February 21

Where to Draw the Line: Political Cartoons in Turkey



“The World of Tayyips”:  The cover of Penguen from (2/24/05) in which all the magazine’s main artists depicted the Turkish prime minister as an animal to show solidarity with Musa Kart, a cartoonist being prosecuted for drawing the prime minister’s head on a cat. In response, the prime minister sued the magazine for 40,000TL in “intangible damages,” but the case was thrown out.



How long should Musa Kart go to jail for drawing a cartoon implying the prime minister of Turkey is a crook? According to Turkish prosecutors, somewhere between nine and ten years.

Though the case was thrown out on the first day of trial, it received coverage from international papers and drew attention to the plight of artists and journalists in Turkey.[1] The Kart cartoon in question appeared in the paper Cumhuriyet [Republic], which is closely tied to Turkey’s main opposition party and has always been highly critical of Erdoğan. Yet partisanship explains little: numerous cartoonists critical of the government have been subjected to legal proceedings regardless of their specific party affiliations.[2] Kart himself has been sued by Erdoğan before, and he is not alone: within two years of becoming prime minister, Erdoğan had already sued fifty-seven cartoonists for defamation.[3] As for Cumhuriyet, it ran into additional trouble in January 2015 when police detained a truck carrying an edition reprinting the first post-massacre cover of Charlie Hebdo featuring a drawing of the prophet Muhammad.[4]

More to the point, the prosecution of cartoonists in Turkey is nothing new. In fact, it has a long history.

"Election Mockery: The Democrat Party,"  Ulus, 3/12/50

“Election Mockery: The Democrat Party,” Ulus, 3/12/50

Turkish political cartoonists today are facing a situation reminiscent of the 1950s. During that decade, Turks experienced their first period of electoral democracy and cartoons played a crucial role in shaping public perceptions of leading politicians. One of the most biting satirical artists in these years was Ratip Tahir Burak, a cartoonist for the newspaper Ulus [Nation].

As the official paper of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which had ruled Turkey for twenty-seven years before its defeat in 1950, Ulus was naturally hostile to the victorious Democrat Party. Its antagonistic attitude hardened quickly as the Democrats redirected ads for state-owned companies to their own papers. Nearly every day, the paper featured articles and columns about rising prices, unconstitutional government policies, profligate spending, and the specter of Islamic reaction. These textual harangues were given their clearest expression in Burak’s cartoons.

As Yaşin Kayış explains in his excellent book Political Cartoons in the Democrat Party Era (1950-1960), Burak was a talented artist, a brilliant satirist, but also capable of blindly partisan criticism.[5] Born in 1904, the son of a naval commander with Circassian roots, Burak initially followed in his father’s maritime footsteps before opting to pursue a career in art.[6] With a recommendation from Mustafa Kemal, he traveled to Paris in 1926 to attend school. Returning to Turkey, he worked at a variety of magazines, taught classes, and found frequent work doing portraiture. Throughout Turkey’s years of single-party rule, he maintained close relations with CHP leaders like İsmet İnönü and, soon after its defeat in May 1950, he officially joined the party. Nearly every Tuesday in the early 1950s, Ulus featured one of his political cartoons and, starting in December 1951, the Saturday issue would include an installment of his historical adventure series “The Magical Robe” (Sihirli Kaftan).


The Magical Robe (Ulus,1/23/52)


As can be seen from the selection of Burak’s cartoons below, his political cartoons could be fierce—most often mentioned in retrospectives are his drawings of Prime Minister Menderes in drag, but six decades later, images of dead babies may stand out a bit more.[7] From the outset, his cartoons drew the Democrat Party’s ire. Despite the party’s claims to have broken with the one-party mentality of the past, Kayış observes that, “Those in power were a product of the single party era” and found the notion of tolerating criticism difficult—especially when confronted with a degree of criticism never previously allowed in Turkish political life.[8] Starting in 1952, the government began allowing cases against Burak to move forward.[9] By 1956, fifty-four cases were ongoing. Burak reported on the cases in his own magazine, Siyasal Halk [Political People], until prosecutors combined all the charges into a single case and closed the proceedings to the public.[10]

