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Cartoons and Democracy: The Big Picture

Three Questions to Nicolas Jacquette

INTERVIEW - 6 November 2020

Cartooning has time and again become the subject of attack. It happened in France in 2015, with the tragic Charlie Hebdo shooting, and has happened again in recent weeks, with the assassination of teacher Samuel Paty, in October 2020. However, the provocation that cartoons seem to cause transcends borders, stirs diplomatic turmoil, and is as much a tool of state authority as it is of state disruptors. Nicolas Jacquette, founder of the Cartooning Global Forum, answers our questions about drawing as a democratic tool, its history and its place in global diplomacy today.

Cartooning has become a central point in French public debate in recent weeks. What has been the historic role of cartooning in France's democracy? Where did it start and how has it developed?

Though France has developed a culture of caricature, recognized as unique in the world, the origins of modern political cartooning date back to the dawn of the visual representation of public figures. They can be found as early as ancient Greece and Egypt, and later on in the images adorning the places of worship during the Middle Ages, especially in churches and manuscripts.

In France, caricatures have accompanied and often preceded all major changes in society, regime changes, the revolution, and also wars.

The development of printing in the 15th century and its boom in Europe, brought about the emergence of the press and the democratization of illustrative drawing, the only medium then available to illustrate articles. Caricatures were an impactful way to assert a position, to express a critical message. The front cover caricature was often produced by the editor of the newspaper themself. Caricatures, therefore, very quickly became a synthetic and effective form of expression, allowing an idea to be seen, rather than explained.

They also developed a vernacular of excess, exaggeration, and spectacularity, in parallel with the evolution of typography and catchy titles, in order to attract the reader’s attention in the sea of press.

In France, caricatures have accompanied and often preceded all major changes in society, regime changes, the revolution, and also wars. Let us recall that WWII and the French occupation were the ground for a bitter battle of propaganda publications. With Nazi caricatures on one side, and resistance posters, leaflets and underground newspapers on the other, drawings played a central role during this period. The term "political cartoonist" was then coined in the 1970s.

Cartooning in France and around the world has a clear political role, and it hence periodically finds itself at the center of tensions with the powers it confronts. The development of global communication over the past 30 years has made these tensions play out on the international sphere. 

What is it about political cartooning as a means of expression that provokes such a strong reaction? Why has it polarized French society?

It is essential to remember that caricaturing is, and has always been, intimately linked to power of all types: political, religious, financial, cultural, societal. Attacking drawings that represent these powers is not a new phenomenon. The censorship, threat, incarceration or even assassination of cartoonists or satirical artists have punctuated the history of France and the world.

Power hates being mocked. It oscillates on the fragile rope of legitimacy and a drawing, even more than a long text, may be enough to reveal its paradoxes, its contradictions, and its corruption. It suddenly makes them visible, understandable even for illiterate or foreign readers. And that can be enough to radically change public opinion, to initiate riots, to affect elections, or cause a resignation. The more authoritarian, and illegitimate the power, the less it can tolerate the threat of a drawing. In fact, the potential of cartooning is so powerful - and this is key - that it has also long been used by the authorities themselves for propaganda purposes.

Citizens know that a society that allows people to criticize and mock power is a society that still guarantees freedom and sovereignty to its people.

This is the central polarity within cartooning: power owners against power critics. French society is not polarized on cartooning, on the contrary it is very attached to it. It is a component of its culture and of the democratic game. Citizens know that a society that allows people to criticize and mock power is a society that still guarantees freedom and sovereignty to its people. It is a force that counterbalances and prevents the temptation to abuse, sacralize and deify power. Authoritarian powers prohibit this freedom, and many cartoonists in the world rely on associations like the CRNI (Cartooning Rights Network International), to defend them, and to assist them to escape from their countries, when, because of a drawing, they are threatened with prison, reprisals or death. Many do not manage to escape, and every year there are new cases of murdered cartoonists. The safety of cartoonists is part of the assessment of press freedom in the world made by organizations such as Amnesty International. Cartooning and the freedom to sketch are strong signals of a country's democratic health.

The question of freedom of expression through cartooning is becoming a point of discussion beyond the French borders as well. What is its diplomatic role, potential and risk?

Freedom of expression and political cartoons may seem to be diplomatic issues in their own right. However, focusing on cartoons as the sources of diplomatic tensions implies an ignorance of the international issues at stake. The current situation between Turkey and France, presents the illusion of a polarity between the right of French cartoonists to draw Muhammad and the anger of Muslims around the world who feel outraged by the caricature of their prophet. 

Internet and social media have brought with them the power to galvanize mass movements and to foster a new form of public and emotion-driven diplomacy.

Public debate currently seems to only revolve around this part of the issue. Do we have the right to sketch a figure at the risk of insulting those who hold it as holy? And at the same time, in a sovereign, secular country, can we forbid drawing what is not sacred to others? Can the faith of some restrict the scope of freedom of expression for all? If the drawing of a "prophet" is forbidden, then where do we draw the line before society as a whole conforms to the dogmas of a few? 

