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How Moses Cartoon Killed Turkish Satirical Magazine

By Mustafa Akyol

February 22, 2017

“This is the second Charlie Hebdo affair!” So read one of the thousands of tweets that Turks posted in protest of a cartoon that appeared in the weekly satirical magazine Girgir on Feb 16. The cartoon made fun not of the Prophet Muhammad, but of another prophet: Moses. Since Moses is a sacred figure not just in Judaism and Christianity but also Islam, Turkey’s conservative Muslims reacted with a fury that quickly ended the life of the magazine.

The cartoon in question depicted Moses and his fellow Israelites walking together right after the parting of the Red Sea. Moses, with staff in his hand, was pictured as bragging about how he accomplished the miracles. Others walking with him, however, were complaining about his bragging. One was suggesting that he should have defeated the pharaoh’s soldiers. Two others were telling him to “shut up” and even using the F-word.

In other words, there was no big satirical content in the cartoon, just the vulgar F-word thrown at a figure sacred for all three Abrahamic religions. It was only natural, therefore, for religious believers to find the cartoon disrespectful and offensive.

Those who thought so included members of Turkey’s tiny Jewish community. The official head of the community, Ishak Ibrahimzadeh, and two journalists at its newspaper, the weekly Shalom, condemned the cartoon for denigrating Moses. Some Muslims on Twitter re-tweeted statements by these writers — Karel Valansi and Ivo Molinas — as a sign of, say, monotheist solidarity.

Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, condemned the cartoon. Himself a pious Muslim, Kalin defined the cartoon as “immoral and a hate crime” and condemned it as “disrespect to the sacred.”

But what should have happened to Girgir for publishing such an offensive cartoon? Religious believers had all the right to condemn the magazine and seek more respect. But did they have the right to silence it? I personally took my usual stance on such matters, which is to criticize and condemn, but not to call for any state censorship, let alone violent response. “What falls on believers,” I argued, “is to boycott Girgir magazine by not buying it.”

However, most of Turkey’s religious believers sought more. A hashtag was opened on Twitter that reads #girgirdergisikapatilsin, or “Girgir magazine must be closed.” Thousands of Turkish Muslims retweeted the hashtag, calling on the government to close down the “filthy” magazine. One social media user summarized the spirit of the times when he wrote, “Since there is now a state of emergency, we expect our state to close down this magazine right away.”

What made the controversy even greater is that Girgir, which has been a famous Turkish magazine since the 1980s, had become a free supplement of the daily Sozcu, Turkey’s most outspoken secularist tabloid. Hence the cartoon was taken by religious conservatives as evidence of Sozcu’s enmity toward Islam; the magazine's prejudice against the Islamic headscarf had been seen as evidence of such animosity in the past.

In the face of the reactions it faced because of the Moses cartoon, Girgir posted a message of apology on Twitter. “We apologize to everyone that we offended because of a cartoon that was unnoticed before publishing due to exhaustion and lack of sleep,” the Twitter message read. This could have been a message that ended the controversy.

But the fury was too great to be tamed with a mere apology. An Istanbul prosecutor opened an investigation into the magazine for violating Article 216/3 of the Turkish Penal Code, which criminalizes “insulting the religious values of a portion of society.” And the social media campaign for the closure of Girgir continued.

That is probably why only a day after its apology, Girgir's publisher announced that it had closed down the magazine. “We believe that the cartoon was published by ill-willed people who wanted to get the publishing company in trouble,” the company's statement read. It said the cartoon had been hidden from the publishing company until it was “secretly” printed. The company said all employees of the magazine had been fired and that they will be sued by the company for putting it at risk by insulting religious values.

In short, a Moses cartoon brought about the demise of a satirical magazine even without a political or legal decision having been made. Was this the intention of everyone who condemned the cartoon? Not really. Molinas, a Turkish Jewish businessman who also is editor-in-chief and a writer for Shalom, told Al-Monitor, “The cartoon went beyond the freedom of expression and no wonder its artist made a strong self-criticism.” However, he added, “The closure of Girgir is very saddening for Turkey’s satirical culture.”

What is also sad is that Turkey, once again, is heading toward being a closed society where a dominant point of view intimidates and silences whatever it finds disrespectful. Even mild satires about Ottoman history can be banned — as happened recently to a new film by a prominent actor/director. Religious conservatives now think that they own the state, and they seem quite willing to use it to suppress any form of speech they dislike.

Little do they realize that the more closed a society is, the less dynamic, creative and intelligent it becomes. Little do they realize, in other words, that if they go down this road, Turkey will not become the great power that they dream of. It will become a dull, monotonous and parochial nation producing not much other than mediocrity and conformity.