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The Ayatollah Is No Joke

What's behind Iran's cartoon crackdown?

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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even in a society that routinely imprisons journalists and practices corporal punishment, and Ashtiani appears to have withdrawn his complaint in light of international attention.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.

In 1999, Kowsar sketched a response to changes in Iran's Press Law, which imposed new restrictions on media. He drew a crocodile crying "crocodile tears" while strangling a journalist with its tail. Before he finished the drawing, an influential cleric named Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi delivered a speech at a Friday prayers session in which he claimed that a CIA agent had visited Tehran with a suitcase of U.S. dollars, trying to bribe journalists to turn against Islam. In reaction, Kowsar labeled the crocodile "Professor Temsah," using the Persian word for "crocodile," to rhyme with the cleric's name, and showed him crying, "Nobody's gonna help me get rid of this mercenary writer?!"

In a bizarre twist, Kowsar believes that the "CIA agent" to which Mesbah-Yazdi referred was likely Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was later kidnapped and murdered by Islamic militants in Pakistan. According to one of Kowsar's acquaintances, a fixer working with foreign journalists, when Pearl had visited Tehran in January 2000, he had entered the fixer's office with a large suitcase. The fixer had joked to a cleric who was present that it was full of dollars to bribe journalists. Kowsar believes that the cleric, a follower of Mesbah-Yazdi, proved impervious to the joke.

The cleric's other followers and the authorities proved similarly mirthless. When the newspaper Azad published Kowsar's cartoon on Jan. 30, 2000, he began to receive death threats. Thousands of religious students from around the country converged in a mass protest in the seminary town of Qom, claiming that an insult to Mesbah-Yazdi was an insult to Islam. Kowsar denied the crocodile's resemblance to the cleric, likening it instead to Mickey Mouse or the Pink Panther, but that didn't halt the hardliners' calls for his execution.

Kowsar was soon arrested. However, thanks to pressure from Iranian reformist publishers and representatives of international media covering the 2000 parliamentary elections, he was released on bail after six days. He became aware of the support he was receiving from CRNI and Reporters Without Borders, and met Pearl, who, though likely unaware of the conspiracy theory built around him, had nevertheless taken an interest in Iranian satire.

In meeting with Pearl and in introducing him to Alireza Beheshti Shirazi -- a publisher of bestselling satirical books -- Kowsar unwittingly stepped into the hardliners' "CIA" narrative. Kowsar was summoned to the "press court," where his judge was Saeed Mortazavi, a man later nicknamed "the butcher of the press" for his closure of more than 80 newspapers (and whose reputation has since worsened). Mortazavi claimed Kowsar had undermined national security and insulted a representative of Islam, and insisted that he confess that the idea for his cartoon had come from outsiders.

"They don't want to understand what you have been doing; they want you to confess to what they think you have been doing," Kowsar says. "The Islamist judges in Iran have something they call "judges' knowledge." Whatever you say or whatever the law says, the judge can decide based on his own instinct. [Mortazavi] was the interrogator, the judge, and the prosecutor all in one: Judge Dredd. "I was a little bit scared, let me tell you. But I tried not to show my fear. I denied everything and my answers were even a little bit humorous."

In 2001, with his case still ongoing, Kowsar travelled to Toronto to receive an award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning from CRNI -- a move the authorities warned him against. He was summoned to the court several times after his return for reasons not made clear to him, but fled the country permanently in 2003 in the face of credible death threats from a clique involved in the extrajudicial murder of intellectuals in 1998 known as the "chain murders" or "serial killings." He joined CRNI in 2006, so that he could offer his solidarity in similar cases, and was convicted in absentia the same year. (Kowsar's account of the case appears in his short history, "Being Funny is Not that Funny: Contemporary Editorial Cartooning in Iran," in the journal Social Research.)

Kowsar wasn't the only cartoonist to rally international attention to Shokraye's case. Another exiled Iranian satirist, Paris-based Mana Neyestani, who enjoys a substantial fan base on Facebook, launched a campaign to support Shokraye though satire.

Neyestani said that Shokraye's case drew his attention because it was the first time the Islamic Republic had delivered such a harsh verdict for a satire against a politician who wasn't a member of the clergy.

