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8/19/06

Iran: Controversial Holocaust Cartoon Exhibition Opens

By Golnaz Esfandiari

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.

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.

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.


Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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