Laughing at Times of Censorship: Anti-Imperialism and Constitutionalism in Ottoman Cartoons (1908-1911)

By Ekin Enacar
Submitted to Session P4853 (Regulating Print in the Late Ottoman Empire: A New Look into the Question of Censorship, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The Young Turk Revolution was brought to life by a combination of different forces. “Young Turk” was an umbrella term that was used to define those forces who shared a common dislike of sultan Abdülhamid II and his autocratic regime. Dissident intellectuals in the Ottoman diaspora (the exile community in Europe), a collection of discontented civil servants and students in the empire, and a militant organization within the Empire, namely the “Committee of Union and Progress” (CUP) were parts of the anti-Abdulhamid opposition. During the first two years following the Young Turk Revolution, the constitutional government grew more and more authoritarian, reminiscent of the reign of Abdulhamid II.

Increasing press censorship, arbitrary arrests of intellectuals and political opponents, an empire-wide purge of state employees, increasing European encroachment, economical problems and wars created a lot of disillusionment and therefore caused several people who initially supported the CUP to sour on the revolution. As the dreams of revolution shattered, non-satirical journals in the Ottoman Empire were not able to freely criticize the new government and the CUP due to strict press censorship. On the other hand, satirical journals could circumvent censorship by relying on the ambiguity of cartoons, jokes, satirical stories and puns. Cartoons in these journals also bridged the gap between the literate and illiterate by relying on images to transmit political messages. Existing scholarship on Ottoman press has a tendency to associate censorship with the reign of Abdülhamid II, and accept the Young Turk Revolution as the (re)birth of free Ottoman press. It neglects the shattered dreams of intellectuals and journalists who were disillusioned by the revolution. Through analyzing the weekly journal “Kalem”, this paper demonstrates the crucial importance of satirical journals in reflecting the political debates and post-revolutionary disillusionment in the Ottoman Empire during the Young Turk Era.