'Daaafish': Iraqi cartoonists target IS
BEIRUT - They need to maintain a double life: in their everyday life, they work in regular professions: as designers, engineers, artists and others. But outside work hours they operate as social activists.
Relatives and friends remain unaware. It's safer to keep families in the dark, for their own safety, even if many live in Western countries, far from the dangers faced in Iraq. Ironically, the subversive activity they do is nothing more than publishing cartoons on a Facebook page.
Daaafish are a collective of 15 people, many of whom are professional artists, who through their cartoons poke fun at and satirise perceived political corruption and social injustices in their homeland. Their work is made dangerous because the subject of their satire is often the Islamic State and the Iraqi authorities.
Spanish poet Gabriel Celaya wrote in 1955 that “poetry is a weapon loaded with the future”. The members of Daafish have a similar perception about comics. Concerned by advances made in Iraq by Islamic State group and the eruption of sectarian violence, eight months ago, they decided to do their bit to work for a united and peaceful future for Iraq using the tools they knew best: a pen and sense of humour. They chose the name 'Daaafish', which means “deflate” in Arabic, and is also a play on the Arabic term “Daesh” - a pejorative acronym used to describe IS.
“Our motivation is our love for our country. Many bad things happened in Iraq in the past 30 years and the situation will continue like this if we don’t do something”, says one member of the collective, speaking to Middle East Eye under the alias of “Mohammed” via Skype.
“We lived in Iraq before 2003, and our parents lived there before us. We have inherited the truth of a multicultural future for Iraq and we want to help make it go forward."
Since Daaafish got up and running eight months ago the collective has published around 10 cartoons per week. Eighty five thousand people have joined the group’s Facebook community. Two main targets for their cartoons are IS and also perceived corruption in Iraq’s political system; two sides of the same coin, according to the group.
Deconstructing prejudices, preserving the memory
“Many people in Iraq think that inhabitants of Mosul support ISIS,” explains another member of Daaafish, speaking under the alias “Houda”. The majority of people in the Iraqi city, which was taken by IS in June 2014, are Sunni, as are IS. However Houda alleges that most are opposed to IS.
"They just don't have weapons to change their situation. And we want to show it. ”
IS invests a lot of efforts on its marketing in order to communicate an idyllic image of livelihood in its territory to those overseas, but testimonies inside IS-controlled areas explain a reality far from ideal. In order to maintain an idealised image to entice foreign fighters and supporters to its cause, IS must prevent information presenting alternative narratives and points of view from reaching the outside world. Daaafish aims to break this information blockage.
“We receive information from the news or from our family and friends who are still all around the country. In many cases, there are no photos nor footage of the things we want to talk about,” says Mohammed. So, they recreate this information in their cartoons, which then become testimonies, forms of historical documentation.
In this way Daaafish has documented the increased recruitment by IS of child soldiers; the imposition of birth taxes in hospitals (which are more expensive when newborns are female), corruption within IS ranks including the despotic behaviour of foreign IS members and the strict and often arbitrary rules imposed by IS in territories under its control.
Another such example, allegedly carried out by IS, are reports that when female IS police officers catch women not wearing the mandatory black gloves in public, they may punish them by biting their hands. According to Daaafish, there have been several testimonies saying female police wear steel dentures with sharp fangs to make the bite deeper.
“After publishing this cartoon, we received an email from a woman who had suffered this punishment in Mosul. She also sent us photos of the fresh wound in her hand”, explains Houda. “It was amazing to see our cartoons helped her to break the silence."
Benefiting from social media
The cartoons are distributed through Daaafish’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and further shared by a wide network of Iraqi Facebook pages and websites.
Facebook is the most popular social media platform in Iraq. Although Iraq has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the region, the majority of those who do use the internet have Facebook accounts. According to the website Internet World Stats there are 11 million Facebook accounts in Iraq.
“For an overwhelming majority of people, the internet is about killing time, entertainment or just chatting. In a context where there is a sense of violence and a feeling of being trapped, something as simple as that can actually have value because it can help to reduce the sense of alienation and depression in ways that you would normally not expect,” explains Dr Miriyam Aouragh, an anthropologist from the University of Westminster specialising in Cyber Politics in the Middle East.
“Iraqis are so fed up with the way their society is,” notes Houda. “For many of them, Facebook provides relief from everyday stress and funny content is most popular. Cartoons are very attractive and help the youth to engage."
Nadim Damluji, a researcher and expert in Arab comics, points out that comics and cartoons are able to appeal to different social and age groups.
“The added value of comics is that they are able to spread very quickly and can reach a wide audience. They are a very effective means to communicate an idea," explains Damluji.
“There is a long and well known cultural history of comics books in the Middle East. And there is a long history of comics being political in the Middle East.” From Gamal Abdel Nasser to Saddam Hussain or Muammar Gaddafi, all of them have comics highlighting their achievements - and failures - explains Damluji.
Some of Daaafish’s cartoons have reached more than a quarter of a million people, in many cases generating hundreds of comments on Facebook.
But Daaafish’s cartoons have also generated criticism. The collective has been accused of being pro-America, pro-Shia and even pro-IS.
“Iraqis are so used to supporting only one side that a lot of people don't understand that we call out many sides,” says Mohammed over Skype.
As a consequence, Daaafish has received frequent, threatening and aggressive messages on it’s Facebook page from pro-IS users.
“The romantic age of digital resistance from five years ago is over. This is not innocent anymore. Because of the surveillance and the technological impediments, this is not a romantic story anymore. The more you produce this stuff and put it online, the more susceptible you are to danger. These channels and this media are under high surveillance,” says Miriyam Aouragh.
Many members of Daaafish are based outside of Iraq. They emigrated for security or economic reasons, but “even if we are abroad, we are afraid about what could happen to our beloved ones. We like to think we are anonymous,” says Mohammed, who lives in Europe.
Concern has increased since the brutal murder of Ibrahim Abd al-Qader, an activist from the group Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, by IS militants in Turkey at the end of October.
Also on Facebook, “Daesh supporters are reporting pages like ours,” explains Houda. “Facebook sometimes follows these reports and close pages like ours. Some similar pages have just disappeared. It is a constant battle.”
The cartoons that generate most the support often advocate Iraqi unity or exalt the virtues of the Iraqi army as a unifying force, paradoxes in a country deeply divided.
Mustafa, a young humanitarian worker from Baghdad based in Erbil, explains the contradiction many Iraqis live: “Iraqis don't have any hope of a united future for the country, but at the same time, we feel proud to be Iraqi,” he says.
The US-led invasion of 2003 dismantled the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and lead to a sectarian-based civil war. “The political system put in place under the US occupation also institutionalised a rough and ready form of ethno-sectarian consociationalism,” writes the political scientist Toby Dodge.
The rise of IS further exacerbated sectarian tensions. Divisions run so deep that the once ridiculed three-states solution - a Kurdish state in the north, a Sunni state in the centre and a Shia country in the south - proposed by US Vice President Joe Biden, is now considered a reasonable solution.
Sectarianism has also encouraged corruption, which has resulted this year in the massive failure of the struggling Iraqi state to provide services such as regular electricity and water supplies leading to massive anti-government protests this summer; issues encapsulated by Daaafish in their work.
According to Transparency International, Iraq is positioned 170 of 175 countries in the corruption perception Index.
In this context, “people cannot imagine nor project anything positive, they see no way out,” says Mohammed. “ISIS wants to promote a culture of fear; we want to promote culture of living together.”
“For a long time, the West has imposed the solutions. We want to create fertile ground for the solutions to grow here.”