Cairo, Reuters—After Egyptian cartoonist Andeel took to social media to condemn the slaughter of colleagues in Paris, he received expressions of sympathy—often not for the victims but for the suspected Islamist gunmen.
Some respondents on his Facebook page criticized the attack at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper, in which 12 people including several of France’s top cartoonists were shot dead on Wednesday.
But Andeel was alarmed by the level of backing for the killings at the French weekly which is known for mocking religion, including Islam. The 28-year-old satirist said he feared voices of moderation were being drowned out because expressions of hate “are always a lot more colorful and loud”.
The Charlie Hebdo killings were thousands of miles from Cairo, and yet reminded Arab cartoonists of the risks they face from those who draw a red line when it comes to criticism of the Prophet Muhammad and their faith.
“A lot of people showed so much support for these crimes which is really weird and kind of crazy,” Andeel said. “I wanted to discuss how people think that making fun of the Prophet or Islam is unacceptable and is considered a crime,” he told Reuters, adding that he wondered how people could consider “killing as the right reaction.”
Freedom of expression was meant to flourish after the Arab Spring revolts brought down autocrats across much of the Middle East and North Africa. Nearly four years later, many people are still watching their step.
Authoritarian rule has returned to many Arab countries while the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants also poses dangers to anyone who dares to debate religion.
Chief among them are satirists, who had felt a greater sense of freedom after the autocrats were toppled in 2011.
“I see what happened [in Paris] as a continuation of what is going on in Syria and Iraq . . . The same mentality,” said Hany Shams, a cartoonist at Egypt’s government-run Akhbar Al-Youm newspaper.
In the Iraqi city of Ramadi, ISIS foot soldier Abu Saaduldin Al-Quraishi laid down the limits of his group’s tolerance. “We do not expect any insults against God, his religion or his prophets,” he told Reuters. “We will warn against such behaviors and if that does not work, then killing them is better.”
In Lebanon, satirists say things are easier but far from ideal. Stavro Jabra, a cartoonist whose work is published in two dailies, said he had known some of the Charlie Hebdo victims.
“We want to defend the freedom of the press, the freedom of the media and the freedom of opinion. This is our mission,” said Jabra. Lebanon has more freedom than other Arab countries, but there are still limits that apply to local leaders as well as the multi-ethnic country’s religions. One such was Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shi’ite Muslim movement Hezbollah.
“We can’t get into religions . . . If you draw Nasrallah, they will attack you,” said Jabra. “If you draw this person or that, it’s forbidden. You get threats, phone calls, emails saying ‘this cannot be drawn’.”
Outside the Arab world in Turkey, cartoonists were targeted by some Islamist writers on Twitter after the Paris attack.
Ibrahim Yoruk, a columnist at the newly-established Vahdet newspaper, warned Turkish satirical magazine Penguen under the #CharlieHebdo hashtag. “You can’t do humor by insulting the faith of the people, Penguen. You should realize this,” he said.
Another user, whose account seemed later to have been suspended, took to Twitter to threaten another satirical weekly called Leman. “God willing the next will be Leman magazine, although there’s more than 12 there to be decapitated,” the user tweeted under the same hashtag.