Although he was acquitted on many counts, a cartoon depicting Menderes about to circumcise a boy representing the Turkish press was viewed by the courts as a step too far. While the trial dragged on for five months, Burak tried to avoid additional trouble: first he introduced a “big bellied, thick necked, bald-headed, ax-nosed guy” as a stand-in for the entire Democrat Party and then, when police continued to block the distribution of his publication, he introduced a feature called “Proverbs” that illustrated thinly veiled attacks on the ruling party.[11]

On December 19, 1956 he was sentenced to sixteen months in jail and fined 4000TL ($11,840 in 2015).[12] Though he was treated well in jail, the government continued to find new ways to penalize him: to make money for his family, he continued producing historical adventure cartoons for Kumbara [Piggy Bank]. a children’s magazine owned by İş Bank. As a government-run bank, however, İş Bank was subject to political pressure and the director of the bank simply canceled the magazine.[13] To add insult to injury, on the one-year anniversary of his sentence, the government blocked an attempt by the CHP’s Youth Arm to hold an exhibition in his honor.[14]

Upon his release, he began drawing for Taş [Stone] and Taş-Karikatür, but these publications depended on paper allotments from the government to sustain their print-runs—and those tended to go to pro-government publications. Following the 1960 coup and the removal of the Democrat Party from power, Burak served as a CHP representative in the Constituent Assembly that drafted Turkey’s 1961 Constitution.[15] In the parliamentary election that same year, he became the first Turkish political cartoonist to serve as a representative. Yet with his bête noires, the Democrats, banned from politics or executed—and with his own party nominally back in power—his political cartooning lost its edge. As Kayış points out, Burak’s cartoons were something of a “daily egg” (günlük yumurta), dependent on the daily ebb-and-flow of politics. Unlike other great Turkish political cartoonists, who had an ideological stance independent of a single party-line, his heart was always with the CHP. Until his death in 1977, his artistic energies again focused on historical comics.

The following examples of Ratip Tahir Burak’s political cartoons from Ulus give a sense of his critiques, which could be both trenchant and petty. But, beyond being a display of Burak’s work, I hope these convey a sense of the creativity inherent in Turkish political satire and the tensions that have always existed between that creativity and the interests of Turkish leaders.[16]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *




Celal Bayar: Mommy, mommy . . .I’m scared!! (4/26/50)

On the eve of the May 14 election that would remove the ruling Republican People’s Party (CHP) from power, this Ulus cartoon shows Celal Bayar, the leader of the opposition Democrat Party cowering in fear, looking to the CHP to protect him from the frightening figure of “Reaction” peering around the corner.



 “Cat-Lungs Tale” (11/20/1951)

Ratip Tahir frequently used cat imagery in his cartoons—sometimes personified (as in this instance), sometimes merely accompanying Democrat Party politicians. Hungry cats being offered offal with words like “Press Freedom” or, in this case, the name of the paper itself was a common motif. Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and Deputy Minister Samet Ağaoğlu are on the left and right of the pole, respectively. The brown cat behind Ağaoğlu is State Minister Fevzi Lütfi Karaosmaoğlu. Education Minister Tevfik İleri is heading toward the door and Justice Minister Halil Özyörük sticks his head from behind the doorway. Parliamentary Speaker Refik Koraltan looks up from the lower left-hand corner.



“Rude Visitors” (1/29/1952)

Another common theme in Ratip Tahir’s cartoons—and Ulus articles in general—was the issue of price increases. Here a poor villager is visited by a pack of guests representing increases in the cost of transport, water, cotton, gas, iron, oil, coal, etc.




“What Hypocrisy!!” (2/19/1952)

Here we see criticism of the manner in which the Democrat Party government distributed advertising to its allies. A major source of newspaper revenue came from running ads from state owned enterprises.[17] Upon coming to power, the Democrats redirected these ads towards their party paper, Zafer [Victor], and dealt a serious financial blow to Ulus.



Untitled (4/1/1952)

In a particularly strong image, we see Prime Minister Menderes sighing, “Thankfully, I didn’t get in trouble” as he buries a dead baby representing liberal values. On the left-hand side one child is saying, “If dad were to hear that we didn’t go to school . . .” and the other reassures him, “What can he say? Does he even attend the parliament?” In the upper right-hand corner, one man exclaims, “The Prime Minister gives us different budget deficit numbers in every speech” before exclaiming, “Oh oh, one or two more speeches and he’ll have brought the budget into balance.”




