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Has the Islamic Republic lost its mirth? In early May, Mahmoud Shokraye, a cartoonist for the Iranian newspaper Nameye Amir, was sentenced to 25 lashes for depicting an MP, Ahmad Lotfi Ashtiani, as a soccer player. The mild satire, which an Iranian "press court" deemed "insulting," was a reference to Ashtiani's populist proposal to transfer a Tehran soccer team, Naft, to his constituency in the central-western city of Arak.
The sentence was extreme even in a society that routinely imprisons journalists and practices corporal punishment, and Ashtiani appears to have withdrawn his complaint in light of international attention. Nevertheless, the case represents an unprecedented legal threat to cartoonists already schooled in self-censorship. News of the sentence won Shokraye the solidarity of high-profile colleagues, even as one of them lamented his restraint.
"If I were an editor I wouldn't have published it because it wasn't a very strong cartoon or caricature of the guy," says Nikahang Kowsar, a 21-year veteran of Iranian editorial cartooning, and a board member of the Cartoonists' Rights Network International (CRNI) living in exile in Washington, D.C. "I would have told Mahmoud to add some humor to it. But thank God I am not Mahmoud's editor, because if I had asked him I probably would [have been] lashed as well as someone who had guided him."
Kowsar, a cartoonist who came to the medium partly through his admiration for David Levine's caricatures in the New York Review of Books, says he was warned by a publisher at the outset of his career that satirists often run afoul of the clergy's prohibition against laghv, an Arabic-derived word for nonsense. The authority for this, Kowsar points out, comes from the third verse of the 23rd sura of the Quran, which describes Muslims as people who "turn away from ill speech."
"He said that the clergy also call whatever they dislike ‘laghv'," Kowsar recalls.
According to the Islamic Republic's founding cleric, mirth was never on the menu. "There is no humor in Islam," Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini famously remarked. "There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious."
And yet, Shokraye's case remains perplexing. The cartoon medium has been established in Iran for more than a century, and Shokraye's image doesn't at first appear to transgress any established taboos. As Kowsar notes, cartoonists inside the country often depict high-profile figures such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani without incident.
Close examination of the image, however, reveals a clue. Shokraye emphasized a dark mark, known as a "prayer mark," on Ashtiani's forehead. "Prayer marks" are held to be evidence of lifelong prayer, but some Iranians have their doubts: "Nobody's supposed to make fun of it," observes Kowsar. "In Iran we used to make a joke about people who had this mark. We used to say that they make these baked clays [discs Shiites use to pray] a little bit hot and [...] burn their foreheads to make this mark. I've never seen it, but apparently many do it."
That Shokraye drew attention to a symbol of religiosity frequently ridiculed by the public may have been a sore point for Ashtiani, and for the judiciary, which regards Islam as the source of all laws and authority. It wouldn't be the first time a seemingly trivial issue provoked a backlash: Islamic hardliners drove Kowsar out of Iran in 2003 for making an even more oblique allusion to religion in one of his illustrations.