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Cartoon time (again) August 23, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Middle East.

Forget the Edinburgh Fringe, the Kilkenny Arts Festival or the Yeats Summer School.  The hot ticket that’s got all the bigwigs chattering has got to be the Holocaust cartoons exhibition underway in Tehran.  You have to hand it to Iran; just when you think the rhetoric can’t get any more bizarre, Ahmadinejad’s regime never fails to step it up a notch.

Let’s get the pleasantries out of the way first.  Yes, there is a double standard in some Western European countries when it comes to freedom of expression.  Yes, the imprisonment of David Irving in Austria for Holocaust denial was perfectly timed for those who wanted to argue that the publication of the Mohammed cartoons in Jyllands-Posten represented typical Western  perfidy – defending ‘to the death’ (to use the well-worn cliché) the speech of those attacking Muslims, and imposing criminal sanctions against those who offend other protected groups or beliefs.

It seems obvious, to my mind anyway, that laws against Holocaust denial, however well intentioned, represent an absolute affront to the principle of freedom of expression and should have no place in the legal system of any liberal, democratic state.  I’ll put my hands up, however, and admit that that’s easy for me to say, as I don’t live in a country with a legacy of Nazi occupation, or even any serious threat from the  far-right, just as it’s easy for me to be quite uncomfortable with laws (which are on the statute books in Ireland) on incitement to racial hatred when I’m never going to need their protection.

Something odd the Holocaust exhibition has sparked off, though, is the way some of the contributors to Harry’s Place, and elsewhere, seem to be rowing back on their supposedly absolute commitment to free speech in the face of protests about the Danish cartoons and seem to think that the content of what’s on display in Tehran should be a matter of debate.  One can, of course, absolutely support the right of Jyllands-Posten to  publish their cartoons and at the same time argue that they shouldn’t exercise that right – and, incidentally, apply the same principle to a picture of Hitler in bed with Anne Frank.

The Harry’s Place crew (that is, those who leave comments, rather than just the bloggers themselves), though, appears to be up in arms at any attempt to draw an equivalence between the two sets of pictures.  From what I can see, though, the motives behind each are quite similar.  Both were attempts to provoke and offend particular groups of people using the principle of freedom of expression as a cover.

Sure, if you like, you can argue that one set of cartoons is worse than the other, or that wider geo-political context means that the anti-Semitism displayed in Tehran is more dangerous than the anti-Islamic sentiment in the Danish paper.  But if you go down that road, it’s important to be aware that you’re no longer defending freedom of speech per se, only the freedom of some speech.  This rings a little hollow compared to a few months ago, when there were calls not just for the right to publish the cartoons to be respected, but supporting the publication itself.

Liberal hand-wringing aside, there’s still something grimly fascinating about the way the Tehran exhibition has been organised.  I can’t help but feel that I’m somehow missing something here.  What point do the organisers actually think they’re making?  Is it that people in the West are more sensitive about the Holocaust than they are about the representation of Mohammed? That’s hardly something that was ever in question in the first place (and, I’d argue, it’s probably quite healthy).

Are they arguing that Western societies limit freedom of speech as well? That’s certainly true. No society has absolute freedom of speech, so it’s always going to be relative. However, it could hardly be denied that the levels of freedom in Copenhagen, London or Tel Aviv compare somewhat favourably to the situation in Tehran. And it would be a little too obvious, if not entirely unfair, to raise the matter of the Satanic Verses.  But it’s interesting to see a profoundly illiberal regime (and don’t make the mistake of buying the line that this is an independent body.  The paper organising this exhibition is run by the municipality of Tehran, which in turn is run by the colleagues of the former mayor, Ahmadinejad) using the rhetoric of rights as long as it suits its own purpose.  A little like a Persian John Waters, perhaps.

Are they trying to show Western commentators to be hypocrites? If so, they seem to have failed.  For that argument to stand up, they’d have to defend those who have occupied Iranian embassies for allowing these pictures to be shown, or those who have marched carrying placards saying “Death to those who demean Auschwitz!”. And given that nothing of the sort has occurred, that line of argument comes to a dead end.

Indeed, the only sane reaction to this exhibition is to pretty much ignore it.  Either that, or the alternative Israeli competition inviting Jewish cartoonists to submit their own entries, arguing that no one should be able to laugh at Jews better than Jews themselves.

Unfortunately, most of the cartoons are pretty rubbish, and look like they were drawn by Napoleon Dynamite, but there are a few gems among the dross (watch out for the Elders of Zion reunion).


1. donagh - August 24, 2006

Wow, we were talking about the same thing on the same day. But, of course, I like your take on it better. The reaction of putting together the exhibition in Tehran seems kind of childish (you offend us, right then, we’ll offend you). But it’s a battle between the secular and the spiritual reflecting the difference in both societies. The taboo with Islam is the misrepresentation of a diety, while in the West it’s the misreprestation of the murder of six million Jews. People over a phantom.
You say “that laws against Holocaust denial, however well intentioned, represent an absolute affront to the principle of freedom of expression and should have no place in the legal system of any liberal, democratic state” but later point out that “No society has absolute freedom of speech, so it’s always going to be relative.” I’d say that it’s always going to be freedom of speech within reasonable democratic norms and that it shouldn’t be without checks and balances. Protecting citizens rights to question governmental authoriity while preventing propagandists clogging legitimate arenas for debate with lies and misinformation while hiding behind the biggest lie that ‘it all depends on your point of view’


2. strauss - August 25, 2006

“What point do the organisers actually think they’re making?”

I would say your reasons are probably two factors but surely annoying and offending Jews and the West is another reason. Also, it’s just another part of the ideology promotion that is a common goal of every self-respecting Fascist, Communist and Islamofascist regime. Interesting post btw.


3. Chad - August 26, 2006

Gosh, I’m sorry. But did you sanctimonious lightweights not actually notice the political content of many of the cartoons in the exhibit? That is, people abusing the fact of the Holocaust (hardly a new idea, see Norman Finkelstein) in order to justify their racist, fascist, colonial oppression of others. I thought this was some kind of Marxist/socialist site. I must be in the wrong place.


4. smiffy - August 27, 2006

Gosh. Thanks Chad. I suppose I never thought about it like that before. What an amazingly original point.

BTW, you may wish to check out this link:


which contains the following:

“Masoud Shojai, head of the country’s “Iran Cartoon” association and the fair organiser, said that “we staged this fair to explore the limits of freedom Westerners believe in”.

He said: “They can freely write anything they like about our prophet, but if one raises doubts about the Holocaust he is either fined or sent to prison.”

I suppose only sanctimonious lightweights take the organiser’s points at face value. Perhaps if I could learn a few more adjectives “racist, fascist, colonial etc etc etc”, it’d make my commentary as informed and incisive as yours.

I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at. I’ve read Finkelstein, and Peter Novick, whose book on the subject is much better, and I already know how the Holocaust has been used. But that doesn’t or shouldn’t make one blind to the actions of other regimes. Just because someone opposes Israeli military action in Lebanon or the Occupied Territories doesn’t mean that the “racist, fascist” views of the Holocaust-denying Iranian President should be treated with anything less than the contempt they deserve.

Sure, sometimes critics of Israel are unfairly labelled anti-Semitic. But sometimes anti-Semitism is simply anti-Semitism and it takes a stunningly blinkered view of world to fail to acknowledge that.

Still, thanks for the comment.


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