Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Picturing the Charlie Hebdo Incident in Arabic Political Cartoons

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Picturing the Charlie Hebdo Incident in Arabic Political Cartoons

Article excerpt


Some scholars recently argued that there is a trend of relying more on images than on language to communicate messages (i.e., Mitchell, 2005). Mitchell (2005) termed this process the "pictorial turn" (11) when he said that "[p]ictures with captions were easily transformed into talking pictures" (21). This statement perhaps explains why some "[r]eaders might prefer image presentations of social issues as a fast and easy way to stay informed" (Giarelli and Tulman, 2003: 946). In addition, cartoons are "sometimes able to convey a complex message in a much more immediate and condensed fashion than language" (El Refaie, 2003: 87). Political cartoons as "talking pictures" become the hallmark because of their accessibility by literate and illiterate alike, and, therefore, become an influential means of expression.

This study probes into the significance of political cartoons by investigating how the Arabic cartoons published about the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine's offices portray this incident, and explores the themes communicated by the surveyed cartoons. Studying how Arabic political cartoons, as a form of popular culture, depict political events such as the Charlie Hebdo incident provides a political and cultural alternative for interpreting these events. Political cartoons function as a visual witness to the close connection between art and politics that may remain carved in the popular discourse and collective memory more than spoken or written words. Political cartoons as a form of visual art can create a collective understanding of political history and cultural identity. According to Tripp (2013), visual art can "develop a new vernacular, an idiom that can give voice to the voiceless, representing and even giving reality to forms of collective experience and identity" (260). Based on this discussion, political cartoons can play a role in mobilizing the audience with shared cultural identity against the hegemonic power.


Since the publication of the Danish cartoons on September 30, 2005, that mocked the Prophet Mohammad, there had been a number of studies on these cartoons that have tackled a plethora of themes such as identity formation, stereotyping images of Muslims and Islam, racism, and freedom of expression and press (see Eide, Kunelius, and Phillips, 2008; Hansen, 2011; Jørgensen, 2012; Miera and Pala, 2009; Müller and Özcan, 2007; Strömbäck, Shehata, and Dimitrova, 2008). Miera and Pala (2009), for instance, have analyzed the way in which the Danish cartoons about the Prophet Mohammad were construed as a public issue in France and Germany. They found that freedom of expression is threatened by Islam in general or fundamental Islamist in particular. Similarly, Jørgensen (2012) analyzed the same cartoons and found that the "cartoons constituted a global 'post September 11th 2001'-discourse identifying Muslim men as terrorists in a particular Scandinavian context" (399).

My study builds on this literature by investigating how Arabic political cartoons portray the Charlie Hebdo's mocking cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which were published in January 2015. The surveyed cartoons are analyzed utilizing different theoretical concepts that include the theory of semiotics (Barthes, 1977; de Saussure, [1916] 1983), "imagined community" (Anderson, 1991), "selfcategorization" (Turner, 1987), and "differentiation" (Meyer, 2000), "blending" (Fauconnier and Turner, 2002), and "visual metaphor" (Forceville and UriosAparisi, 2009).

Barthes (1977) has proposed a technique of visual analysis called semiotics. Semiotics deals with signs (de Saussure, [1916] 1983). A sign is anything that signifies, or has meaning(s) within a certain code and a given context. Saussure claimed that signs draw meaning and significance from the way they interact with other signs in the system. According to this theoretical thrust, any text, verbal or visual, can be a corpus for a semiotic analysis. …

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