Why are tyrants afraid of laughter?

Thin-skinned politicians use legal means to criminalise humour.

Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat was kidnapped and beaten for satirising Syrian leaders  [AP]
Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat was kidnapped and beaten for satirising Syrian leaders [AP]

Last week, a Malaysian cartoonist was charged with sedition over posting tweets criticising the ruling coalition. Zulkiflee Anwar Alhaque, better known as Zunar, was charged with nine counts of sedition over a series of tweets condemning the country’s judiciary. The charges came “amid a widening government crackdown on opposition politicians and the media using the colonial-era law”, and was “slammed by critics as a move to stifle freedom of expression”.

What’s the matter with these politicians and tyrants? Can’t they take a joke? Why are powerful generals, murderous tyrants, and stuck-up theocrats so incensed when someone makes fun of them?

“A Turkish court has sentenced two cartoonists to 11 months and 20 days in jail for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” Going to jail for drawing a few lines that may, if they are any good, succeed in making people chuckle? 

Perhaps the most famous case of a cartoonist being savagely attacked by a ruling tyrant because of his courage and imagination is that of the Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat. Ferzat’s brother, Asaad, told Al Jazeera that “his brother was kidnapped at 5am by five gunmen from outside his home and taken to the airport road. ‘He was savagely beaten, they broke his fingers and told him not to satirise Syria’s leaders’.” Ferzat survived the attack and managed to draw a picture of himself giving Assad the middle finger. 

Ferzat was not the only Syrian cartoonist daring the elements and poking fun at the murderous ruling regime. “Comics and cartoons, once uncommon in Syria,” according to one report, “have become a new and powerful tool of expression as fighting continues to rage. Cartoonists are depicting the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule in drawings, as well as conveying messages to the Syrian people and the rest of the world.”  

Assad and his scary-looking warlords are particularly vindictive against those who dare to laugh at them. The Syrian satirical singer and songwriter Ibrahim Qashoush was found with his throat cut after singing a widely popular protest song asking for Assad to leave. Imagine that: Cutting the throat of a singer for making people laugh with joy! 

The Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali was another victim of those in power who are unable to see how ridiculous they look. The creator of the legendary figure of Handala, Ali was murdered in London in 1987.   

... Having grown up in Pakistan, I think that Muslims in general should have a little bit more faith in their belief and when I say that I mean - let people say what they want, it's an opinion - so don't be so insecure about your faith.

Shahid Mahmood, Pakistani cartoonist

The contemporary history of Iran is replete with courageous satirists and cartoonists at the vanguard of provocative work keeping their homeland on critical edge. From Ali Akbar Dehkhoda at the height of the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911) to the periodicals of Chelengar and Towfiq to the now legendary figure of the late Ardeshir Mohassess (1938-2008), Iranians have never been in need of caring, competent, and courageous cartoonists and satirists tickling the wobbly seats of power. Today, Mana Neyestani is among the leading Iranian cartoonists, having safely tucked himself somewhere in Europe to draw and giggle in peace. 

No license to mock

Permission to laugh at power is no license to mock the powerless. The vicious murder of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by a band of Islamist killers in Paris does not and cannot conceal the fact that the satirist journal was in the nasty business of mocking and denigrating the ancestral faith of millions of Muslim immigrants suffering the indignity of frightened second-class citizenship in the vicinity of the European capitals of their former colonisers. As Emmanuel Todd, the eminent French anthropologist and historian, has put it rightly, “dans le contexte actuel en France, blasphémer l’islam revient à humilier les faibles de la société” – in the current context in France, blaspheming Islam amounts to humiliating the weakest segments of the society. Be that as it may, the only reaction to a tasteless cartoon is boredom and a rolling of the eye, and certainly not putting a gun to someone’s head.

But even silly and racist cartoons and jokes have a function to perform. Bill Maher’s arrested mental growth, evident in his punishingly silly and juvenile jokes about Muslims, Arabs, women, and Palestinians, is actually quite an accurate barometer of the level of intelligence of those who find him funny. No society should be denied such an accurate assessment of where the level of its intelligence is. It is a good sign of the pathology we must take seriously. Charlie Hebdo and Bill Maher are symptoms of a disease. You don’t laugh at or silence and conceal such symptoms. You use them to diagnose the ailment.

“I feel that anybody should be allowed to show and have an opinion,” the Pakistani cartoonist Shahid Mahmood put it succinctly. “But I don’t think the work that the Parisian magazine showed was terribly eloquent and I actually don’t think of it as high quality satire or political commentary,” he said. “[But] having grown up in Pakistan, I think that Muslims in general should have a little bit more faith in their belief and when I say that I mean – let people say what they want, it’s an opinion – so don’t be so insecure about your faith.” Amen!

Take another example: Enduring racist traits ingrained in American society have resurfaced over the last few years as racist cartoons of President Obama, regurgitating in tasteless registers some of the nastiest stereotypes of African Americans in the US. These are pathological signs that just because an African American is elected president in a country, it does not mean it has completely cured its racist ailments. 

In his book, Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin proposed that laughter had a therapeutic and liberating effect by virtue of its ability to degrade power. Sometimes ridiculous tyrants become their own cartoons without a cartoonist lifting a (middle) finger at them. I confess that more than any cartoon of him just one look at General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in his sunglasses makes me giggle for an entire day, and wake up the following day with a grin on my face!  

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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