“At This Rate . . .” (4/22/1952)

Combining several themes, this cartoon suggests that Menderes is a dictator before finally suggesting he is better compared to a woman. The initial panel reads, “Our Dictator Candidate” before passing over a series of familiar images and ending on “If not, will he resemble Madame [Evita] Peron?”




“Our Freedom is Safe From Abuse” (5/20/1952)

A musician with a hat reading “Press” sings to an imprisoned woman named “Freedom.” She is kept in a fortress whose two walls represent the 159th and 161st articles of the Turkish Criminal Code, which limited the press’ freedom to criticize the government. At the top of the fortress, Menderes sits in repose with Samet Ağaoğlu (in the form of an owl) beside him.




“Manifestations of a Bad Government: 2” (7/1/1952)

Samet Ağaoğlu shows Menderes mob of reactionaries in the process of removing Ataturk statues, clearly intending to smash them. The cartoon came only a few months after a number of Ataturk monuments had been vandalized, prompting the government to issue laws against “reactionary” activity and convincing CHP leaders that the government’s permissive attitude toward religious conservatives was beginning to show its inevitable results.




“Godspeed” (7/5/1952)

Refik Koraltan floats on his back while Samet Ağaoğlu clings lasciviously to a buoy. Menderes explodes from the water in a bikini. Menderes in women’s clothing was a repeated motif of Buraks, one he tended to include more during times of high tension between the parties.



“Our Map of Public Order” (9/23/1952)

“Our Map of Public Order” (9/23/1952)

Menderes reclines in his chair—another repeated image—announcing, “All’s well” to the nation. Across the map, however, we see the forces of reaction at work: buses of tourists robbed and stripped; husbands killed; women about to be carried off in sacks or driven off against their will; mobs mobilized from the pulpit. The possible future as imagined by the CHP.




“Modern Ankara-1” (9/30/1952)

“Modern Ankara-1” (9/30/1952)

One of two pictures from 1952 lamenting the state into which Ankara has fallen in recent years. In both this and the following picture (see 10/28/52), the implication is that the capital is becoming a city of peasants and (here, more particularly) Roma beggars. Besides the most notable aspects of the caricature—dancing bears, women with children clinging to them and breasts exposed—one should also notice that the man in modern dress is haggling with the melon-seller, not ignoring him. In terms of race, the Roma are colored far darker than any characters in Ratip Tahir’s cartoons except for Samet Ağaoğlu (who is originally from Azerbaijan, descended from a family of Shi’ite notables and generally depicted as somewhat demonic).[18] As for the couple being swarmed at the center of the photo, they are far more “Western” looking than the peasants—or than the “modern” Turks typical of these cartoons—all of which suggests the cartoon is more concerned with how Ankara appears under the gaze of tourists than of locals.




“Opposition Climate” (10/7/1952)

“Opposition Climate” (10/7/1952)

Here we see Menderes in a small boat, stripped down, forced to use his underclothes as a sail, blown helplessly toward a rock that says, “Election.” The storm clouds are personified as İsmet İnönü, the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). The notion that the opposition is dominant—that Menderes is helpless and that elections will favor the CHP—was a common trope in Ulus, but seldom born out before 1957 when then economy soured and the CHP began to increase its vote share.




“Is There Someone Cocking an Eye at Us?” (10/14/1952)

“Is There Someone Cocking an Eye at Us?” (10/14/1952)

A typical image of the Democrat Party as a rabble. Some cartoons will show them attacking CHP buildings, but other will show them in this manner: headed off in a directionless rage.




“Modern Ankara-2 (A Footpath on Our Street)” (10/28/1952)

“Modern Ankara-2 (A Footpath on Our Street)” (10/28/1952)

In contrast to the first image (9/30/52), this picture contains no Roma; instead it shows a city that has been overrun by peasants. Besides sitting scruffily on the sidewalks, hawking their wares, and doing various activities (like car repair) that, in a “civilized” society would be done in purpose-built spaces, we can also see these peasants harassing “modern” women in the background of the image. The encounter between traditional and modern characters is interesting given the normally “schizophrenic” quality of Turkish cartoons, which—as Ayhan Akman points out—tend to either show one category or the other with little sense that the two exist within the same national territory.[19] Here we see such separation breaking down.



