Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Iran's Holocaust cartoon contest: free speech or incitement?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said it won't supress this expression of free speech just as the US won't censor a Ku Klux Klan demonstration. 

As Israel and the United States condemn Iran for allowing a Holocaust-themed cartoon festival to go on display in Tehran, the Iranian regime says it won't censor what it says is free speech.  

"Why does the United States have the Ku Klux Klan? Is the government of the United States responsible for the fact that there are racially hateful organizations in the United States?" Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, asked The New Yorker, when asked why the regime has permitted the contest.   

"Don't consider Iran a monolith," he said. "The Iranian government does not support, nor does it organize, any cartoon festival of the nature that you're talking about. When you stop your own organizations from doing things, then you can ask others to do likewise."  

Although Zarif said a non-governmental organization was responsible for the event, The Washington Post, in an editorial that criticised Zarif's comments, reported the government is backing it. The Iranian newspaper Hahmshari also helped organize the contest.  

Regardless, Israeli and American criticism and Zarif's reply raise what many see as double standards on each side when it comes to minimizing the Holocaust and drawing Muhammad, as the festival's origins trace back to Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo's Muhammad cartoons.   

This year is the second International Holocaust Cartoon Contest to be held in Tehran. The first came in response to the printing in 2005 by Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, of a series of cartoons that mocked Muslim prophet, igniting protests across the world.  

At the time, the US said that while it agreed that the cartoons were offensive to Muslims, it would also uphold freedom of speech. Iran, meanwhile, recalled its ambassador from Denmark, expelled Danish journalists and ordered contracts be canceled with countries in which media published the cartoons.

The newspaper said its intention was to challenge the West's concepts of free speech by "probing one of its taboos and challenging the accounts of the Holocaust," The New York Times reported, as well responding to the rebuke President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received when he said the Holocaust is a myth.  

"The idea of the contest is to expose what some here see as Western hypocrisy for condemning Ahmadinejad, while invoking freedom of expression when it comes to cartoons that many Muslims said were deeply offensive," wrote The New York Times.  

The winning cartoon depicted a construction crane, with an Israeli Star of David, building a wall around the contested Temple Mount in Jerusalem that resembles the West Bank barrier wall. On the wall in the cartoon is an image of the entrance to the Auschwitz–Birkenau extermination camp. Although Zarif said the organizers of this year's festival are different, their aim is the same – highlight the hypocrisy of Western free speech.   

"We do not mean to approve or deny the Holocaust," Masud Shojaei-Tabatabai, the event organizer, told the Tehran Times. "The main question is why is there no permission to talk about the Holocaust," adding their intention is to criticize Israel's treatment of Palestinians.  

In the contest are 150 cartoons from 50 countries, many of which portray Israel as using the Holocaust to conceal Palestinian suffering, Palestinian prisoners behind concentration camp-style wire fences, or caricatures of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that resemble Adolf Hilter, according to the Associated Press.  

As satirical as the entries may be, they also play into a widespread denial of the Holocaust in Iran and the Middle East, as well as into the belief that Israel is using the genocide as a pretext for its creation and to excuse its treatment of Palestinians, according to the Associated press.  

Iran has a long history of promoting groups committed to Israel's destruction, including Hezbollah and Hamas, and the Iranian regime routinely issues calls for Israel's annihilation. Mr. Netanyahu fears Iran's attempts to develop a nuclear weapon are to obliterate the Jewish state.  

The prime minister condemned the cartoon festival, and asked other countries to join him.  

"It denies the Holocaust, it mocks the Holocaust and it is also preparing another Holocaust," Netanyahu said at his weekly Cabinet meeting, the Associated Press reported. "I think that every country in the world must stand up and fully condemn this." 

Mark Toner, the State Department spokesman, said the United States shared Netanyahu's concern the contest could "be used as a platform for Holocaust denial and revisionism and egregiously anti-Semitic speech, as it has in the past." 

"Such offensive speech should be condemned by the authorities and civil society leaders rather than encouraged. We denounce any Holocaust denial and trivialization as inflammatory and abhorrent. It is insulting to the memory of the millions of people who died in the Holocaust," said Mr. Toner. 

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