Does the Muslim World Have Political Cartoons?

You bet it does.

An  illustration in the Dec. 16, 2008 edition of the Egyptian newspaper al-Badeel celebrating the shoe thrown at President George W. Bush.

Two blasts rocked Stockholm’s shopping district on Sunday, killing the bomber and injuring two. Minutes before the explosions, a Swedish news agency received an e-mail complaining about unflattering depictions of the prophet Muhammad in political cartoons. While it’s not yet clear whether the bomber and the e-mailer were one and the same, Islamic extremists still seem fixated on these caricatures more than five years after their initial publication. Are political cartoons—blasphemous or not—a big deal in the Muslim world?

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.

Cartoonists in the Muslim world don’t shy away from controversy. They have slammed the Yemeni regime for manipulating polling data and criticized the Iranian government’s response to election protests. But artists working in some countries have to be careful. Daniel Corstange, a professor at the University of Maryland, surveyed (PDF) Yemeni political cartoonists about censorship in 2007. Most agreed that caricatures of the president would be met with punishment, while many also confessed to avoiding other important government officials, army figures, or tribal sheiks. As a result, cartoons tend to depict anonymous people, or to use objects as representations of political figures. (Kind of like Doon e sbury.) Religion isn’t a taboo topic, but it’s not particularly popular. Off-limits subjects include sexuality, sectarianism, and women’s rights.

Tehran is among the most aggressive regimes when it comes to the censorship of political cartoons. Manouchehr Karimzadeh was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1993 for depicting an apparently one-armed soccer player that very vaguely resembled Ayatollah Khomeini. In 2000, Nikahang Kowsar drew another Ayatollah who had repeatedly attacked the press as a crocodile squeezing the life out of a journalist. While Kowsar insisted to authorities that the crocodile wasn’t intended to represent any individual, the Ayatollah’s name (Mesbah) rhymed with the Persian word for crocodile (Temsah). Kowsar spent seven days in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison, and has since fled to Canada. Iran arrested another cartoonist, Hadi Heidari, last year. Yemen has also resorted to jailing political cartoonists. Other countries have employed slightly less aggressive tactics. The Turkish government tried to intimidate Salih Memecan by investigating him for sedition in 1997, and Syria has restricted cartoonists to publishing in state-controlled papers.

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