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Are editorial cartoons a big deal in Muslim countries?

After the bomb blasts in Sweden last weekend Slate asks if editorial cartoons are “a big deal” in Muslim countries?

Yes. Most state-run and independent newspapers in Muslim countries carry political cartoons. If anything, the art of the political cartoon is more vibrant in those places than it is in Europe and the United States. For one thing, it’s safer in some countries to express controversial ideas in caricature than to spell them out in sentences and paragraphs. Literacy rates also make a difference in the Muslim world: About half the people in Pakistan and Yemen can read, 28 percent of Afghans, and 84 percent of the populations in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. In these places, political cartoons offer a reliable way to get a point across to a sizable group who can’t read anything else in a newspaper. In the 1870s, when Thomas Nast was working in the golden age of American political cartoons, the national literacy rate was 80 percent. Now it’s 99 percent, and the cartoons are much less influential.

Community Comments

#1 Ted Rall
@ 11:48 am

As America returns to its illiterate roots, cartooning will make a comeback!

#2 Joe Rank ( KRANKY )
@ 12:16 pm

” In the 1870s, when Thomas Nast was working in the golden age of American political cartoons, the national literacy rate was 80 percent. Now it?s 99 percent, and the cartoons are much less influential. ” – AG

….and the cartoons are much more illiterate.

But I did not know that Sweden was a Muslim country.

#3 Steve Greenberg
@ 12:43 pm

About half of the editorial cartoons I’ve seen from Muslim countries involve savage, hook-nosed Israelis and/or Jews (they don’t particularly make a distinction) or savage Nazi-like Israeli soldiers and/or Uncle Sams with hobnailed boots and/or tanks crushing Palestinians. Those cartoons play well with the readers, who do not get to see such vitriol aimed at the governments and leaders of their nations.

#4 Clay Jones
@ 2:01 pm

Those are not editorial cartoons. Those are just propaganda pieces. It’s not an editorial if there’s no freedom of speech, and where it’s illegal to criticize the government.

#5 Ted Rall
@ 2:05 pm

Actually, we are living in the golden age of American political cartoons. The money sucks, but the art is better than ever.

#6 Dave Stephens
@ 2:11 pm

And this constant propaganda is embraced where Christianity is illegal and where a recent poll (pretty major) found the majority of the population demands DEATH for anyone who walks away from Islam…

#7 Steve Greenberg
@ 2:32 pm

Interesting comment from Ted. Yes, we are in a great era of American cartooning, with more diversity and interesting art than ever, but ever-fewer people able to make ends meet doing it.

#8 John Read
@ 2:46 pm

I think Ted and Steve are right. But I worry about the longevity of this”golden age.” How long can the cartoonists creating all this “diverse and interesting art” continue to do so and not make their living at it?

#9 Ted Rall
@ 2:59 pm

Dave, truly, do you ever check the facts before spouting your nonsense?

Christianity is not illegal in any Muslim country. In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, a hardline Islamist nation if there ever was one, just under two percent of the population is Christian. They worship openly; in fact, General Pervez Musharraf attended a Christian college in Lahore.

The Iranian parliament, the Majlis, actually reserves seats for religious minorities, including Christians and Jews. There are, for example, a higher percentage of Jews in the Iranian parliament than in the U.S. Congress.

Obviously, there is religious persecution against Christians in the Muslim world. Having been there and having been here, however, I couldn’t say that it’s any worse or more prevalent than American persecution of Muslims.

Beware those who point to the faults of others when they have so many of their own.

#10 Dave Stephens
@ 3:40 pm

I should beware of Ted Rall? LOL

Jew in Iran suffer state-sanctioned discrimination in employment, education, etc. Most Jewish schools have been shut down and just a few remain. Travel is restricted for Jewish families and of course they must live in a country where the major papers publish hideous propaganda aimed squarely at dehumanizing everything Jewish… Sounds like a paradise, Ted!

If Christians are NOT allowed to worship or preach or openly EXIST as Christians, then yes, Christianity is, in practice if not in fact, illegal, whatever veneer is in place in Iran or other Muslim countries, that veneer is there to appease the Ted Ralls of the world…

#11 Mike Lester
@ 4:46 pm

#12 Dan Rosandich
@ 4:57 pm

I recently blogged about some cartoonists in the middle east who were not only getting death threats from others within their own country, but also from the government itself.

