Kate Mayberry at Al Jazeera talks to the Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar.
Zulkiflee Sm Anwar Ulhaque, better known by his pen name of Zunar, is one of Malaysia’s most acerbic and controversial cartoonists, picking apart the government in a country where deference to those in power has long been the norm.
Well let’s get real – deference to those in power has long been the norm everywhere, or almost everywhere. What’s the point of power if you can’t use it to make underlings deferential?! It’s not some quaint eccentricity of Malaysia to make deference to those in power a norm. But over the past couple of centuries that norm has had a rival norm of egalitarianism to deal with, and as communication has become more and more global and instantaneous, it has become every more difficult to confine that genie to the bottle.
So Zunar is a cartoonist in a country where deference to those in power has long been the norm and the state still strongly enforces that norm.
Zunar is accused of producing cartoons that are detrimental to public order.
Zunar was formally charged this month with nine counts of sedition. He faces as many as 43 years in prison if found guilty. Out on bail ahead of the trial, he spoke to Al Jazeera about why he continues to draw.
Al Jazeera:You seem to have attracted more sedition charges than anyone else in Malaysia. Why do you carry on cartooning?
Zunar: For me talent is not a gift, it’s a responsibility. In facing a crisis you need to make a stand. You can’t keep quiet or try to be neutral, if neutral means you support an oppressive government.
Malaysia has been governed by the same political party for more than 58 years and people are getting restless.
I am a cartoonist. I use cartoons to push for reform. It’s a duty for me to do that. People say, ‘Why don’t you stop?’ Stop is a choice. Continuing is a choice. But this is not a choice. This is a duty. As an artist, I really think that’s important. The talent is God-sent. The talent is not mine. It is God’s gift and it comes with responsibility.
Courageous, isn’t he.
I wonder if the Garry Trudeaus of the world will line up to rebuke him for his courage and dedication and self-sacrifice.
No I don’t, not really. What I wonder is why they wouldn’t do that to him but would do it to Charlie Hebdo.
Al Jazeera:It’s hard to imagine now that there was a time before the internet. Do you think people appreciated back then just how important the internet would turn out to be?
Zunar: In Malaysia, Twitter and Facebook are not social media, they’re alternative media. People use it to exchange news and views. The growth is very fast because the situation of press freedom in Malaysia makes that happen. Whereas press freedom is going backwards, people are going forward.
The people’s mindset in this era is totally different than the ’70s and ’80s. They are more critical, more challenging and want to take part in debate. They want to talk about the issues.
Zuckerberg had no idea what he was starting.
Al Jazeera:There’s obviously a lot of focus on political cartooning now, following the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.Can cartoonists sometimes go too far?
Zunar: Let me ask a question, if the Prophet Muhammad were still alive would he have ordered the cartoonists to be killed?
He would not. Prophet Muhammad would never have told us to do that.
You have a right not to agree with the content of the cartoon. Me, as a Muslim, I also don’t agree. But cartoonists have a right to draw what they draw, but sentiment and perspective is very subjective.
I’m the small scale of Charlie Hebdo. I’m being attacked by the Malaysian government. If they don’t agree with my cartoon fine, but don’t use criminal law against me. If you say my cartoons are defamatory, you can sue me. But why use criminal law to put me behind bars before the trial?
When it comes to Charlie Hebdo, it’s also like that. You didn’t give them a chance to explain themselves, you just went and shot them. Deal with it in a civilised manner. If you don’t agree, you can rebut it. It’s just a cartoon. So what?
Ah but “just a cartoon” can be a very powerful thing.
Strength to your pen hand, Zunar.