Islam, its obscuring and newsworthiness through reports of oil and terrorism and a host of resilient clichés. To this mix of newsworthiness one can now add cartoons.

Our tolerance for damage by design is paralleled by our unshakable faith in the pedagogical role cartoons can perform to unmask ISIS’s violence by design and its misrepresentation of Islam.  Repeatedly invoking the caricature of the Prophet Mohammed has become a ritual “litmus test for modernity and its others.”

But do cartoons and caricatures also “cover” Islam and fall squarely within the objective and obscurantist media as Said revealed? Or do they tell a different story?

It would be constricting to frame Hatter’s persecution and assassination in relation to Islam. It is far more.

Research shows that people in emerging and developing nations with a deep penetration of the internet are critical of censorship and want uncensored access to the internet. Data also reveals that democracy is a preferred form of governance in Muslim majority nations, and includes support for free speech and a public role for Islam in their politics. Interestingly, among these countries, Jordan has shown a decline in its desire for democracy and is also among nations with respondents of the view that their law should strictly follow the Quran. Among Muslim publics surveyed for concern about Islamic extremism in their country, Jordan ranked low with 54%, expressing concern. These public attitudes toward the internet, democracy, free speech, Islam, the Quran and Islamic extremism defy attempts to simplify the relationship between social media, politics, religion and extremism.

What may be done? As we mourn Hattar, it is necessary for believers to resolve to become firmer in-house critics. Our questions about secularism and religion — and of course, secularism is circumscribed by religion — have to come from all believers. Faith and its faithful, cartoonists and readers need to address “violence by design.” A secular state’s temerity to prosecute on behalf of a God or an offended politician, or an offended nation, or slighted corporations and the assassin’s bullet in the name of a God co-exist within a judicial and extra-judicial space around islands of people secure between the hyphen of secularism and their faith. That is not enough.

How can one hide and also seek?

Ritu Gairola Khanduri is a cultural anthropologist and historian. She is the author of Caricaturing Culture in India: Cartoons and History in the Modern World.