Sabir Nazar, Pakistan Today, Pakistan, February 22, 2012

Political cartoons are by definition political. They're made up of pictures and captions that convey a point of view.  That's the whole point.

So imagine that you're a professional political cartoonist. You've been plying your craft for nearly 25 years. But now you're being intimidated and told not to draw any person who can be identified in real life. You're also told you can't make any cartoons that criticize attacks by religious extremists, some of which have killed your colleagues and fellow journalists. Nor can you criticize your country's military for how they respond to those attacks. 

And these aren't polite requests. They're threats. 

That's reality for Sabir Nazar, a political cartoonist for The Express Tribune in Pakistan.  

Over his career, Nazar has cartooned for a number of Pakistani publications, from The Friday Times, Pakistan's first independent newspaper, to Dawn and Pakistan Today. What distinguishes them all is that they're English language newspapers and they're liberal. The Express Tribune, for example, was founded in 2010 precisely to pursue stories that the more conservative Urdu-language press was not covering, like terrorism, religious extremism, even homosexuality.

Another common thread is that the publications embrace the political cartoon as a form of journalism. Political cartoons are relatively new to Pakistan, introduced during the time of the British Raj.

But Nazar says the political climate in Pakistan has changed dramatically. "It's really really difficult to make cartoons on issues like extremism or militancy or even about the judiciary or the army. So there's a very limited space to work at this moment in Pakistan."


Sidra sabir

Nazar says the political and security climate for cartoonists and journalists in Pakistan is possibly the worst he's experienced over his long career. 

In January, men armed with pistols and silencers killed three of Nazar's Express Tribune TV colleagues in Karachi. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility.

In March, Nazar came to Washington for a fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy. He says, in retrospect, the timing was a blessing. 

"A few months after I came to Washington, the attack on journalists started. And my paper [The Express Tribune] was attacked six times over a three- or four-month period. 

After the attacks, the editor of The Express Tribune changed the paper's policy:

Henceforth, no criticism of militant groups or religious parties. No criticism of terrorist attacks. No criticism of the Pakistani army.

And don't even think about commenting on Pakistan's wide-ranging blasphemy law, something militants use to justify their attacks. 

Nazar totally understands why his editor buckled under the pressure and the violence.  But he won't change what he draws. 

"I don't believe in self-censorship because that restricts your space even more," Nazar says. "So I make whatever I feel like and I would leave it to the editor if he feels it's not publishable. But I'm not going to reject any idea because, you know, it looks dangerous or anything to me."

So a lot of his cartoons are rejected. But in a funny twist recently, Nazar was able to resurrect a rejected 2013 cartoon.

It was about a savage attack by extremists in June of that year on a hospital complex in Baluchistan. Militants had taken doctors, nurses and patients hostage. One suicide bomber waited for women to come in for medical treatment and then blew himself up. Nazar's cartoon showed Pakistani security forces outside the medical center wondering if they should attack the militants or wait to negotiate with the terrorists. It was a swipe at Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who had been pushing for negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban. 

Then, a few weeks ago, after the dramatic attacks on Karachi's airport,  Nazar resubmitted.


Sabir Nazar, The Express Tribune, Pakistan,June 2014

The only change: the hospital was relabeled the Karachi airport. The cartoon was accepted. Nazar made sure to remind his editors that they had rejected the cartoon a year earlier.

Nazar is impatient with his countrymen's tendency to tip-toe around the issue of religious extremism. He says Pakistanis have deluded themselves. 

"A lot of people in Pakistan believe it's a small minority that's extremist, who are actually doing this. I once wrote a satirical column and I said, 'Well, yes, it's a small minority. The majority is peaceful and moderate, but the most popular name in Pakistan is Osama.'"  

Nazar says over the past 10 or 15 years he's seen the cultural space in Pakistan narrow. 

"Kite flying is banned in Lahore. If you remember that's what they did in Kabul. So I see lots of similarities with that." 

Roadside billboards in Pakistan are often covered with black paint. Dancing and certain types of music are banned on college campuses. In his hometown of Peshawar, Nazar used to sit outside and draw. Now he can no longer do that because it's considered un-Islamic. 

Nazar feels like the militants' assault on culture in Pakistan is partly an assault on the visual arts. Some Muslims believe that the Koran prohibits the drawing by hand of people and animals. Statues, paintings and cartoons are therefore targets of religious extremists. Nazar wants to help restore the visual arts in Pakistan, precisely because they have the ability to transcend religion, class and ethnicity. 