"I thought that we should try to maintain the tiny remaining holes in the wall of cartoon censorship in Iran," he said. "I wrote a text asking my colleagues inside and outside Iran to draw the MP's caricature as Mahmoud Shokraye did it, without any offensive joke. I drew one, and the next day my colleagues started to publish theirs in their weblogs and pages. After [we] drew international attention, even official and pro-governmental people protested against the verdict. Now you can find a lot of Mr. Lotfi's caricatures on the Internet. Hope he's gotten used to being caricatured!"

Like his embattled comrades in the Iranian cartoon world, Neyestani also learned firsthand how a seemingly innocuous cartoon could trigger a crisis. In 2006, he drew a children's series for the weekly Iran-e-Jomee titled "How to Defeat Cockroaches." The first picture, entitled "First Method: Dialogue" showed a child talking nonsense to a cockroach, which replies "Namana?" a common slang word for "What?" that originates from the language of Iran's Azeri minority.

Because the newspaper was government-affiliated, some Azeris (who are often the target of chauvinistic humor in Iran) saw the cartoon as a state-sanctioned attack comparing them to cockroaches. Riots spread across Iran, resulting in deaths and hundreds of arrests. Neyestani and his editor were arrested, once again on the orders of Mortazavi, and charged under the Press Law with "publishing provocative materials" and "fomenting discord." Following several months in prison, he fled the country while on temporary release. He has recently published his account of the crisis in a new comic book, "An Iranian Metamorphosis," a sly reference to Kafka.

It's not only censors who patrol Iran's public space. Satirists themselves stifle their own views so as not to draw the ire of the state. "There are some undisputed taboos and 'red lines' like sex and religion," Neyestani observes. "It is illegal to draw mullahs, especially the supreme leader, whose caricature could end with a harsh sentence for a caricaturist. Oppressed ethnic or religious minorities [such as] Baha'is are also taboos."

Even in exile, Neyestani notes, "I have never gotten rid of the self-censor completely."

Nor is it only hardliners who are eager to limit satirists. Kowsar emphasizes that Iran's now-defunct reform movement was not much better. "Editors do not want to monitor all parts of the spectrum," he says. Many represent political factions, and do not want to challenge the politicians they support. When he tried to ask tough questions about the opposition Green Movement from abroad, he says, "I was the other, the outsider, I was supposed to be totally ignored, because I was criticizing Mousavi, and criticizing the Ayatollah Khomeini."

Like all exiles, Kowsar and Neyestani weigh the agonies of living abroad against the creative freedoms they gained by escaping the mullahs' reach.

Kowsar reflects that he has become bolder in taking on religious themes, and that his religious satire finds a very receptive audience in Iran. "Many Iranians of the middle class are losing their religion," he observes. "Years ago, when I wanted to talk about religion or criticize an ayatollah in the media, it wasn't as easy for me as it is right now." He publishes his work online, and, out of nostalgia, visits familiar places in Iran every day via Google Maps. "There is a powerful connection between the cartoonists living in exile and the artists working inside the country," he says, "But although the ones inside are not free to express their minds [...] they are more relevant than us."

Most of Neyestani's recent work, which he distributes through Facebook fan pages, would bury an Iran-based artist very quickly. He is particularly proud of a recent drawing celebrating an online love-fest between Iranian and Israeli citizens opposed to their governments' war-hungry rhetoric. Many of his images deal explicitly with themes of violence and sexuality while lampooning religious symbols and pronouncements. "I am not religious, but I respect different perceptions and beliefs," he says. "I think the crucial problem in Iran is that minds get used to dictatorship, tyranny, and making things sacred. Religion and theocracy [are] a good way for tyranny to be crystallized."

But with Iran's leadership growing more nervous about dissenting views every day, one wonders if the bolder varieties of Iranian satire will ever be able to go home again.

Meanwhile, the campaign to support Shokraye has provoked a deluge of ridicule directed at the Iranian MP foolish enough to try to muzzle him. The Guardian's website featured a series of images of Ashtiani, including works by Kowsar and Neyestani, and another by the newspaper's in-house cartoonist, Martin Rowson, who weighed in with an image of the Iranian politician as a blubbering baby in a puddle of urine, coughing up a cat o'nine tails.

"I believe passionately in the right to mock as a fundamental human freedom, and if I'm able to do some myself while defending someone else's right to do the same, everyone's a winner," says Rowson. "Except, of course, the mockee -- but fuck 'em, as we satirists say."

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

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