Bangladeshi Cartoonist Arifur Rahman on Calling a Cat “Mohammad”

by Olivia Stransky    /  May 17, 2013  / 2 Comments

Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) was the first cartoon-focused human rights organization when it was founded in 1992. Created by Sri Lankan caricaturist Jiffry Yoonis and development consultant Robert Russell, CRNI collaborates with a network of cartoonists from around the world. These affiliates keep the organization informed on what is happening to their colleagues in their respective countries. Sampsonia Way spoke to four of CRNI’s affiliates, located in the most dangerous countries for political artists. In this series we present these affiliates and a slideshow of cartoons from their country. Today we present Arifur Rahman, a Bangladeshi caricaturist.

In 2007, Alpin, the satirical publication Arifur Rahman worked for, published one of his cartoons that made a joke about adding “Mohammad” to the beginning of a person’s name. The cartoon culminates in a young boy introducing his cat as “Mohammad Cat.” The cartoon, which was published during the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, ignited protests across Bangladesh and led to Rahman’s arrest. After six months in prison for “hurting religious sentiments” he was freed, but found himself unable to publish his work. His employer, Alpin, and its parent publication, Prothom Alo almost lost their publishing licenses, and no newspaper wanted to risk association with Rahman.

Three years later, through a collaboration with the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) and Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), Arifur Rahman arrived in Drøbak, Norway as an exile. He continues to live there, working on tOOnsMaG.com, an online cartoon publication he founded in 2009.

In this interview Rahman discusses the most dangerous topic to illustrate in Bangladesh, being blacklisted from publishing, and the financial motivation behind self-censorship.

  1. Arifur Rahman was born in Bangladesh in 1984. He started drawing in 1995, and his first cartoon was published in 2004 by Bicchu. He won third place in Bangladesh’s 2006 Anti-Corruption Cartoon Competition and first place in The Daily Star’s anti-corruption cartoon contest in 2007. In September 2007 Rahman was arrested and jailed because of his cartoon Naam. The cartoon was banned and the publication, Alpin, was suspended.
  2. In 2009 he started “www.toonsmag.com,” an online cartoon magazine. In 2010 Rahman moved to Norway with the help of ICORN and Norwegian PEN. He now lives in Drøbak and is a student at Nansenskolen, the Norwegian Humanistic Academy.

You spent six months in jail for one of your cartoons. How common is this kind of censorship for Bangladeshi cartoonists?

As far as I know, the cartoon was the first to be censored in Bangladesh and no Bangladeshi cartoonist since has been censored in that way.

In 2007 I was sentenced to three months’ detention for my cartoon, “Naam” (Name). After three months my sentence was extended by three more, and I was in prison for a total of six months and two days.

As a result of this cartoon there were demonstrations all over the country because people felt that I had insulted the Prophet Mohammad and Islam. After that all the newspaper editors and publishers in Bangladesh decided that they would not publish my cartoons anymore.

From 2008 to 2009 no one published my cartoons. In 2010 two newspapers finally published my cartoons, but they were published anonymously, with my name and signature removed.

Is the situation less dangerous now? What was life like in Bangladesh after you published the cartoon?

From 2007 to 2010 I lived in danger in Bangladesh. Radical Muslims felt that I had insulted Muhammad and Islam, and I was tortured several times both inside and outside of jail; I also received lots of death threats. I do not think it is any more or less dangerous now than it was then.

Global Voices reported that cartoonists have been participating in the Shahbag protests by exhibiting their work in Shahbag Square. Are cartoonists considered important social commentators in Bangladesh?

Bangladeshi cartoonists are always active in social movements, and Shahbag is a good example. I think cartoons are as influential in Bangladesh as any demonstration or social movement. The language of cartoons is very easy to understand; the moment you see the drawing you get the message.

Where do Bangladeshi people go to read cartoons, in newspapers or online?

Most read cartoons in the newspaper, which is easiest. Of course some people use the internet to see cartoons. One of the popular cartoon sites is tOOnsMaG.com, which is Bangladesh’s first online cartoon magazine. It is published in English, Bangla, Norwegian, and Arabic. I founded tOOnsMaG.com in 2009, and my mission is to establish freedom of expression through cartoons.

What are the most popular themes for Bangladeshi cartoonists to cover?

The most popular themes for Bangladeshi cartoonists are politics, current issues affecting regular life, and corruption.

Is religion the most dangerous theme for a Bangladeshi cartoonist, blogger, or journalist to cover?

Yes. Most Bangladeshi people are Muslim, and some of them don’t like cartoons about their religion. They think the religion will be insulted. Recently one blogger was killed by Islamic terrorists, and four bloggers were arrested in Bangladesh because a group of Muslims thought they were atheists and felt that they had insulted Muhammad and Islam in their blogs. Their blogs were then censored by government.

Is there any legal recourse or protection for cartoonists who are threatened?

We have some laws/legal recourse for the protection of citizens in Bangladesh. One of them is Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), but we don’t have any special legal recourse or protection for cartoonists who are threatened.

Do cartoonists in Bangladesh censor themselves? What themes do cartoonists avoid?

Yes, sometimes cartoonists censor themselves. It also depends on what kind of publication they work for. If a cartoonist works for a newspaper, they have to think about the editor. If the editor doesn’t approve a cartoon then it will not be published, and the cartoonist will not be paid. So, when they censor themselves, it’s often related to money.

About the Author

Olivia Stransky is an editorial assistant and video editor for Sampsonia Way. She received her B.A. in literature and film from Bard College at Simon’s Rock. While a student, she worked as the editor-in-chief of Glacial Erratic, Simon’s Rock’s literary and arts magazine. After graduating she received a grant to serve as a Fulbright Scholar in Slovakia, where she taught English literature and conversation at Univerzita Komenského in Bratislava.

View all articles by Olivia Stransky

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  1. Bangladeshi Cartoonist Recounts Time in Prison | Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
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