#13 Ted Rall
@ 7:31 pm

So you admit you’re wrong. Islam is legal in the US. But being Muslim can get you sent to a concentration camp. Which is, actually, worse than serving in the Iranian parliament.

Christians can and do practice openly in Islamic countries. I know. I’ve been to their churches. Just like you can practice Islam here, but be subject to bigotry–and internment and even murder and torture.

#14 Derf Backderf
@ 7:33 pm

I’ve hosted several groups of cartoonists from the Middle East (part of the State Dept. funded program at the Council on World Affairs). They were fascinating meetings. Most were as passionate about political cartoons as any of you clowns and (I think) believed in the lofty ideals of the genre. Some were good cartoonists, too. What they lacked was the freedom to write what they wanted. They spoke openly of the frustrations of working in a state-controlled press and of the rotten leaders who controlled it.

It’s easy to write them off as “propagandists” from the comfort of our studios. But what’s, say, a Saudi cartoonist to do? It’s his country. He was born and raised there. Most of these guys spoke of trying to slip in little digs where they could, knowing full well they could be picked up by the secret police if they pissed off the wrong princeling or sub-potentate. That takes a lot more courage than honking off some advertiser or corporate bean counter.

None of us have ever tried to draw cartoons under a tyrannical regime. Don’t look down your nose at someone who does. Especially since most of the world’s press is at least partially gov’t controlled.

#15 Mike Peterson
@ 5:53 am

When it comes to political cartooning, editorial independence is relative. Around the turn of the current century, when I used to explain the form to high school students, I would be careful to make the point that Nast was partisan, that, while nobody really supported Tweed, the fact was that Tweed was a Democrat and Nast worked for strongly Republican publications. It’s common to praise Nast for his anti-Tweed cartoons, but you have to view his work also in light of his vicious attacks on Irish Catholics, his merciless mocking of Horace Greeley, etc. He was a Republican pitbull.

With the emergence of Fox News, it became easier to explain the partisan press, and, towards the end, that part of the presentation became much shorter. Perhaps one problem of the print medium is that, by attempting to be all things to all people, they’ve lost the element of confirming-what-you-already-believe that makes Fox and MSNBC welcome in different homes.

But as much as they may embrace on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other commentary when it comes to editorials about local issues, I know of few newspapers that would regularly publish Mike Lester and Ted Rall side by side.

We may not have government oversight, but all that means is that the partisan bomb-throwing is regulated by market issues. While I’d rather be unemployed than locked in prison, let’s not overstate things.

#16 Ted Rall
@ 8:11 am

Nicely stated, Mike.

Also, I’ve seen many editorial cartoons from Muslim countries that are not anti-Semitic. (And many US ones that bash Muslims.) It’s a complicated world, though it’s easy to forget drawing caricatures in front of the Orange Julius.

#17 Phil Hands
@ 10:16 am

At the AAEC convention in Seattle a couple of years ago, I spent a good deal of time talking to several of the Muslim cartoonist who were attending. They were really impressed with my batch of local editorial cartoons and suprised that I was making hard hitting cartoons about local mayors and governors, not just the federal government.
They told me that when it came to drawing cartoons about international issues or the West they had quite a bit of freedom, but when it came to attacking their local officials, they were pretty limited.

#18 Matt Bors
@ 12:34 pm

Most U.S. cartoonists don’t do hard hitting material anyway. A dictator would only put few people out of work here.

#19 Ted Rall
@ 12:51 pm

So true, Matt. Why do U.S. editorial cartoonists care about the First Amendment? They rarely use it.

#20 Pete Murphey
@ 5:13 pm

“We may not have government oversight, but all that means is that the partisan bomb-throwing is regulated by market issues.”

Exactly where it should be.

#21 Derf Backderf
@ 6:00 pm

Right. Because Big media Inc. has done SO much to foster great cartooning.

#22 Dave Stephens
@ 6:59 pm

The only folks I know who are independent of “Big Media, Inc.” are the fine artists who do exactly what they wanna do… Of course, they starve even more than cartoonists (if that’s possible), so that’s hardly a laudable goal…

It is Big Media, Inc.’s JOB to make $$$. It is the cartoonists’ job to “foster greatness.”

