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Iran: Controversial Holocaust Cartoon Exhibition Opens

A woman at the Holocaust cartoon exhibition in Tehran on August 14 (AFP) PRAGUE, August 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Governments around the world, Jewish groups, and many politicians have condemned an international cartoon contest on the Holocaust, which opened as an exhibition on August 14 in Tehran.

The exhibition displays 204 cartoons by cartoonists from countries including Iran, the United States, Turkey, Indonesia, and Brazil.

Some of the cartoons are critical of European laws that make Holocaust denial a crime. Others lampoon U.S. support for Israel.

The head of Iran's Cartoon House and the chairman of the contest committee says the contest challenges "European taboos" about discussing and questioning the Holocaust.

Questionable Motives

Nikahang Kowsar is the best-known Iranian cartoonist. He was jailed in Iran because of his work and now lives in exile in Canada.

He believes the exhibition is a political action by Iran against Israel.

"The quality of the cartoons is average; some are good and some are weak but I can't really give an opinion from a distance because I have not seen all of them," he said. "I can say that many of the participants' views on this issue are based on Iranian government propaganda. This is, in a way, disrespect to the survivors of the [Holocaust] and those who suffered during World War II. I don't think it's very humane to use this tool to loathe Israel or to question the legitimacy of the Israeli regime."

Revenge For Muhammad Cartoons?

The contest was announced in February as a response to the outrage caused among Muslims by last year's publications of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by a Danish newspaper.

The announcement of the competition drew criticism and condemnation from a number of countries, including the United States and Germany.

Some described it as an extension of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's anti-Israeli rhetoric.

Ahmadinejad has called for the relocation of Israel to Europe or Alaska and described the Holocaust -- in which millions of Jews were killed -- as a "myth."

His comments caused an international storm of protest.

Condemnation From All Corners

The opening of the contest exhibition on the Holocaust on August 14 has also brought criticism.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center has called for a "swift condemnation" by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

The Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism, condemned the exhibition as "outrageous, hateful, and cynical," and said it derides the Holocaust.

Iranians protesting against the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in Tehran in February (epa)

Officials at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, said the exhibition in a country that has nuclear aspirations and whose president has made what they described as "genocidal comments about Israel" should be a "flashing red light signaling danger" to the world.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said the exhibition was intended to mock the Holocaust and to trivialize anti-Semitism under the false pretext of art and freedom of speech.

In Russia, several human rights organizations have warned that the exhibition could provoke Islamophobia and they called on authorities to close the exhibition and end the contest.

Konstantin Kosachov, a Russian Duma deputy and the head of its international affairs committee, called Iran's decision to launch the competition "unacceptable," and said Iranian officials have pitted themselves against the civilized world.

Freedom Of Speech

However, contest organizers have defended the contest and claim they are testing the West's commitment to freedom of speech.

Masud Shojai-Tabatabai -- the head of Iran's Cartoon House and the chairman of the contest committee -- has said the contest challenges "European taboos" about discussing and questioning the Holocaust.

Shojai-Tabatabai is quoted by Iranian news agencies as saying that in addition to what he sees as Israel's "military failure" in Lebanon, the Jewish state has received a hard "slap" by artists worldwide in the form of the cartoon contest.

Some observers, however, believe the contest could have negative consequences for Iran.

Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, tells RFE/RL the exhibition doesn't improve Tehran's international image.

Hurting The Cause?

"In fact, the only result of such an exhibition is that it plays into the hands of the enemies and those who are opposed to the Islamic republic in the West," he said.

Zibakalam adds that launching a cartoon contest on the Holocaust is not a proper response to the publishing of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.

"There is a saying in English: two wrongs does not make a right. In other words, if someone insults what is sacred for us, if we retaliate and say now we are going to insult what is taboo for you so that you understand the meaning of insulting -- this, in my opinion, is not a correct approach. It leads to the further spread of malice and hatred instead of limiting it."

The cartoonist Kowsar also believes that the organizing of an exhibition on the Holocaust is not the right approach.
He tells RFE/RL that the move could damage the independence of Iranian cartoonists.

"Iran has, in the last two decades, made significant progress in this area, maybe mainly due to apolitical works that were sent by Iranian cartoonists to international contests; they have received good prizes," he said. "Entering [a contest about] a political issue that is very much [supported by the government] will not be a good signal in the long-term. It brings questions to the world's cartoonist community about the independence of Iranian cartoonists."

Kowsar says some Iranian cartoonists were reportedly under pressure to participate in the contest.