These questions, so much echoed by the media that they seem wholly legitimate, do little but goad the public debate, hiding other much more profound political realities. 

A new diplomacy

International diplomacy has inexorably changed in the past 50 years, as a result of the advent of the internet and social media. These have brought with them the power to galvanize mass movements and to foster a new form of public and emotion-driven diplomacy. Conveying images of mass support is key to the communication of such a strategy, and to that end, all media arsenal may be deployed. 

The Salman Rushdie case

Let’s focus on the event that initiated this new form of international diplomatic strategy. When Salman Rushdie published "The Satanic Verses" in the UK, in September 1988, he initially provoked little reaction. But on the other side of the globe, in India, the tension between the Hindu and Muslim communities was reaching new heights, as India and Pakistan were engaging in open conflict over Kashmir. 

Two Indian Muslim parliamentarians found a presentation of the book in the anglophone newspaper India Today and, together with the Pakistani Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islam, organized a national press campaign to ban its publication and import. From scratch, they created a national affront by implying that the Government of India was promoting the book. As a result, and in order to avoid further tensions, the book was banned. Meanwhile, Islamist organization networks in the UK mobilized to bring international attention to the "The Satanic Verses", who had by now became a symbol of the struggle.

One ideology versus another. Both empty of meaning, but perfect to galvanize crowd reaction and to justify geo-political motivations. 

The reaction was so strong that it caught the attention of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. He had just agreed to a ceasefire after 8 years of conflict with Iraq, supposedly in the name of a holy war, and his popularity was in decline after he had executed thousands of political opponents. He saw this as an opportunity to regain his posture, by designating a new external enemy other than Iraq. And even better than a national enemy, he created an enemy of Islam as a whole, endorsing himself as the defender of the global community of Muslims. He issued a fatwa on Salman Rushdie, offering a reward for his assassination. No one in Iran had really read the book. 

The Satanic Verses was the first in a long list of instrumentalized publications that were not originally intended to gain international recognition. But the outrage was effective. It appeared to weaken the West, which had been attacking Muslim countries under the guise of democratizing missions, while clearly aiming to claim their energy resources. Islamic powers hence responded by attacking Western culture on the pretext of blasphemy and holy war. "Our" word versus "their" word. One ideology versus another. Both empty of meaning, but perfect to galvanize crowd reaction and to justify geo-political motivations. 

The Danish cartoons

Theo Van Gogh was assassinated in the Netherlands in 2004, for his short film "Submission". He was shot in the street by a young Moroccan who then beheaded him. A gruesome signature that will be repeatedly found in the imagery communicated by the Islamic State, by Al Qaeda, in the assassination of Hervé Cornara in 2015, and Samuel Paty in October 2020, in France. 

Cartoons of Muhammad were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005, following the director’s assassination. There was a growing climate of self-censorship, and a sensation that criticism of Islam and its abuses, including murderous ones, was under threat. The political climate in Denmark was strongly marked by the far right’s success in passing migration regulations that targeted the Muslim community.

The publication of the cartoons had caused no initial big reaction among the Danish Muslim community at large. It was a Danish salafist organization that saw in these cartoons an opportunity to counterattack the Islamophobic laws. It tried to create a scandal by organizing a demonstration two weeks after the publication of the newspaper, but without much success. Fifteen days later, the Egyptian newspaper Al Fagr republished the cartoons, still without noticeable reaction. In Denmark, on December 1, 2005, eight of the newspaper's cartoonists met five representatives of the Danish Muslim community. The commotion seemed to fall back, like a deflated balloon. But elsewhere, others were not intent on letting this go.

"Our" word versus "their" word. One ideology versus another. Both empty of meaning, but perfect to galvanize crowd reaction and to justify geo-political motivations.

The Salafist political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, resulting from a split with the Muslim Brotherhood, and very active in Central Asia, did not intend to miss out on a story with such promising potential and decided to bring the subject of cartoons to its soil. The day after the Danish meeting, they organized a small demonstration with 500 of Salafist activists in Jakarta, Indonesia, in front of the Danish embassy. Hizb ut-Tahrir attempted to create a semblance of a possible growing diplomatic conflict by launching the slogan of "war on Islam". A price was also put on the heads of the cartoonists, as with Salman Rushdie 17 years earlier.

A European Committee for Prophet Honoring was created for the occasion, by a Danish Salafist organization. It published a file containing the cartoons as well as others that were never published by the newspaper, depicting the prophet as a pig and a pedophile (the published caricatures by themselves did not appear to elicit the desired reaction). This file was sent to the UN, as well as to diplomatic delegations of all Muslim countries. The result was immediate. General strikes occured in Kashmir, initiated by the Pakistani Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, which had artificially inflated the Salman Rushdie affair. The League of Arab States demanded a UN resolution, and Arab foreign ministers "reject[ed] and condemn[ed] this attack" which went "against the holiness of religions and prophets". They then presented themselves as defenders of all believers in the world, regardless of their denomination. Even the Vatican joined in on this rhetoric. The more the merrier!

