Humor as a Weapon Against Fear in Turkey

“Humor is our weapon against fear.” These are the words that Zafer Aknar, managing editor of Leman, one of Turkey’s largest satire magazines, recently spoke regarding increased hostility towards Turkish journalists and cartoonists for the strong level of support they expressed in response to the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

Although such sentiment continues to put cartoonists in the crosshairs of government officials — a position that has led to legal actions being taken against them, death threats, and, in extreme cases, physical brutality — Aknar’s observation and call for continued free expression is both noble, important, and necessary in this day and age, especially in areas where freedom of speech is continually threatened.

The type of action that Aknar is defending, which the satirical medium effectively encapsulates, does not simply employ crass humor or aimless, superficial gestures. Rather, Turkish publications like Leman have taken a firm stance to move away from that form of humor and to move toward images that incite public conversation about social issues and provide an outlet for Turkish citizens to have a voice to speak out against issues currently occurring in their country. Leman, which sells approximately 50,000 copies per week, has explicitly expressed that the cartoons they publish depict the ultra-conservative individuals of their nation with the goal of showing the “hypocrisy” and “the craving for power that abounds in the Islamic world.”

Their goal is not to lampoon Islam. As Leman cartoonist Aslan Ozdemir stated: “[O]ur priority is not making fun of religion anyway. This is not self-censorship… There are too many scandals and injustices, too much corruption and greed, too many lies, too much violence in Turkey, and as cartoonists, we need to deal with that first.”

It is this serious approach to the satirical medium and the selection of cartoons that have an agenda beyond simple entertainment that has made Leman such a powerful publication in Turkey — a publication that itself has come under attack from extremist groups. In a world where Aknar describes death threats as part of the “nature of our business,” Turkish cartoonists see the importance of not only continuing to produce works that deconstruct contemporary issues, but doing so at a higher caliber that brings humor to those issues and that demonstrates a solemn seriousness of certain situations.

A good example of this is the recent special edition of Leman, in which the cover features a photograph of cartoonist Georges Wolinski, who was killed during the Charlie Hebdo attack, drawing in the yard of Istanbul’s Eyup Sultan Mosque wearing an Islami cap. The caption on the picture reads: “Our master and big brother, a champion of peace and freedom, a philosopher, cartoonist Georges Wolinski…” Simple, to the point, and powerful, this is the type of message that demonstrates how strongly Leman stands behind individual’s fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.

Even though hostility towards cartoonists is on the rise in Turkey, publications like Leman are not backing down and continue to propagate their message about the importance of free speech. For Aknar, publications like Leman will “continue to serve as a claw against repression” through humor, satire, and cartoons.

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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!