A five-year-old court case surrounding the controversial publication of religious-themed comics in a Lebanese magazine has finally concluded with the three editors/artists of the magazine being found guilty of belittling Christianity. Facing $20,000 in fines, the decision may have forced the closure of the magazine, but it has also instigated conversations regarding the state of free speech in Lebanon.
In 2007, cartoonists Omar Khouri, Hatem Imam, and Fadi Baki founded the magazine Samandal, a trilingual publication out of Beirut that became one of the premier magazines for publishing both Middle Eastern and European comics. Addressing contemporary social issues, the magazine quickly became a venue that Lebanese cartoonists could use to talk about their lives, but as it also attracted the attention of European cartoonists as well.
The magazine never really made any waves, though, until 2010 when it included the publication of a couple of cartoons that explicitly took on the subject matter of religion. According to Baki, the magazine never really dealt with political or religious issues — not for fear of censorship, but just because the editorial content wasn’t there. “Honestly, we were more concerned about nudity than religious material,” he said. “Our first issue was basically all tits and ass. But the censors didn’t say anything.”
In the seventh issue of the magazine, two cartoons were published that would put the three editors at the center of prtracted legal proceedings and censorship battles that would ultimately end the publication. One cartoon by Lena Merhej, entitled “Lebanese Recipes for Revenge,” took common Lebanese phrases and illustrated them in a more literal sense. The cartoon depicted the phrase “May [God] burn your religion,” and showed a priest and imam doused in gasoline and set on fire. It caught the attention of the General Security and led to charges of “inciting sectarian strife” and “denigrating religion.”
The second cartoon, “Ecce Homo,” drawn by French cartoonist Valfret showed the homosexual exploits of a Roman centurion in ancient Palestine. The centurion, feeling shamed and wishing to seek revenge on a local Christian sect, ends with the centurion looking at one of his crucified victims and declaring “you’re the queer.” Christian figures filed a formal complaint against the magazine “expressing their disapproval concerning the publication of some comics… that are offensive to the Christian religion.” They demanded “the necessary measures required by law” be taken to stop the magazine from producing more potentially offensive materials.
Instead of complying with the Catholic church and halting the distribution of the magazine, though, Minister of Information Tarek Mitri decided to confront the issue of censorship with the Minister of Justice. “Had I wanted to be responsive to the Catholic religious leadership, I could have stopped the distribution of the magazine or withdrawn its license,” said Mitri. “But I wrote to the Minister of Justice instead.” The idea being that instead of propagating censorship within Lebanon, this case could demonstrate the importance of respecting the viewpoints of the editors as well as free speech.
But Mitri wasn’t successful. “[We] were three guys without political connections versus the Church, and the judge was not listening,” recalls Khouri. In late April, the official verdict was given and all three editors were fined. Although it was not a win for free speech in Lebanon, the case did do was open the public’s eyes to these kinds of injustices in a country that more than others prides itself on its freedom of the press.
“Our biggest mistake was not going public earlier on,” said Hatam. “But now we feel that, since the lawsuit was launched on behalf of ‘the people,’ then the people have a right to know about it.”
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!