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Two Cartoons, One From Saudi Arabia and One From Lebanon, and What They Have in Common

03/09/2013

Cartoon by Jihad Awrtani for Al-Watan

A Saudi cartoon and a Lebanese cartoon, believed to have been drawn in reaction to the Saudi cartoon, have similarities more striking then differences.  Granted, the first cartoon, the Saudi cartoon was drawn by well-known cartoonist Jihad Awrtani of the popular daily newspaper Al-Watan, while the artist of the second cartoon, the Lebanese cartoon, is anonymous.  Both cartoons, though, take on a powerful figure in their respective countries.  And both cartoons have been unfairly attacked.  

On February 12th, Saudi newspaper Al-Watan published a cartoon critical of Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai’s decision to visit Syria to attend the enthronement ceremony of the new patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church.  Drawn by professional cartoonist Jihad Awrtani (sometimes spelled ‘Awrati’ or ‘Awartani’), the cartoon depicts the Maronite Patriarch with a rocket on his head in place of a miter.  Highlighted above the cartoon in Arabic are the letters that Patriarch Bashara Rai and the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have in common.  

The responses from some Maronites were swift and less than tolerant.  The paper received numerous strongly worded complaints.  In Lebanon, an attorney, Wadii (sometimes spelled 'Wadhi') Aql, went so far as to file a criminal complaint against the editor-in-chief, Talal Al Eshikh, and the cartoonist.  The Lebanese attorney accused them of libel, racism and incitement to riot.  Some media reports also assert that the complaint also named the publisher.  Fortunately, State Prosecutor Hatem Madhi (sometimes spelled 'Madi') dismissed the complaint due to a “lack of attribute or capacity.”  Apparently even under the broadly worded Lebanese Constitution, not any and every Lebanese Maronite citizen has standing to initiate such a case.    

In the meantime, the Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Awad Asiri distanced his government from the cartoon.  He told the Lebanese National News Agency that “the caricature … that was published in Al-Watan Saudi newspaper involving Partriarch Cardinal Beshara Rai does not reflect in any way the opinion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. … The caricature was only a personal work, and the author bears responsibility [for it].”  (See February 15th NNA report titled Asiri to NNA: Al Rahi caricature individual belief, not official.)

On February 15th, Al-Watan published a disclaimer by Awrtani in the form of a clever, combined image and message.  Addressed to Lebanon in the colors of the Lebanese flag, with the last letter replaced with a crescent and a cross, the disclaimer says, “The drawing published in last Tuesday’s edition was not meant to deliberately insult the religious symbol of Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, yet it included a personal point of view, thus I apologize for the confusion that caused the misinterpretation."

Cartoon by Jihad Awrtani for Al-Watan.

The disclaimer, of course, should not be necessary.  The cartoon is simply and very clearly one cartoonist’s opinion about a religious leader’s controversial decision to visit Syria.  There is neither libel nor incitement in this cartoon.  It is an unfair distortion of the cartoon’s unmistakable message, to claim, as some Maronites have, that this cartoon is an attack on the Maronite religion.  On the other hand, other critics of the cartoon quiet rightly see some irony in a Saudi newspaper and cartoonist asserting the right to criticize a leader in a minority religion while not asserting the right to criticize either the royal family, or, a leader in the Sunni religion, the country’s majority religion.   

Implicit in the cartoon is a concern that the Syrian regime would politicize a visit from such an important Maronite church official as Patriarch Rai.  Patriarch Rai’s predecessor in fact refused to visit Syria for that very reason.  Furthermore, the Syrian Deputy foreign Minister, Faisal Meqdad, did politicize the visit.  According to Ya Libnan, Maqdad suggested that Rai’s visit “was a nod of support for the embattled regime.”  (See the Ya Libnan article of February 14th titled Rai mocked by a Saudi newspaper.)  

More disturbing than the reaction to Jihad’s cartoon, was the Lebanese government’s reaction to an anonymous cartoon that may have been drawn in response to Jihad’s cartoon.  On Tuesday, February 19th an investigation was initiated to reveal who created and who then hung large posters in Beirut’s Christian suburbs of Anar and Jal al-Dib with a caricature of the Saudi king as the king of spades gripping a bloody machete.  That order was issued by none other than State Prosecutor Madhi after a complaint was made by another familiar name, Saudi Ambassador Asiri. 

Photographer and artist unknown.  

The Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz's caricature likely refers to Saudi Arabia’s practice of beheading convicted criminals.  As noted in the Al-Akhbar English article of February 19th titled Lebanon investigates posters mocking Saudi king, capital crimes in Saudi Arabia include murder, rape, drug trafficking, apostasy, sorcery and witchcraft.  That's right, in Saudi Arabia even the questioning of one's own personal belief in the existence of God is a crime punishable by death.  

It is unfortunate that Lebanese State Prosecutor Madhi did not react to the 'king of spades' cartoon in the manner that Saudi Ambassador Asiri responded to Jihad's cartoon that criticizes Partriarch Rai.  After all, both cartoons, though very opinionated, are well within the bounds of acceptable editorial comment.

(CRNI thanks