02/25/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 04/27/2015 05:59 EDT

Can Islam take a joke? Turkey's satirists speak out

With religion and politics splashed on a bright red background, the latest cover of Charlie Hebdo blares, "We’re back!”

It is the first new issue in seven weeks, time the magazine said it needed to mourn and regroup after the deaths of 12 people killed at its Paris headquarters last month.

The attackers were Muslims hoping to silence a publication they believe insulted their religion. The attack prompted many people to ask: Can Islam take a joke?

“My answer to that is Caf Caf,” says cartoonist Faruk Günindi, citing the magazine he works for, which is loosely translated as “Showy” in English.

One of Turkey’s newest satirical magazines, Caf Caf is the only publication of its kind made by devout Muslims, Günindi says. 

“We criticize hypocritical Muslims — we criticize politics," says Günindi. "It’s not that we can’t draw an imam or a religious man, but we don’t show them as something other than what they are.”

The Muslims he knows have a sense of humour, he says, but “we have our own value system, too.”

“We don’t want our humour to be degrading or based on lies. We don’t draw something just because we want to.”

'A universal language'

In a country where magazines lampooning political and religious leaders have been a newsstand staple for decades, the writers and editors at the eight-year-old Caf Caf (pronounced "juff-juff") are still considered the new kids.

Some of Caf Caf's less conservative counterparts — such as LeMan, one of Turkey’s oldest satirical magazines — use a more biting, coarse style of humour to make their point.

A LeMan cover with a PhotoShopped image of Erdogan — at the time, still prime minister — raising his middle finger to the West is one example.

Satire is “a language of peace… everyone can laugh at a caricature… it is a universal language,” says LeMan editor Tüncay Akgün.

But he also admits satirists sit “somewhere between human and devil,” challenging the status quo, tackling taboos.

LeMan and its counterparts have faced death threats and hundreds of legal battles over the years. That is part of the reason they were so stunned by the Charlie Hebdo massacre — it happened in France, a place where freedom of expression is a given.

Akgün was in Paris when the news came, and his friends at Charlie Hebdo were among the dead.

“They were the ones we felt closest to,” he says.

Koranic principles

Satirists aren’t alone in believing Islam can withstand critical humour.

“Islam can handle a joke — it's ISIS that can’t,” says Ihsan Eliaçik, an Islamic scholar based in Istanbul, referring to the Sunni militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Eliaçik has written more than a dozen books based on his interpretation of the Koran, which he believes is the real Islam.

He says, for example, that there's no rule against depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

“There’s no Koranic principle that says you can’t draw a picture or caricature of the Prophet,” Eliaçik insists. “This is a myth.”

It was born, he says, out of the idea that pictures would lead to idol worship, but he says, "in our time, I think this sensitivity is unnecessary. People know what a statue or a picture is."

Still, neither Caf Caf, LeMan nor any of Turkey’s other satire magazines has published pictures of the Prophet Muhammad.

“Doing that would be like punching a ticket to the other side,” says Tüncay Akgün, sitting in LeMan’s Istanbul offices. 

A colleague, Zafer Aknar, adds, “We didn’t publish it because in this country it would be a huge provocation.” An unnecessary one, he hints.

While there may be different interpretations of what is written in Islam's holy book, Eliaçik points out the Koran is abundantly clear about one thing – the immorality of murder.

He says the Koran instructs Muslims to “take a pacifist stance if you feel your religion has been insulted. An attack, even hitting someone, let alone an attack [like the one on Charlie Hebdo], is forbidden.”

Taking sides

After the January attack in Paris, LeMan and two of Turkey’s other top satire publications published the same cover – a thought bubble with the now-famous phrase “Je suis Charlie” on a black background.

The team at Caf Caf says they were appalled by the killings, but wouldn’t join the chorus of support.

Caf Caf printed its own cover — a response to that post-attack Charlie Hebdo cover showing the Prophet saying, “All is forgiven.”

Above caricatures representing Muslim countries who feel demeaned by the West, Caf Caf’s cover answered in French, "No. Nothing has been forgiven."

For its part, LeMan felt compelled to put out another Charlie Hebdo cover – a picture of Georges Wolinski, one of the artists who died in the Paris attack, sitting in front of a mosque in Istanbul wearing a Muslim cap, or takke.

Akgün says it shows Wolinski and satirists like him aren't afraid to make fun of themselves, either.

“Someone who can laugh at themselves won’t harm someone else.”