#23 Pete Murphey
@ 7:39 pm

“Right. Because Big media Inc. has done SO much to foster great cartooning.”

It’s not a matter of fostering great cartooning, it’s a matter of finding the freest place where the most variety of ideas can be expressed. That would be the the free market, whether it’s big or small, partisan or non-partisan. If you don’t like what you see out there you can start your own publication, and no one can stop you as long as you can interest enough people into reading it.

#24 Joe Rank ( KRANKY )
@ 2:07 am

“It is Big Media, Inc.?s JOB to make $$$. It is the cartoonists? job to ?foster greatness.”- DS ?

OH, PURE BS ! As Chester Gould said, his job was to sell newspapers.
We DO our jobs, WE cartoonists attract and retain readers and subscribers. It is the MBA beancounters that are destroying the American newsprint industry, along with so many other previously viable businesses. If the Gangster capitalism extortionists can’t get their vigorish, they shutter the whole operation. Oh….they will let those strips and features that “entertain” and narcotize the masses to continue.
Sunglass Hut caricaturists may also proliferate. Confederate cartoonists will do stick figures in crayon and be called geniuses.

#25 Dave Stephens
@ 3:21 am

Good Job, Joe.
You Kranked.
And….. it was Rank.

#26 Henry Clausner
@ 8:14 am

:::::thumbing through the Muslim syndicate directory…

#27 Derf Backderf
@ 1:58 pm

Oh my. The free marketeers are all worked up now.

The concept of a free press and the free market are two very different things, especially when the latter destroys the former, which is exactly what we’re seeing in the newspaper biz. How anyone can write that Big Media has been a boon to the cartoon artform, be it strips or political cartoons, and (apparently) be serious in that belief is simply laughable.

#28 Pete Murphey
@ 3:10 pm


I’m not quite sure what you are defining as “Big Media” or how
freedom of the press has been curtailed by any form of the free market media. Maybe you can give an example.

#29 Mike Lester
@ 3:19 pm

Just an observation but cartoonists who deride another man trying to pay his bills and put food on the table as a ‘mall caricaturist’ or ‘Sunglass Hut caricaturists’ is pitiable and beyond my comprehension.

#30 Joe Rank ( KRANKY )
@ 3:55 pm

“Just an observation but cartoonists who deride another man trying to pay his bills and put food on the table as a ?mall caricaturist? or ?Sunglass Hut caricaturists? is pitiable and beyond my comprehension.” – ML

Yeah, but what if the ‘Sunglass Hut caricaturist’ is also a Muslim ?
OR a Swede ?

#31 Derf backderf
@ 4:03 pm

Rall and Stephens seem to have a special relationship, Mike. Just let them throw Orange Juliuses at each other and stay out of the firing line. (good metaphor, huh?)

@Pete. Have you even been paying attention to media issues over the past decade? How has multi-national corporate ownership affected a free press? Are you kidding me? I hope this forum is a bit above a freshman-level journalism class.

But the point of my original post was that chain media ownership has devastated cartooning as an artform. You going to challenge that, too? Or perhaps you fetch what’s left of your chain-owned daily paper every morning, crack open the comics page (or, more likely, half page), grab a magnifying glass and exclaim “Hot dang! This Peanuts strip is just as funny as when I first read it 35 years ago!”

#32 Ted Rall
@ 4:12 pm

Whether Stephens earns his livelihood at Spencer Gifts or Strawberry’s matters little. It’s an honest living. Sorta.

But he’s a troll. He follows me around from thread to thread, often cutting and pasting the same comment in response to different discussions.

Worse than that, he speaks authoritatively about things that he knows zilch about.

We are all human beings. We are all brothers. We are all equal.

But I’m better than Stephens.

P.S. Sunglass Hut would never allow some Muslim to profane their sacred floor tiles.

#33 Derf backderf
@ 4:22 pm

“We’re all equals. But some are more equal than others.” Famous proverb from behind the Iron Curtain.

Thought an unrepentant Marxist like you would appreciate that, Ted.

#34 Dave Stephens
@ 7:00 pm

“I’m better than Stephens.”