He's using his fellowship to go through the more than 5,000 cartoons he's drawn over the last quarter century. The result will be a cartoon history of the last 25 years in Pakistan. Nazar's fellowship in Washington ends in August. He's not sure what he'll do next. 

If the situation in Pakistan remains dangerous for cartoonists and journalists, he may stay away a bit longer.

  • In October 2012, Malala Yousafzai is attacked while riding on her school bus in the northwest Pakistani district of Swat. The gunman asks for Malala by name, then points a Colt 45 at her and fires three shots.


    Sabir Nazar, The Friday Times, Pakistan, October 10, 2012

  • Every Pakistani leader invokes the words of Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah to justify their political program. Seen here, next to slightly amended portraits of Jinnah, are Benazir Bhutto, General Pervez Musharraf and Qazi Hussain Ahmad of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party.


    Sabir Nazar, The Friday Times, Pakistan, January 2003

  • In 2004, the presence of Taliban and al-Qaeda-like groups in northern Pakistan was still being denied by major political and religious parties. After unprecedented violence and a bomb blast in Pakistan, religious leaders were still demanding political engagement with militants instead of a military operation.


    Sabir Nazar, The Friday Times, Pakistan, September 3, 2004

  • Pakistani scientist Dr Qadeer (A.Q. Khan) blamed European and American networks for nuclear proliferation until he was forced to admit that he sold nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya.


    Sabir Nazar, The Friday Times, Pakistan, July 2008

  • Muslim extremists in Pakistan blame killings by Jihadis on everyone from the CIA to Israel's Mossad.


    Sabir Nazar,, Pakistan, September 8, 2010

  • US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks expose the foibles of a number of key players in Pakistan.


    Sabir Nawaz,, Pakistan, December 2, 2010

  • US Navy Seals raid Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. After the shootout, U.S. forces take bin Laden's body to Afghanistan for identification, then bury it at sea within 24 hours of his death.


    Sabir Nazar, Pakistan Today, May 3, 2011

  • Critics of Pakistan say its military is secretly supporting the Haqqani Network (represented by the guy on the right), an Islamist insurgent group in Afghanistan allied with the Taliban. The group operates on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and U.S. officials believe it is based in Pakistan's Waziristan tribal frontier.


    Sabir Nazar,, Pakistan, November 17, 2011

  • President Obama wins a second term and so does his drone program aimed at Northwest Pakistan.


    Sabir Nazar, The Friday Times, Pakistan, November 2012

  • The strategies of Pakistan's major political and religious parties toward dealing with terrorism.


    Sabir Nazar, The Express Tribune, Pakistan, July 1, 2013

  • The Obama Administration announces that it will send weapons to Syrian rebels after evidence shows that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against opposition forces. Americans were training Syrian rebels and some feared that these weapons could get into the hands of jihadist and Al Qaeda affiliates.


    Sabir Nazar,, Pakistan, June 19, 2013

  • Pakistanis make any number of excuses for the growth of extremism in their country.


    Sabir Nazar, The Express Tribune, Pakistan, July 21, 2013

  • Prime Minister Sharif and President Obama meet at the White House to discuss security and trade.


    Sabir Nazar, The Friday Times, Pakistan, October 22, 2013

  • This cartoon was a comment on an attack by militants on a hospital in Baluchistan. Doctors, nurses and patients were taken hostage. One suicide bomber waited for women to come in for medical treatment and then blew himself up. The cartoon was rejected.


    Sabir Nazar, Pakistan June 2013, (cartoon rejected)

  • After the June 2014 attacks on the Karachi airport, Sabir Nazar resubmits the cartoon, replacing the hospital with the Karachi airport. The cartoon was accepted.


    Sabir Nazar, The Express Tribune, Pakistan, June 2014

  • In April 2014, it's announced with fanfare that 3G smart phones are now available in Pakistan. But that won't stop Pakistani authorities from trying to control information.


    Sabir Nazar, The Express Tribune, Pakistan, April 28, 2014

  • A Pakistani security official readies a medal detector to the check the Twitter bird after Twitter admits it has blocked certain tweets in Pakistan deemed 'blasphemous' by a Pakistani government official.


    Sabir Nazar, The Express Tribune, Pakistan, May 26, 2014

  • A pregnant woman is stoned to death in front of the courthouse in Lahore for marrying a man against her family's wishes. This “honor killing” took place as the women reached the court to contest her family's accusation that her husband had abducted her.


    Sabir Nazar, The Friday Times, Pakistan, June 6, 2014

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