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Propaganda, Cartoons and Zarif’s Lie

May 13, 2016
Natasha Schmidt
7 min read
One of the cartoons submitted to the 2006 Holocaust cartoon competition
One of the cartoons submitted to the 2006 Holocaust cartoon competition
One of the cartoons submitted to the 2006 Holocaust cartoon competition
One of the cartoons submitted to the 2006 Holocaust cartoon competition
Poster advertising the first Holocaust cartoon contest
Poster advertising the first Holocaust cartoon contest
Protesters against Ahmadinejad's stance on the Holocaust
Protesters against Ahmadinejad's stance on the Holocaust
Manouchehr Mottaki, Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister, opened a conference that ran alongside the competition, the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust.
Manouchehr Mottaki, Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister, opened a conference that ran alongside the competition, the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust.
Foreign Minister Zarif told US magazine the New Yorker that the competition had nothing to do with the government of Iran
Foreign Minister Zarif told US magazine the New Yorker that the competition had nothing to do with the government of Iran

 

On May 14, Iran hosts the second Holocaust Cartoon Competition, prompting condemnation around the world and reviving debate about Iran’s influence on the international stage. The House of Cartoon and the Sarcheshmeh Cultural Complex announced the competition in January 2015, not long after French magazine Charlie Hebdo featured an image of the Prophet Mohammad on its cover. 

UNESCO and Holocaust memorial organizations, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, were quick to denounce the plans, with the museum calling for the Iranian government to “unequivocally denounce the contest.” The International Remembrance Alliance, an international organization with 31 member states, said “such an irrational response to one of the greatest tragedies in European and world history is provocative and must be condemned,” and warned that Iran risked damaging its image globally if it continued to deny the Holocaust. 

The contest comes 10 years on from the first competition, held in 2006 and supported by the administration of then hardliner president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a week on from Holocaust Remembrance Day

Though most of the work submitted will be from Iranian artists, cartoonists from around the world — including from the United States, China and Germany — are taking part in the international competition and exhibition, which will award the winner a cash prize of up to $50,000. The competition is organized by Massoud Shojai Tabatabai, the House of Cartoon president and a controversial figure in Iran.

“In 2006, it was clear that the Ahmadinejad administration was putting substantial energy behind a whole set of activities to promote Holocaust denial and distortion, and that was a strong feature of their foreign policy,” says Tad Stahnke, director of the Initiative on Holocaust Denial and AntiSemitism. “We saw that being projected abroad. Iran became a destination for Western Holocaust deniers. And that’s a concern for today. President Rouhani has made different statements about it and hasn’t embraced Holocaust denial like Ahmadinejad — and yet the supreme leader is making very consistent statements.” 

“We saw that being projected abroad. Iran became a destination for Western Holocaust deniers. And that’s a concern for today. President Rouhani has made different noises about it and hasn’t embraced it as strongly as Ahmadinejad — and yet the supreme leader is making very consistent statements.” 

Together with partners, the Holocaust Memorial Museum has put together substantial resources about the competition, and educational materials about the Holocaust, many of which are available in Persian, or will be by June 2016. site www.ushmm.org/fa.

The Iranian press reported that the competition was a response to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. But critics accuse the House of Cartoon and organizers of taking advantage of a reported new wave of anti-Semitism, trying to build on an increasing tendency among fringe groups to push Holocaust denial agendas and voice anti-Semitic sentiment. Or, given that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei seems to be the most stringent proponent of the project, is it simply an opportunity for him and his hardliner allies to reestablish their agendas on Iran’s political stage after recent parliamentary elections? 

But Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has denied the Iranian government had anything to do with the competition. “It’s not Iran,” he said in an interview with the US magazine The New Yorker on April 25. “It’s an NGO that is not controlled by the Iranian government. Nor is it endorsed by the Iranian government.”

This statement was met with alarm around the world, the memory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s support for the 2006 contest clear in  people’s minds. Back then, Manouchehr Mottaki, Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister, opened a conference that gave Holocaust deniers ran alongside the competition, the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust. Hamshahri newspaper, with close ties to the office of Tehran’s mayor — and who Ahmadinejad had close links to — sponsored the event. Ahmadinejad’s press advisor, Mohammad Ali Ramin, was among the officials who publicly supported the exhibition. 

But does Zarif’s denial that the government has anything to do with the exhibition say something about the changing view in Iran among some of its more moderate politicians and thinkers? 

“This is a reiteration from the supreme leader and the elements of the state supporting him are making clear that this is still the approach, and that closes space for any discussion about the history, about the issues and impact of Holocaust denial and distortion,” says Tad Stahnke. 

The implication is that, whatever Rouhani’s administration thinks, and whatever diplomatic gains it hopes to achieve, the propaganda from  Khamenei and his allies is always going to be more potent. 

“Would Zarif say the same thing to the Iranian press?” asks Steven Luckert, Senior Program Curator of Digital Learning and New Media at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He added that Zarif’s comments are simply part of the overall propaganda message. “It’s pretty common for authoritarian regimes to give two different presentations, one to the outside world about what’s happening and one to your internal audience. Zarif’s comments are a way of him appearing sympathetic to Western audiences.”

Writing in the Daily Beast, Dr. Rafael Madoff  says the furore in the West over the contest and its predecessor is a testament to just how powerful political cartoons and images can be. “The vigorous reaction and debate over such cartoons is precisely what one would expect in a free society,” he writes. He also reminds the reader that, in the United States, hate speech is legal. “Here in America, we ensure cartoonists’ freedom to skewer hypocritical politicians or antagonize interest groups by guaranteeing their right to irritate or offend. And if they cross the line into the realm of tastelessness, then the natural forces of reason and taste usually serve as a counter.” But in Europe and elsewhere, hate speech has been prohibited by law and can be punished with jail sentences. 

But in Iran, many argue, a cartoon contest can hardly be seen as a way of promoting free speech. “These contests are not about promoting freedom of expression — freedom of expression is severely restricted in Iran,” said Steven Luckert  of the United States Holocaust Museum. 

Index on Censorship, which promotes freedom of expression and reports on censorship around the world, agrees the event has little to do with freedom of expression. “Everyone has a right to express themselves freely providing they are not directly inciting violence,” says Jodie Ginsberg, the organization’s chief executive. “This includes content that may be considered highly offensive to others — in this case the ridiculing of the Holocaust. Though the Iranian government has tried to distance itself from this event, it appears clear this exhibition is an avenue for state propaganda and should be viewed as such.”

But despite this given reason for the competition — a renewed threat of anti-Muslim sentiment — organizers have not done much to update their message, even if they do feel there is a new demand for the event and the propaganda around it. If they sense there is a new audience for the message — that the Holocaust is a myth, as the supreme leader has has said — they are not doing much to address them. The website presents the same information as it did in 2006, and the cartoons are still there for people to see. 

“One thing that has changed since 2006 is that the Iranian people have expressed quite an interest in learning more about the Holocaust,” says Tad Stahnke. Online civic education organizations have played a key role in getting this education out to Iranians and others around the world, including producing Persian-language ebooks and other educational materials. 

“The Iranian government would benefit by telling its own history about this,” says Steven Luckert. “The fact that you had an Iranian diplomat helping to rescue Jews; that there were Polish-Jewish refugees who had fled from the Nazis to the Soviet Union who ended up in Iran in the 1940s. Iran had a positive role during the war and that’s a story that should be told.” 

But, on the whole, civil society organizations in Iran have remained silent about the event. “That suggests that from the top, they’re sending the message that they’re not going to tolerate debate about this,” says Stahnke. “This is their line. It’s true that people who oppose that official line can suffer the consequences.” 

 

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