Seriously, Ted, we all know you truly believe you are better than the dozens of cartoonists you’ve insulted here on the Daily Cartoonist – your pettiness knows no bounds and your ego-maniacal rants rarely miss a chance to hurl invectives at fellow artists or creators…

“speaks authoritatively on subjects he knows zilch about” – that is a very apt description of Ted Rall, though I’m sure you’ll never understand the clear truth of that…

Seriously, is there anyone who speaks more “authoritatively” than Ted? Is there anyone more self-deluded? I really don’t think so.

#35 Derf backderf
@ 8:48 pm

Augh! I just got an Orange Julius right in the shoulder!

#36 Pete Murphey
@ 11:27 pm

?How has multi-national corporate ownership affected a free press? Are you kidding me? I hope this forum is a bit above a freshman-level journalism class.”

Please, only in freshman class would you be allowed to throw out an assertion and not follow it up with an example, evidence and a citation. Let?s raise your game to the graduate level. You?ve declared that the free press has been affected by Big Media and multi-national corporate ownership, all I?m asking for is an example.

#37 Mike Peterson
@ 3:30 am

Before we get into how it was destroyed and by whom, I’d like to know where and when this baseline of editorial independence was established.

I mentioned the fact that Thomas Nast was not free to draw whatever he wanted, that his cartoons jibed with the politics of his employers. Though I’m not as familiar with it, I would suggest that Frank Beard’s work was also in line with the politics of the publications that he worked for.

How many Southern, anti-integration papers ran Herblock or Mauldin in the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement? How often did the Berkeley Barb or the Chicago Seed run cartoons that championed our engagement in the Vietnam War?

This editorial freedom that apparently existed in another era either passed me by or is some self-congratulatory fantasy dreamt up by a bunch of damn art majors.

Sigh. If only we had a history major from an Ivy League school who could expand on the topic with some examples!

#38 Derf backderf
@ 9:56 am

@Mike. I never said a “free press” constituted absolute editorial freedom, Mike. Don’t be overly literal here. The term “free press” has been commonly used for decades, as you darn well know, as does not mean “absolute” freedom. What it does mean is a watchdog press that is relatively independent of gov’t and isn’t secretly backing the business agenda, especially as it pertains to legislation and regulatory issues, of a multi-national corporate parent. The press, even when locally owned, has never been “pure” in regard to secret agendas, but it’s never been this bad.

@Pete. Here’s a personal example of corporate ownership and the free press (sorry. On deadline today, so I don’t have time to write a term paper).

This tale is documented in “Killed Cartoons” by David Wallis (Norton, 2007)…Ha! There’s your citation, Alan!…. a plucky weekly in LaFayette, LA, was sold, for reasons I can’t recall, to the local Gannett daily rag. One of the daily sub-editors was put in charge of the weekly paper and abandoned the gadfly local reporting, which routinely scooped said somnambulant daily, that was its staple in favor of the Gannett model for papers targeted to young readers: vapid celebrity news and short, bright lifestyle stories. The editor also inherited five or six cartoons, including mine. I received an email from her after this cartoon ran. This was shortly after 9-11, to put it in political context:

She was dumping my strip. She was tired of, in her month at the helm, of reader complaints about it. In addition she was axing ALL the strips in the paper, just to be on the safe side! It’s the only time I’ve ever taken down the entire comix page with me! Reader complaints, you see, don’t fit the Gannett handbook for small markets like Lafayette. So all political content, and cranky local reporting, was snuffed out to fit the Gannett standard. I’d call that pretty clear example of Big Media affecting the free press.

The “Killed Cartoons” book btw is full of tales of corporate editors and higher-ups squashing cartoons. It’s a good read.

@Mike. OK, so you bring up the hippie papers of the 60s. Fair enough. Full of anti-war cartoons, true, mainly those of Ron Cobb, one of my favorite cartoonists. But Cobb was also staunchly ant-abortion and did many cartoons, shocking for the day, expressing those views, directly counter to hippie liberalism of the time. I remember one of bloody fetuses with angel wings floating around heaven. That cartoon STILL wouldn’t run in most papers!

