Cartoon time (again) August 23, 2006Posted 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).