“Last Work” (12/2/1952)

“Last Work” (12/2/1952)

One of the harshest images Ratip Tahir drew shows Menderes painting—which is to imply bringing about—the shooting of Ahmet Emin Yalman, the editor of the newspaper Vatan [Country] on 22 November 1952. Yalman, a liberal critic of the CHP, had initially supported the Democrats, but later come to criticize their authoritarian tendencies. As a Jew, he received heavy criticism from leaders of Turkey’s resurgent Islamist movement in the 1950s. Yalman survived and the shooter, a student named Hüseyin Üzmez, was sentenced to ten years in jail. At the trial, he explained that he’d shot Yalman for publishing pictures in his paper that were offensive to Islam—for example, showing Turkey’s 1952 beauty queen Gelengül Tayfuroğlu kissing an American soldier. (Üzmez was arrested and imprisoned again in 2008 for child molestation.)[20] In the painting, Menderes is informed that Inonu is speaking in the parliament and that he had better get ready. The force of the door swinging open has knocked a book (likely religious) from the shelf.



“Forward!” (1/20/53)

“Forward!” (1/20/53)

Education Minister Tevfik İleri charges forward (i.e. “ileri” in Turkish), one foot on a donkey marked “left,” one foot on a donkey marked “right,” pulling a small building labeled “National Education” behind them. In his hands are a whip and prayer beads. İleri’s position placed him in the cross-fire of many of Turkey’s greatest political debates of the time—though, granted, his actions added fuel to many of these debates. In the aftermath of Ahmet Emin Yalman’s shooting (see 12/2/52), pressure grew on İleri regarding his associations with nationalist groups, leading to his resignation in April.[21]



“Finished and Done, Praise the Lord” (6/9/1956)

“Finished and Done, Praise the Lord” (6/9/1956)

It was this cartoon that landed Ratip Tahir in jail for eighteen months. It shows the press represented in the form of a young boy about to receive his circumcision. Menderes holds a razor; Refik Koraltan plays the role of godfather, restraining the squirming boy; Samet Ağaoğlu and Emin Kalafat play the role of magician-entertainers; and Foreign Minister Fuat Köprülü stands watch in the guise of an old woman.[22]






[1]Musa Kart’tan tarihi savunma,” Cumhuriyet, 10/23/14; Sebnem Arsu, “Turkey’s President Traces a New Internal Threat: The Way He’s Drawn,” The New York Times, 1/3/15; James Walsh, “Erdogan caricatures: cartoonists mock Turkey’s president – in pictures,” The Guardian, 10/27/14; “MUSA KART EXONERATED IN LATEST BATTLE WITH ERDOGAN,” Cartoonists Rights Network International, 11/8/14.

[2] Cumhuriyet is owned by the Cumhuriyet Foundation. Over the past several years, the board has been severely split between what is—acording to Doğan Akın—a traditionalist faction that is close to the army (or as he phrased it, “Ergenkonist-Nationalists”) and a reformist faction. On January 30, 2015, the managing editor, Utku Çakırözer, who was considered a “reformist,” was asked to step down. He will be replaced by Can Dundar, another well known journalist. It is worth pointing out, however, that despite its indepedence, Cumhuriyet is printed by Dogan Printing Center; a relationship that ties it closely to Turkey’s powerful Dogan Media Group. (Doğan Akın, “Cumhuriyet gazetesinde neler oluyor?” T24, 4/22/13; “Cumhuriyet Vakfı, Genel Yayın Yönetmeni Çakırözer’i Görevden Aldı,” Bianet, 1/30/15; “Cumhuriyet dağıtımına yargısız polis baskını,” Cumhuriyet, 1/14/15).

[3] Efrat Aviv, “Cartoons in Turkey: From Abdülhamid to Erdoan,” Middle Eastern Studies, 49(22), p. 231; Marc Champion, “Call the Prime Minister a Turkey, Get Sued,” The Wall Street Journal, 6/7/11.