As for myself, I can honestly say I’ve drawn what I wanted for 20 years in the altie press and enjoyed an unrestrained degree of freedom. Do my politics jibe with those of most altie editors? Probably, although the Neocons who run Village Voice Media would be the notable exception, and I never got any flak from them either. And my politics in red-state markets like Lafayette LA hardly fit the local bright-red readership (and my strip ran there for years, until Gannett). I’ve caused four advertiser boycotts, including three here in Cleveland, and was always told “don’t worry about it” from publishers. Occasionally an altie paper will balk at a particular cartoon, and there have been plenty of times when an editor has emailed “man, we’re going to catch crap for this one,” but those cartoons still run.

But…. I’ve also been exiled to the alternative press and mainstream publications won’t touch my stuff, for whatever reason.

That’s all I have time to write for awhile, guys. Merry pseudo-pagan sun holiday with later oppressive religious overtones!

#39 Pete Murphey
@ 3:22 pm


Thanks for the example. I think you and I are defining ?free press? quite differently. If you had asserted that multi-national ownership often homogenized and watered down content, I?d whole-heartedly agree, but Gannett getting rid of cartoons it didn?t like, or fluffing up the content of a paper it takes over, is not an example of the press being any less free.

You as a cartoonist have no right to space in any newspaper, nor is there a right for an independent weekly to exist if it?s not self-sufficient. Your weekly was sold because it either wasn?t generating enough revenue, or the owners were more interested in making some cash than in publishing plucky content. It?s not uncommon for a new editor, whether part of a big conglomerate or a small independent publisher, to make big changes when they take over the helm. There?s usually always a desire for people to put their own stamp on the process.

That the new editor responded to reader?s complaints about your cartoon might be the sign of a week-kneed editor giving in to corporate pressure, or it might have been a smart editor listening to it?s readers. I thought your cartoon was very funny and well executed, but it?s obvious that it could have easily been seen as offensive to many readers, and in poor taste to an editor trying to appeal to a more mainstream audience. Not for the political content, but because pictures of heads sticking up people?s asses usually isn?t seen as mainstream fare. However, even if they eliminated the comics based on their politics that still wouldn?t an infringement of press freedom. Most papers come with a particular political slant, which is laid bare in their editorial sections and cartoons. This has always been the case. I bet your weekly had one too, and it was probably very left of center. Gannett had every right to change that slant if it wished.

I think the only time press freedom is compromised or threatened is when it becomes illegal or impossible to publish certain ideas or opinions. This type of scenario is almost always created at the hands of the state, which will try to use its power to outlaw certain opinions or try to ban books and art . A good example would be the recent Blasphemy laws created in Ireland, talk about oppressive religious overtones! Occasionally, this will also happen when a corporate monopoly is created, which then uses its power illegally to prevent certain things from coming to market, but Gannett hardly fits that example.

The free market is where the free press flourishes because there is always an opportunity, and there are always people willing, to produce things and make some money off of an under served consumer. That?s why Fox news exists, because there were a ton of people who saw most of the mainstream press as having an overt left-wing slant and were hungry for something more conservative. Roger Ailes saw this as an opportunity and provided an alternative. He obviously read this need correctly because he has been wildly successful. In contrast, The Huffington Post exists because there was also a big group of people who wanted an internet alternative to Fox and the Drudge Report.

Despite the existence of multi-national conglomerates, subversive and edgy cartoonists have always been able to publish in the altie press, which you yourself have confirmed with your 20 year run there. Those cartoons have never been a regular part of mainstream publications because there?s a smaller audience for them.

These days press freedom days couldn?t be more powerful, particularly because of the internet, where almost anyone has the ability to get their thoughts in front of an unlimited mass audience at a tiny cost. Unfortunately, the internet is also killing the newspaper and is much more to blame for the print media?s sagging content than the existence of multi-nationals.

#40 Phil Wohlrab
@ 6:25 pm

I bought “My friend Dahmer” from you at Mocca! Still have it..
Amazing story.

#41 Joe Rank (KRANKY)
@ 1:07 am

Pete Murphey, I find you opinions specious, long-winded, and hackneyed; but have a nice day.

#42 Pete Murphey
@ 6:04 am

Thank you, Joe, that is an elucidating counterpoint.

#43 Dave Stephens
@ 1:01 pm

Man! That was Rank, wasn’t it? ;)

#44 Pete Murphey
@ 10:30 am

And speaking about real threats to free press, take a look at what the FCC is proposing to do to the internet:

#45 Henry Clausner
@ 1:32 pm

jeesh, come up for air…

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