Egypt’s President Mubarak, wishing to distance the country from the USA and in the process of negotiating with Europe over future bilateral action plan, was vulnerable to the Muslim Brotherhood. At that time seeking legitimacy in Egypt, the Islamist party weakened Mubarak’s authority by echoing the International Union of Ulemas’ call for a boycott of Danish and Norwegian products. In Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency was investigating the militarization of the Iranian nuclear industry and passed a resolution providing for the transfer of the case to the UN Security Council. Iran seized the moment of the Danish cartoons to organize an attack on the embassies of Denmark and Austria, which was then the head of the IAEA, and put an end to the inspections of the teams of the UN agency. Erdogan, then recent Prime Minister of Turkey, intended to gain international stature and bid for the presidency. He sent hundreds of letters to his foreign counterparts, positioning himself as a defender of the "Islamic world".

Journalists around Muslim countries - Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, India, Malaysia, Indonesi - raised their voices to denounce the crude appropriation and exaggeration of the affair for political ends. As a result, they were sacked, arrested, threatened, harassed, some owing their survival only to public apologies. In this context, a handful of European newspapers, including Charlie Hebdo in France, published the cartoons to denounce the masquerade and support Denmark. This would prove to be more or less the only further media diffusion of these caricatures, the unseen subject of a global conversation, fantasies, and deliberately manipulated anger.

Erdogan vs. Macron

In this context, the similarities with the events, actors, methods and issues between 2005 and these last weeks are striking.

President Macron's speech at Samuel Paty’s funeral, defending freedom of expression, was just a convenient pretext for President Erdogan to attack France, which for months has been clashing with Turkey on many geo-strategic issues (Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Greece). Erdogan is also in a complicated domestic political situation. He is weakened in his majority and in his legitimacy, after losing the city hall of Istanbul to his opponent Ekrem İmamoğlu, who appears to be a serious challenger in the next presidential elections. Erdogan's populist and nationalist speeches in front of his supporters, widely disseminated through the media, mocking Macron and his sanity and condemning the freedom to caricature figures of religious power, conjure the illusion of an external enemy against which Erdogan may fight on behalf of his people and of all Muslims around the world. All this draws attention away from the major crises shaking his country and sends Macron a signal to back-track if he doesn’t want to face a global reaction and further terrorist attacks.

Erdogan’s position is not very credible, given his complete reversal on the denunciation of the treatment of the Uyghur population by the Chinese government, which he was one of the first to condemn. But since the arrival of the Covid-19 virus and the lasting financial crisis in Turkey, the prevalence of Chinese investments in Turkey has meant that Erdogan not only no longer speaks of the Uyghurs, but is extraditing by the dozen those who had found refuge in Turkey.

However, manipulation is not Turkey's prerogative. And the rhetoric of the French government about war on Islamic terrorism is equally empty. The few initiatives taken following the investigations into the teacher’s assassination were, by Minister of the Interior Darmanin's own admission, more spectacle than useful work. 

President Macron's speech at Samuel Paty’s funeral, defending freedom of expression, was just a convenient pretext for President Erdogan to attack France, which for months has been clashing with Turkey on many geo-strategic issues.

We can’t wage war on Terrorism as if it were a defined, identifiable, homogeneous entity. Terrorism is a strategy used for political ends by a wide variety of groups, some Islamist. We can’t fight a concept, but as long as our designated enemy is vague those in power can use it to justify many decisions unrelated to the real initiators of the attack: like the denunciation of "Islamo-leftism" and several propositions of laws unrelated to the event. The ballet of cynical political recuperations commenced before the professor's body grew cold, all in the name of the "war on terror".

What kind of world for tomorrow?

So to answer your question, it is clear that neither freedom of expression nor cartooning are diplomatic issues in themselves. They periodically serve as a very convenient tool to provoke popular reactions and a pretext to influence the diplomatic game. We must therefore choose what we want: either to preserve a medium that proves the democratic vitality of our country, or to dismantle it and, in doing so, allow its perversion by foreign powers to make it a pressure tool. If cartooning is about to disappear, killed under pressure by an "offended" minority, what further losses would follow and what would remain as means of counter-power for citizens? We have to consider the ideals of the society we want to build for ourselves and our children. And as far as I'm concerned, I want a France where we can always criticize the powers that be, mock them, confront them and balance them. I want a world where as long as there are people of power there will be free cartoonists. And I'll do whatever it takes to keep them drawing. We all should.



Copyright:  Les Poires (Caricatural transformation of king Louis Philippe) La Caricature, 1831.


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