In the center of the German capital of Berlin sits a 19,000 sq m monument, covered with some 2,711 concrete slabs. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, better known simply as the Holocaust Memorial, is one of the country’s many signs of remembrance of the six million Jews and countless others whose lives were extinguished at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War.
The memorial is also a reminder of the infamous “final solution”: Hitler and his henchmen decided definitively to try to wipe out Jews from the face of the earth, hoping none would remain to testify about what they had done. But many survived, and told the world their stories.
Germany has recognized its responsibility for these crimes against humanity. The Holocaust Memorial bears witness to the country’s attempts to atone for the actions of its past rulers, and to safeguard the collective memory of their victims. And yet Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, and his followers have continuously and energetically tried to decry the Holocaust’s atrocities as “a myth”.
The latest attempt came late last month, in response to the beheading of a teacher by an extremist Muslim in Paris for sharing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in class. Khamenei seized the opportunity not merely to question the principle of freedom of expression, but to make another jab at the provable veracity of the Holocaust. How, he demanded to know, could France defend freedom of expression when it treats Holocaust denial as a criminal offense?
Notably during this diatribe, Khamenei did not condemn the beheading of the French history teacher, Samuel Paty. No wonder. For the past 30 years, under his leadership, the censorship of free expression has tightened more and more, like a noose around Iran’s neck. Drawing cartoons of the Supreme Leader, the Prophet, the Imams and other Shia figures may lead not just to imprisonment but to the gallows.
Back in 1831, the cartoonist Honoré Daumier was the first person known to be imprisoned for visual satire – for depicting the face of French King Louis Philippe like a pear. The French have come a long way since then. But Iran, tragically and under Khamenei’s supervision, has moved steadily backward.
After the murder of Samuel Paty in Paris on October 16, French president Emmanuel Macron hailed the history teacher as "a quiet hero" and "the face of the Republic" for demonstrating the value of freedom of expression in class. At a televised funeral address on October 21, Macron reiterated that France “will not give up our cartoons”. Paty was buried with France’s highest honor, the Légion d'honneur.
In line with many Islamist organizations around the world, senior officials in Iran and the IRGC seized on the comments. Foreign minister Javad Zarif accused Macron of fueling extremism while state-controlled newspapers subtly depicted President Macron as Lucifer.
Not one to be left behind, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a message to “the French youth” in which calling the French president's defense of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons a "stupid act" and an "insult" to those who had voted for him. "Ask your president why he supports insulting God's messenger in the name of freedom of expression,” he wrote. “Does freedom of expression mean insulting, especially a sacred person?"
Then he went on: "The next question to ask is, why is it a crime [in France] to raise doubts about the Holocaust? Why should anyone who writes about such doubts be imprisoned, when insulting the Prophet is allowed?"
Two days after this missive was published, Hossein Shariatmadari, the Khamenei-appointed managing editor of the ultraconservative Iranian daily Kayhan, dedicated his column to reiterating Khamenei’s “question”. “The Holocaust is a big historical lie,” he wrote in conclusion, “and there is plenty of incontrovertible evidence that it was a myth made up by the Zionists.”
Why did Khamenei revert to Holocaust denial yet again, in the aftermath of a tragedy? And across his 30-year rule, how much precedent is there for the Supreme Leader making pronouncements like this during debates – supposedly – on freedom of expression?
The “Diabolical” Cartoons
Back in February 2007, in the aftermath of a Danish newspaper publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Khamenei used a meeting with Iranian Air Force servicemen to abruptly call the Holocaust “a myth”.
“Western countries allow no freedom of expression, which they claim to advocate, with regard to the myth of the massacre of Jews known as the Holocaust,” he said. “Nobody in the West enjoys the freedom of expression to deny it or raise doubts about it.
“However, affronting the sacred entity of 1.5 billion Muslims is permissible in the West and benefits from ‘freedom of expression’! The issue is not that some cartoonist has been paid by the Zionists to draw cartoons in order to further the diabolic goals of the Zionists. The issue is that European politicians are defending and endorsing this nasty and outrageous behavior, and trying to portray it as permissible on the pretext of freedom of expression!”
He concluded: “I guess the whole affair is a premeditated Zionist plot aimed at pitting Muslims and Christians against each other, since it is of great significance to the Zionists to pit the great Islamic community throughout the world against Christians.”
From the first decade that followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Khamenei has been trying to proffer an “Islamic” definition of freedom of expression. In 1987, at a Friday sermon while serving as president of the Islamic Republic, he declared that free expression must be in service of the “right” ideas, otherwise “some will exploit this freedom to [promote] deviant thoughts and this is forbidden.”
Just two weeks after this announcement, at another Friday sermon, he took his definition further. “We cannot close our eyes and say that in Islam any kind of the freedom of expression is allowed,” he said.
Praising Holocaust Cartoons While Failing to Condemn Terror
Khamenei continued to seize every opportunity to cast doubt on the Holocaust after he became Supreme Leader. In addition, he sponsored new projects that aimed to undercut the gravity of the Nazis’ crimes, like the infamous Holocaust Cartoons Exhibition in Iran.