[4]Cumhuriyet yazarlarından büyük provokasyon,” Yeni Safak, 1/14/15; “Cumhuriyet Dağıtımına Polis Baskını,” Bianet, 1/14/15.

[5] Most of my details about Ratip Tahir Burak come from Yaşin Kayış, Democrat Parti Döneminde Siyasi Karikatür (1950-1960), Istanbul: Libra Kitap, 2009, pp. 203-224. I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting a good overview of satiric publications in 1950s Turkey.

[6] Kıvanç Ergönül, “Gülcemal’den Solak Reis’e R.Tahir Burak,” Deniz Haber, 7/12/07.

[7] Altan Öymen, Öfkeli Yıllar, Istanbul: Doğan Kitap, 2009, pp. 82-85.

[8] Kayış, p. 208.

[9] See a discussion of Press Laws in Gavin Brockett, How Happy to Call Oneself a Turk : Provincial Newspapers and the Negotiation of a Muslim National Identity, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011; Altan Öymen, Öfkeli Yıllar, Istanbul: Doğan Kitap, 2009, pp. pp. 109-112; 451-84.

[10] Burak’s Siyasal Halk, launched in 1956, was the third paper he’d worked for during the 1950s. In 1953 he had moved from Ulus to Yeni Sabah with the guarantee of a higher salary, but the contract was canceled after the paper’s editor came under pressure from the government (Kayış, p. 208).

[11] Kayış, p. 224.

[12] I am converting based on the exchange rates quoted in the Wall Street Journal for 12/6/56 in which there are 0.34TL for every $1 at the official exchange rate—but 0.93TL for every $1 on the international money markets. Using the international rate of .093 means that 4000TL equals $372 in 1956. According to the US Inflation Calculator that would be $3237 today. Accoring to the Turkish government’s official exchange rate, however, Burak owed $1,360 which equates to $11,836!

[13] Kayış, p. 221 fn38.

[14] For an account of his time in jail, see Ratip Tahir Burak, Hapishane Hatıralar, Istanbul: Güven Yayınevi, 1963.

[15] For a disucssion of the constitution writing process, see Walter Weiker, The Turkish Revolution, Washington: Brookings, 1963, pp. 64-81.

[16] Thanks to Nazar Bağcı for checking a few of my translations—but the rest may still be error-filled and that is due to my translating. Given that some of these captions are rather specific idioms, I would be grateful for any edits/corrections people can offer. Thanks.

[17] Altan Öymen, Değişim Yılları, Istanbul: Doğan Kitap, 2006, p. 635.

[18] Holly Shissler, Between Two Empires: Ahmet Ağaoğlu and the New Turkey, London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2002, pp. 43-44.

[19] Ayhan Akman, “From Cultural Schizophrenia to Modernist Binarism: Cartoons and Identities in Turkey (1930-1975),” Political Cartoons in the Middle East, Fatma Muğe Gökçek ed., Princeton: Markus Weiner Publishers, 1998, pp. 83-132; Efrat E. Aviv, “Cartoons in Turkey: From Abdülhamid to Erdoğan,” Middle Eastern Studies, 49(2), 2013, 227-8.

[20] Selahattin Budakoğlu, “Hüseyin Üzmez için yakalama kararı,” Hurriyet, 6/8/08; Altan Öymen, “Hüseyin Üzmez, Ahmet Emin Yalman?ı niçin vurmuştu …,” Radikal, 11/2/08; Ismet Tekerek, “Bir Hüseyin Üzmez Analizi,” Bianet, 9/16/09.

[21] “Millî Eğitim,Çalışma ve Devlet Vekilleri dün akşam istifa ettiler,” Milliyet, 4/7/53. NB. As Nick Danforth shows, many of the causes typically associated with the Democrat Party—specifically the resucitation of Ottoman traditions in education and memory—were actually initiated (and defended vociferously) by the CHP in its later years. (Nicholas Danforth, “Multi-Purpose Empire: Ottoman History in Republican Turkey,” Middle Eastern Studies, 50(4), 2014, pp. 660-64.

[22] Levent Civelekoğlu, “TARİHTEN BUGÜNE DÜŞEN NOTLAR: 28 EKİM 1976,” Etc. 11/27/13.