The exhibition is scheduled to run until September 13. The artists of the three top cartoons are due to receive cash prizes of $12,000, $8,000, and $5,000, respectively.

The Cartoon Controversy

The Cartoon Controversy

Islamabad residents protesting against the Prophet Muhammad cartoons on February 15 (epa)

An Unfolding Conflict

19 February 2006: A full-page apology by "Jyllands-Posten," dated 5 February, appears in papers in Saudi Arabia. Churches in Libya, Nigeria, and Pakistan are attacked, as too is the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia.

18 February: Forty-five die in Nigeria as churches, hotels, and shops are torched in a predominantly Muslim northern state. Roberto Calderoli resigns from the Italian cabinet after being blamed for riots in Libya that ended with the destruction of the Italian Embassy and the loss of 10 lives. The Libyan interior minister and local police chiefs are sacked for using disproportionate force to quell the riots.

17 February: Ten Libyan protestors are killed during a demonstration that culminates with the burning of the Italian Embassy in Tripoli. Protestors link the demonstrations to the decision of an Italian minister to wear T-shirts showing the cartoons.

16 February: The Russian media watchdog pledges to take a tough line against any organization accused of "insulting religious feelings."

15 February: The Danish government says the Iraqi government wants Danish troops to remain. A far-right Italian minister, Roberto Calderoli, says he plans to wear T-shirts emblazoned with some of the "Jyllands-Posten" cartoons. In Pakistan, three more protestors are killed, one in Lahore and two in Peshawar, as tens of thousands demonstrate.

14 February: Pakistani police shoot dead two protesters in Lahore. In Iran, crowds attack the British and German embassies. Political leaders in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah call for Danish troops to leave the country. In Israel, a cartoonist launches a competition for the best anti-Semitic cartoons by Jews themselves. In Europe, the Portugese president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, promises support for Denmark and the democratic system in a dispute that reminds him of his country's dictatorial past.

13 February: A leading Iranian newspaper, "Hamshahri," invites cartoons about the Holocaust in a competition aimed at testing the limits of free speech in the West.

12 February: Intelligence reports suggest Danes in Indonesia are under threat. Denmark urges its nationals to leave the country. It had previously made similar appeals to Danes in many Muslim countries.

10 February: Thousands of Malayans protest, as Western and Muslim political, cultural, and religious leaders gather to discuss differences between the Western and Muslim worlds.

9 February: The Swedish government forces offline a website that asked readers to submit their own cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

8 February: Security forces open fire on protestors in the Afghan city of Qalat, killing four, on a day of angry and sometimes violent scenes around the world. Washington accuses the Syrian and Iranian governments of inciting violence.

7 February: Iran's largest newspaper invites cartoons of the Holocaust, saying it wants to test the limits of Western freedom of expression.

6 February: Widespread unrest over the cartoons reported in Afghanistan. One person was reported killed and four wounded in Laghman Province.

6 February: UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expresses "distress" over the publication of the cartoons, but condemns the violent reactions in the Muslim world.

5 February: The Danish Consulate in Beirut, Lebanon, is torched.

4 February: Mobs burn the Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Chilean embassies in Syria. Protests in Denmark turn violent.

1 February: Papers in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain run reprints of the cartoons in a show of solidarity.

30 January: The EU says it will take World Trade Organization (WTO) action if the boycott persists. Several Islamic groups, including Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, call for a worldwide boycott of Danish products. Masked gunmen in storm EU office in Gaza. The Danish paper apologizes.

29 January: "Jyllands-Posten" prints a statement in Arabic saying the drawings were published in line with freedom of expression and not a campaign against Islam. Palestinians burn Danish flags and Libya announces it will close its embassy in Denmark.

28 January: The Danish company Arla places advertisements in Middle Eastern newspapers to try to stop boycott of its products.

27 January: Thousands denounce the cartoons during Friday prayers in Iraq.

26 January: Saudi Arabia recalls its ambassador to Denmark and initiates a boycott of Danish goods.

10 January 2006: The cartoons are reprinted by the Norwegian newspaper "Magazinet."

14 November: Jamaat-e-Islami, a Pakistan-based group, protests in Islamabad.

20 October: Ambassadors of 10 Muslim countries complain to Danish Prime Minister. "Jyllands-Posten" reports that illustrators have received death threats.

30 September 2005: The Danish newspaper "Jyllands-Posten" publishes 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

(compiled by RFE/RL)

See also:

Calming The Storm

Former Jailed Iranian Cartoonist Discusses Muhammad Caricatures

Western, Eastern Media View Cartoon Crisis As Test Of Values

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.