From our view in the west, the current uprising and government violence in Syria are lumped together with the popular uprisings across the Arab Mediterranean world. While the west stepped in with words of support in Tunisia and Egypt, and with bombs of support in Libya, the Syrians have been left to fight and die on their own. I will leave the rationale behind the differing levels or total lack of support to the conspiracy theorists. My post today is about the attempt to silence of of the Arab world’s most well known political cartoonists.
Ali Farzat has been a political cartoonist since he was first published as a teenager in the mid 1960s. His cartoons have been published in major newspapers around the world, his international fame giving him a certain amount of protection while living under a brutal regime. In 2001, he was allowed to establish an independent newspaper, Ad-Dumari, the first in Syria since 1963. Ad-Dumari lasted 3 years before running afoul of the official Syrian position on the American invasion of Iraq, and the paper’s licence was revoked for non-publishing after the government refused to allow government run printers to produce the paper. A neat trick, shutting Farzat down while officially avoiding censorship. (Orwellian or Kafkaesque, you decide).
In 2005, a book of his cartoons, A Pen of Damascus Steel, was published by Cune Press. Combining Bulwer-Lytton’s quip with the best weapons material from the middle ages created perhaps the best possible title for a book of political satire from the Middle East.
All of this preamble was just to introduce the actions of the Syrian government, who, on Aug 24 kidnapped and beat him. The beating was both physical and symbolic as they deliberately broke his hands. Is there a better way to intimidate critics of harsh government policies?
Here in the west, we take freedom of speech for granted. Very rarely is someone overtly and physically punished for expressing opinions that are anti-establishment.
It was back in 2005 that the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published the cartoons that created an international incident when some fundamentalist Muslims called for a Jihad against the cartoonists. Here in North America, most newspapers refused to re-publish the cartoons, ceding the high ground to the Jihadists. This is not acceptable. If we allow people who are offended to dictate what can be published, we are yielding to the oppressors and we are dishonouring bravery as demonstrated by Ali Farzat.
Swords made from Damascus were known for their capability of being honed to incredible sharpness and bending without breaking. Let us hope Ali Farzat is able to recover his edge as well.