Caricaturing Terror

Published Online: 25th March 2018

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How does one draw tragedy? How can terror be depicted without trivialising the sorrow of those who suffered from it?

In Pakistan terror is not something one can caricaturise, when the terrorist can be present a few metres from you, ready to detonate a bomb in the centre of your hometown [1]. When you cannot draw the enemy you cannot ridicule it, you cannot give the audience comfor t. Cartoons are a source of catharsis or relief, but only if they are able to adequately depict and satirise the ills of society. There is something more than censorship that goes on in the Pakistani media at times of crisis. For whatever reason, a concern for national interest or a concern for ones safety, some topics are just not touched and religion is one of them. Cartoonists either self-censor or are censored.

Let me give you an example. The 16th of December is the anniversary of what has come to be known in Pakistan as the APS massacre. In 2014, six gunmen affiliated with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, infiltrated the Army Public School (APS) in the city of Peshawar, and killed 141 people including 132 schoolchildren, ranging between eight and eighteen years of age. It is probably the worst event of terrorism Pakistan has seen since it joined the War On Terror after 9/11 , and Pakistan has seen many, many massacres since. Military Strength Rankings in 2017 put Pakistan’s military as the 13th most powerful in the world, yet terrorism continues[2]. At the time of the APS massacre, I was working as an editorial cartoonist at a major national daily in Pakistan. Against the norm of depicting terrorism as a faceless scourge, I gave it the face of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the then leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mullah Mansour in my cartoon is poised to strike an innocent child. I was asked not sign my name on the cartoon and my editor was uncertain until she saw the cartoon and was sure it would not put me or the paper in danger. That nothing happened after the cartoon was published is a lucky break. I have received threats for critiquing both the army and religious organisations as a journalist and I am not alone. This is business as usual in Pakistan. But the phenomenon of self-censorship and the pressures the media faces from those with political power are not understood, or even acknowledged as actual problems in Pakistan. If the enemy is not called out as one, how can it be resisted?

Figure 1- My cartoon in The Nation, December 2014
Figure 1- My cartoon in The Nation, December 2014


Seeing the editorial cartoon is a daily practice, and this “everydayness” helps create important narratives about the state and security for audiences. These narratives are reinforced by the newspaper, the TV screen and the political banner. What is this visual message? How is it constructed? My research at Oxford investigates how the media creates, or is forced into creating, certain national narratives in Pakistan. It tries to answer important questions that haven’t been asked before, like why is the military never criticised in Pakistani political cartoons, and why does no one dare to draw the Mullah Mansours and Hafiz Saeeds?[3] Are journalists afraid that what happened at Charlie Hebdo, or to Kurt Westergaard’s over his cartoons, can happen again? My research finds that the great saviour and icon of nationalism, the military, and the great enemy, terrorism, are ironically treated the same way in cartoons- they are seldom depicted and appear as faceless icons. Why? Are they above reproach or is the media terrified of the consequences of seeming unpatriotic and irreverent? Why is the enemy always portrayed as external and never internal? For example, the neighbouring country India is always an easy to blame scapegoat and stands in as the national enemy. The newspaper/cartoonist/writer do a disservice to their audience when they self-censor or present work that is uncritical- there has to be a good reason why this happens.

Figure 2- Cartoon from an Urdu language paper depicting terrorism, corruption, law and order crises, energy crises and inflation as dogs, August 2012
Figure 2- Cartoon from an Urdu language paper depicting terrorism, corruption, law and order crises, energy crises and inflation as dogs, August 2012


There is a dominant narrative that acts on the hand of the cartoonist, where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi can be bravely drawn as a monster, but the hand shakes at drawing a Taliban general. These everyday images have an instant impact on audiences and are important case studies of nationalism and identity politics in Pakistan.


Figure 3- Cartoon depicting the hypocrisy of the Indian Prime Minister for referring the case of an arrested Indian spy to the UN, while silently continuing repression in the disputed territory of Kashmir, May 2017, Samaa TV.
Figure 3- Cartoon depicting the hypocrisy of the Indian Prime Minister for referring the case of an arrested Indian spy to the UN, while silently continuing repression in the disputed territory of Kashmir, May 2017, Samaa TV.


While my research is based on the Pakistani case, across the world we have seen cartoons that have wreaked havoc with political sentiments, from the Muhammad cartoons in Denmark that caused riots in Iraq, to the killing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in France. With such important examples of cartoons creating international problems, it is important to look at the problem of nationalism and securitisation as a visual anthropologist and make sense of the everydayness of terror and how it is depicted to the masses.

We, inside and outside Pakistan, need to see the phenomenon of terrorism and media censorship more clearly, and be able to deal with it, not as soldiers or policymakers, but as private citizens. Terrorism is the major threat to the survival of the Pakistani state today, and yet, it is seldom found in the hundreds of cartoons drawn across Pakistani newspapers every day. My questions are ones that resonate with everyone, academic or just an ordinary person reading the paper on their commute to work: How is evil constructed, and why do we not have a clear picture of it?


– Saadia Gardezi




[1] Since 2010 there have been 19 terror attacks in Lahore, where I worked and grew up. Most of them were by suicide bombs or remote controlled bombs and were minor, 2-3 casualties, while major incidents caused 20-78 deaths at a time, not considering injuries.

[2] 2017 Military strength Rankings, Global Firepower Index.

[3] Hafiz Muhammad Saeed is the founder of the banned militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Chief of the Jamaat Ud Dawa, an organisation claimed to be a religious charity but labelled a terrorist organisation by the United Nations.

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