Only human beings kill and maim each other over scratches on a page. Most people in the west think it is bizarre that some radical Muslims want to kill anyone who has tried to draw Muhammad in a cartoon. Now we hear that the Syrian government has maimed a man who has lately been publishing his cartoons on his own website. Such is the terror of a government over images. The incident reveals how powerful and how dependent we are on the imagination. It takes imagination to “read” into scratches on the page a conception of something abstract, especially to see in the drawings of Ali Ferzat images of the Syrian dictatorship. He has drawn a picture of President Assad of Syria trying to hitch a ride with Muammar Ghaddafi as he frantically flees his own rebellious citizens; and of Assad offering tea to a man who is meanwhile being beaten in his feet. It take imagination to grasp the irony of these images but once we know the context we all get it immediately. This is how human society is enabled, through representations — images, sounds in speech, gestures — to which we impute connection with things of another order. I know of a situation in which a simple note on a door led to a fist fight between famous scholars.
All this seems perhaps unduly academic. However it works, this is the stuff of the human imagination. And how it works in the intersubjective world of human interaction is one of the most interesting and challenging intellectual pursuits. Unfortunately, contrary to what some people suppose, it leads us to inquire into the conflicts that so broadly characterize the human condition. It leads us to take note of how materially and painfully real are the wounds of Ali Ferzat even if they are powerfully symbolic. Those broken hands “say” to the rest of the people of Syria “Don’t mess with this government”, “Don’t represent this government as disingenuous,” “Don’t suggest that this government is repressive” [even if everyone in the country knows otherwise]. What must be fully understood — that this is a repressive regime — must not be expressed in word or image. Ferzat had his canvas; the government has another: the bodies of citizens. And both tell a story.
The power of the moral imagination.
[Here is a link to the original article in Al Jazeera on Ferzat, with a video]