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Iranian Groups Challenge West With Holocaust-Denial Cartoon Contest

Under former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (in file photo), who called the Holocaust a “myth” and repeatedly denied its scale, numerous events and seminars questioning the Holocaust were held in Iran.

A cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad on the latest cover of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has been denounced in Iran, where two organizations say they are challenging the West’s commitment to free speech with a cartoon contest aimed at questioning the Holocaust.

The contest follows the release of the January 14 issue of Charlie Hebdo -- the first since the January 7 massacre at its Paris office that left a dozen dead -- that featured a cover showing Muhammad crying while holding a sign that reads: “Je Suis Charlie,” a rallying cry for the magazine’s supporters.

The contest organizers, House of Cartoon and the Sarcheshmeh Cultural Center, say that by questioning the Holocaust, which they don’t recognize as a historical fact, they aim to demonstrate that Western countries have double standards when it comes to freedom of expression.

“If freedom of expression knows no boundary, the issue of the Holocaust must also be critically and freely reviewed,” the Sarcheshmeh center said in its announcement of the contest last week.

Masud Shojaei Tabatabaei, the contest’s administrator who is also the head of House of Cartoon, was quoted by Iranian media as saying that the West is “sensitive” about the Holocaust.

Therefore, “we decided to use it to confront them,” he was quoted as saying.

Shojaei Tabatabaei added that the April 1 deadline for contestants to submit their entries was chosen intentionally.

“April 1 is called the day of ‘the big lie.’ The Holocaust is also a big lie [created] by the Zionists to occupy Palestine,” he said.

The contests’ organizers are offering cash prizes ranging from $5,000 to $12,000 for the top three entries.

It is the second time that a cartoon contest focused on Holocaust denial is being organized in Iran.

The first was held in 2006 after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Postens published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. That contest was condemned by the United States, Israel, and other countries.

‘Reprehensible And Condemnable’

Under former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who called the Holocaust a “myth” and repeatedly denied its scale, numerous events and seminars questioning the Holocaust were held in Iran.

Since self-proclaimed moderate President Hassan Rohani’s ascent in 2013, Tehran has toned down the anti-Israeli rhetoric in Iran that was common under Ahmadinejad.

In a 2013 interview with CNN, Rohani said the killings of Jews by the Nazis was “reprehensible and condemnable.” He also said that “when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect.”

That same year, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claimed on Twitter that Iran never denied the Holocaust. Zarif made the statement in an exchange with Christine Pelosi, the daughter of Democratic U.S. lawmaker Nancy Pelosi, the current minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Yet Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters in the Islamic republic, has publicly questioned the Holocaust and referred to it as “an event whose reality is uncertain.”

As a result, hard-liners feel free to question the Holocaust even if it is damaging to Iran’s international image and standing.

The director of the Sarcheshmeh center, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Reza Zaeri, was quoted by Iran’s official state news agency, IRNA, as saying that the Holocaust is the “Achilles heel” of the West.

“In this contest, we’re just raising a question. We’re not insulting anyone or making threats, even though we’re angry over the insult to Prophet Muhammad. But instead of resorting to violence, we are reacting through cultural [means],” he said.

The contest was announced some two weeks after an Iranian daily was shut down over its front page photograph of Hollywood actor George Clooney with the headline: “I Am Charlie, too.”

Iranian authorities also prevented journalists from holding a vigil in solidarity with victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo by Islamist militants.

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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.