Tehran’s attitude to political cartoons is downright schizophrenic: the regime offers artists who want to draw cartoons that are favorable to the regime not only freedom but money/prizes ($12,000 for first prize in the holocaust contest), enlisting, in fact, the talents of these artists into their propaganda machine.
On the other hand, the regime offers prison and/or death for those who dare to draw cartoons that are critical of the regime.
Tehran promotes artistic freedom
Iran Cartoon is a website of political cartoons from around the world. The site is sponsored by the municipality of Tehran and “works for the recognition, upgrading and propagation of cartoon and caricature in Iran and World, so as to encourage and support Iranian and Foreign cartoonists and fans and introduce their works both in Iran and the world“. It’s worth visiting since the administrators of the site are very thorough in gathering political cartoons on many subjects but don’t expect to find any cartoon that criticizes Iran or Islam in any way.
The sites holds contests regularly and the themes mirror the propaganda of the regime:
International Yemen Cartoon & Caricature Contest 2015: Theme – “1/ Silence Of Media And International Associations, 2/ Genocide And Killing Baby In Yemen, 3/ Treason And Accompany Of Arab League” – Anti-Saudi Arabia, Anti-Arab League.
The Second International Holocaust Cartoon Contest – 2015: Theme – “We Don’t deny Holocaust, We are not Antisemite, But we have 3 important questions about Holocaust: 1-If West doesn’t know any limit for freedom of expression, why they don’t permit the researchers and historians to consider Holocaust? 2-Why should Palestinian oppressed people compensate Holocaust. The people that didn’t have any role in world war II? 3- We are worried about another Holocausts such as Atomic Holocaust( Holocaust in Iraq, Syria and Gaza)”. Anti-UN, Anti-US, Anti-Israel.
International Daesh Cartoon & Caricature Contest 2015: Theme: “While the arrogant government with their unwavering support could bring such savaged group to the Islamic world to kill and murder many innocent Muslims and on the other hand in order to deceive world opinion chants the slogan against this group of mercenaries, any kind of help is worthy to uncover them. And in every possible way reveal the evil face of their supporters (Western- Hebrew-Arabs).” Anti-DAESH, Anti-US, Anti-Israel.
Many artists apply to these contests and by doing so, help promote the regime’s agenda. Whether one agrees with the agenda or not, the pieces of art are sometimes piercing and always thought provoking and, as such, are worthy of the title “art”.
Tehran jails artists
Athena Farghadani is an Iranian artist and she has been sent to 12 years and nine months in jail for caricaturing the members of the Iranian parliament as animals. Through her art, she was criticizing the Iranian parliament’s vote to restrict birth control (as part of Khamenei’s plan to increase birth rates).
Obviously, the regime didn’t find any of this funny and within days of posting her art on facebook, she was brought in for “questioning” in January 2015 and was subsequently tried and convicted for “propaganda against the regime, insult to representatives of the parliament by means of cartoons and insult to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the three branches of government during the course of interrogation“… 12 years and nine months for a cartoon.
She probably made matters worse for herself when she bravely wrote an open letter to none other than Khamenei himself who, in her words “for 25-some-odd years has not only preserved and protected his own position, but who also sits as the head of all three branches of government…who these past years has been both a judge and a lawmaker, both a president of the country and head of a non-representative parliament of Iran”.
The letter is a plea for freedom in general: “What you call an “insult to representatives of the parliament by means of cartoons” I consider to be an artistic expression of the home of our nation (parliament), which our nation does not deserve!” And what you refer to as an “insult to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the three branches of government during the course of interrogation” I consider to be a firm response to the arrogance of your armed forces about the so-called “security” and “power” that causes them to “entrap” provocateurs like me.”
Athena’s crime was to believe that the vote that Rouhani got from the Iranian people meant giving Rouhani’s promises a chance. Rouhani promised more human rights, more equality, more freedom of expression. To be honest, Rouhani continues to promise but either his hands are tied or he is paying lip-service to the people in the West he wants to influence into signing a treaty which will lift all the sanctions.
Tehran supports killing artists
And of course, one should never forget the murders of the artists at Charlie Hebdo whose crime was to caricaturize the prophet Muhammad. Although Tehran was not directly involved in the shooting, the leaders in Tehran did not hide their support of the act itself:
- Khamenei’s right hand man Velayati: “it should be a warning for those Western and regional countries that have supported terrorists directly or indirectly“.
- Iranian spokeswoman Afham: “condemned as unacceptable any form of misuse of freedom of speech, intellectual radicalism, and character assassination against personalities that are revered by religions and nations“
- Top Iranian cleric Khatami: the “US dollars, UK pounds and the European Union (EU)’s euros are to blame for these killings“
- Iranian parliament speaker Larijani: “They (“foreign sponsors of terrorism) created numerous security problems by their presence in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Syria). Look what has happened now; everything is messed up in France and no one has security“.
- Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif: “We believe that sanctities (no caricatures of Mohammad) need to be respected and unless we learn to respect one another it will be very difficult in a world of different views and different cultures and civilizations”.
Instead of “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), the overwhelming response in Tehran was “J’Accuse Charlie” (I accuse Charlie), turning the victims into the criminals.
The freedom that artists have in portraying their beliefs and thoughts are limited to whether they are supportive of the regime or critical of it. Any art that is critical of the regime or of Islam is liable to lead its maker to jail or to the grave. And yet, Tehran promotes cartoon contests under the guise of artistic freedom.