After the terror attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, 2015, in which 12 journalists and cartoonists were killed, Khamenei sent a message to European and American youths that did not condemn the atrocities of what became known as “Black Wednesday”. Instead, the Supreme Leader accused the “global power structure” of trying to “smear the image of Islam”.
Interview With an Exiled Cartoonist: Our Targets are Ideologies and Cultures, not Individuals
“Cartoons are created by cartoonists, and without freedom of expression they cannot exist,” says Kianoush Ramezani, an Iranian cartoonist who lives in exile in France and regularly satirizes the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran in his own work.
“The targets of a professional and independent cartoonist are not the personalities, but the specific ideologies or cultures that they represent. They are public figures and, from a historical point of view, they belong to everybody. The French struggled for centuries to achieve secularism and to enact laws based on it. Many of them were imprisoned and killed.”
In the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices, Ramezani launched United Sketches, an international campaign for freedom of expression that supports imprisoned, threatened and exiled cartoonists. In a short interview for this report, he shared his thoughts with IranWire on the role of cartoons, freedom of expression, and Khamenei’s stance on the Holocaust.
IranWire: Why do cartoons enrage extremist Muslims so much that they are able to kill over it?
Cartoons are created by an artist for whom free of expression is the main tool of his trade. I have worked under the government of the Islamic Republic and I know what the consequences of drawing cartoons are. But Western societies have no notion of such a situation.
In France, insulting the sacred is no crime. But in the Islamic Republic it can be punished even by death. Whether we like it or not, all prophets, including the prophet of Islam, have been cartoonists’ stock-in-trade for creating their art. By using talked-about religious, political and historical figures, they freely express their views or criticisms.
The difficulty is to make Western societies understand that how life under an Islamist dictatorship is, and how this issue is different from “respecting cultures”. Islam is not a culture, but a religion, like Christianity or Judaism. We cannot accept restrictions [on free expression in the West] in the name of respecting “cultures”; in different countries Muslims worship differently and live different lifestyles.
We also cannot ignore violence. We cannot ignore the violent and anti-human side of Islamic extremism. We cannot ignore why a cartoonist is attacked and killed for portraying a prophet who belongs to the whole world.
IranWire: Two articles in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights clearly state that freedom of expression cannot justify hate speech and inciting violence. Some say the publication of these cartoons incites and enrages extremist Muslims.
Freedom of expression does not justify spreading hatred and inciting violence, and cartoonists are not in the business of targeting individual figures. If a cartoonist engages in activism, they want to desacralize, like those who continuously draw cartoons against dictatorships.
My goal in focusing on Khamenei in my work is the same. Of course, breaking taboos is not easy, and I myself have hesitated for months over whether or not to draw a given cartoon. Questioning sacred figures is something that took the French centuries to achieve. They do not consider it a crime. But the Islamic Republic would be undermining itself it agrees to it.
IranWire: Why do Khamenei his supporters compare Holocaust denial to cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad?
Designating Holocaust denial a criminal offense does not mean that the Holocaust itself is sacred. The Holocaust is a historical event, during which millions were killed because they were Jewish, and it is supported by historical evidence. This is like denying the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s and, for example, saying that the families of those killed in the war were all swindlers. Holocaust denial is not an appropriate comparison.
While insulting the sacred in France is permitted, questioning the Holocaust as “a crime against humanity” is against the Gayssot Law, which was enacted in France in 1990. It is aimed at preventing a repeat of these crimes, based on evidence presented at the International Military Tribunals at Nuremberg in 1945-46, which convicted Nazi leaders after WWII.
Khamenei and his supporters use the law as an excuse, and Khamenei questioned the Gayssot Law the same year it was enacted. What he said was: “These American lapdogs, these Israelis who are worse than animals, they are responsible for so many scandalous tragedies in occupied Palestine but nobody in the world pays any attention to them because the other side is Muslim. This is the same world that 30 or 40 years after the fall of Hitler’s Germany started going after those who, it was said, had killed or tortured a number of Jews. Although, as has been said, perhaps they were fewer in number than what was [claimed].”
IranWire: What does ‘Islamic Freedom of Expression’ Mean?
Since his presidency, Khamenei has regularly come up with new examples to define what “Islamic freedom of expression” is and what it is not. In 1987 Khamenei said that “government secrets” cannot be disclosed and are not covered by the freedom of expression. He also said that disclosing these secrets was the same as “spying for the enemy.” In 1998, at a meeting with a group of Revolutionary Guard commanders, he said that it is Islam that defines the boundaries of the freedom of expression and, therefore, if it hurts Islam it is “treason”.
Such statements might be inspiring to Khamenei’s acolytes, but perhaps he is afraid that his turn might come — a day of reckoning when the nobody in the world can deny the crimes of the Islamic Republic, and of Khamenei himself, against humanity. This is a war in which Ali Khamenei is fighting for the other side, a war to extinguish freedom of expression.
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