Cartoonists speak out after slayings of colleagues in Paris

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Marco Werman: The news of today’s attack in Paris is reverberating all over the globe as we’ve been hearing the magazine Charlie Hebdo is famous for lampooning everything and everyone. Inevitably perhaps, the magazine came under especially intense scrutiny for its cartoons taking aim at Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, and at Islamist extremists, which is we want to go next to the Middle East. Jonathan Guyer is in Cairo, in Egypt, where he writes about comics and caricature in the Arab world at Oum Cartoon. I asked him about the reaction to the attack from cartoonists in the region.


Jonathan Guyer: There’s just been outcry of solidarity and support of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, and real anger and disgust. A lot of cartoonists are saying “We are Muslim” and “We support satire, we stand with free speech.” It’s just breaking news obviously, but cartoonists are already beginning to post on Facebook and Twitter their illustrated reactions. One just posted by an Egyptian illustrator has a self-portrait with a pencil facing a masked gunman, just in solidarity with the cartoonists in France. Another one, this is by a Sudanese cartoonist based in Qatar, Khalid Albaih, and he’s sort of between a Muslim fundamentalist and the world represented by the globe, the fundamentalist saying “You’re an infidel” and the world saying “You’re a terrorist,” and the little Muslim guy in the middle says “I’m just a Muslim.” So, this is really the central tension right now, is that there are Muslims who support free speech and satire in every way, shape, or form and it’s a real struggle. As many Muslims are being painted as terrorists, cartoonists are really speaking up in support of their French counterparts.


Werman: The World’s Carol Hills is with me in the studio. She follows, among other things, satire around the globe and she actually knew very well some of these cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo.


Carol Hills: Awful news today, but I wanted to ask you--in the US and in Western Europe, all over Europe, the media itself is kind of dancing around issues of self-censorship, in terms of whether they’re publishing of the actual cartoons from Charlie Hebdo, which are anti-Muslim. Are you seeing the same kind of hesitation among Egyptian or Arab world newspapers?


Guyer: This is a fascinating case, in fact. One of the major independent Egyptian newspapers has just published a slideshow of many of the offending anti-Islam satirical covers from the magazine. From what I can tell, this is unprecedented. Usually these things get talked about but not actually shown. On the other hand, there’s a pro-Muslim Brotherhood cartoonist who is based in Gaza who is publishing these covers out of disgust and saying “France is a democracy but this is quite horrible” and she’s publishing photos of the French occupation of Algeria, saying “This is not a good thing.”


Werman: We hear today that France--its dedication to free speech and the first amendment--what do Arab cartoonists say to you privately about what they see as the limits of satire, especially when it comes to depictions of the Prophet Mohammed?


Guyer: A number of cartoonists in Egypt, and indeed across the Arab world, have come under fire for so-called blasphemist illustrations. Under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, who is this Muslim Brotherhood leader, many cartoonists were attacked for drawing something as simple as Adam and Eve, and Adam is construed as a prophet here, demanding respect. So, what I would say is Arab cartoonists are very familiar with the perils that these French cartoonists face in the tragedy today. While not quite as stark--there haven’t, in recent times, been violent attacks on Egyptian cartoonists, for example--but there are lawsuits, there are verbal threats. It is a dangerous profession. I think in America we forget that taking risks of free speech and drawing whatever you want comes with a price tragically. These are struggles that, on a day to day basis, Arab cartoonists are facing.


Hills: Is there a counter-cartooning group of people who are more not celebrating this attack but they’re supportive of clampdowns of people who satirize Islam?


Guyer: There is a very conservative element in the cartooning world. I tend to focus on the more rambunctious and revolutionary guys, but of course there are an old guard of cartoonists who believe in supporting the state and supporting the regime. But what’s interesting is today is actually Coptic Christmas in Egypt--this is the Christmas holiday for Egyptians--and many cartoonists already yesterday had drawn cartoons showing Christianity and Islam hand in hand, Muslims wishing Christmas wishes to their friends and families. So, there is a solidarity that exists in Egypt irrespective of these issues.


Werman: Extremist groups like ISIS are well-known to be social media savvy. Have you seen any of these radicals or any opinions celebrating the Paris attack?


Guyer: Allegedly, some ISIS supporters have alleged that the attack was part of the Islamic State’s campaign, but I tend to discard a lot of the social media chatter from terrorist groups. A lot of it has a knock-off effect of rumors and hearsay and I wouldn’t trust it. Unfortunately, you can’t really interview or speak to these terrorist groups. But there is something surreal about this battle playing out on social media about who, why, and when this attack happened today.


Hills: Thanks so much Jonathan.


Guyer: Thanks Carol, thanks Marco.


Werman: Jonathan Guyer writes about comics and caricature in the Arab world at Oum Cartoon.