The Hypocrisy of Iran's Holocaust Cartoon Contest

The regime's response to Charlie Hebdo was intended to highlight Western hypocrisy regarding free speech. Instead, it casts a spotlight on the growing problem of anti-Semitism.

Afghans hold a poster of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo's new editor-in-chief Gerard Briard during a demonstration against its cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, in Kabul, January 27, 2015. (Omar Sabhani/Reuters)

Charlie Hebdo's decision to put a drawing of a weeping Muhammad on the cover of its latest issue, the edition published after gunmen massacred 12 at its Paris office, has sparked widespread protests throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. But two cultural institutions within Iran have expressed their displeasure in a different way: The House of Cartoon and the Sarcheshmeh Cultural Complex announced last Saturday that they will hold an international cartoon contest centered on the theme of Holocaust denial. The winner of the contest will receive a cash prize and will have his work displayed in the Palestine Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran.

This isn't the first time Iran has held this contest. After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Postens published cartoons depicting Muhammad in 2005, the two organizers held the first International Holocaust Cartoon contest, attracting over 1,200 submissions from around the world. The entries selected for recognition took two basic editorial positions. The first was that the Holocaust didn't happen at all. And the second was that even if it did, Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is hardly better. The first prize went to a Moroccan cartoonist named Abdellah Derkaoui, whose drawing featured an Israeli crane constructing a wall around Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock. A concentration camp is painted on the wall.

The purpose of the contest, according to the organizers, is to highlight Western hypocrisy over the value of free speech. Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, people around the world expressed solidarity through the ubiquitous "Je Suis Charlie" slogan, indicating a defense of the newspaper's right to satirize religious piety. Critics of the newspaper, though, pointed out that Muslims weren't offended by Charlie Hebdo's irreverent speech. They were instead insulted that white Parisians mocked religious values held by France's immigrant population, a group that has long been marginalized within French society. And according to Massoud Shojai Tabatabai, one of the organizers of the 2006 conference, the Western commitment to free speech doesn't always include denying the Holocaust, which remains a criminal offense in countries like Austria.

"Why is it acceptable in Western countries to draw any caricature of the Prophet Mohammed, yet as soon as there are any questions or doubts raised about the Holocaust, fines and jail sentences are handed down?" Tabatabai told The Observer that year.

But there's a difference between drawing an offensive caricature and participating in the negation of an established historical fact. And while Holocaust denial didn't begin with Iran, Tehran's contribution to the practice has been especially shameful. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president from 2005 to 2013, claimed that the Holocaust was a "myth" designed to protect the existence of Israel. In 2006, the year of the first cartoon contest, Tehran sponsored an international conference to "review the global vision of the Holocaust." Ahmadinejad's successor Hassan Rouhani acknowledged and condemned the Holocaust upon taking office in 2013, but neither he nor his suave, U.S.-educated Foreign Minister Mohammed Javed Zarif have expressed regret for their country's role in its denial. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader and the man who controls the country's foreign policy, has called the Holocaust a "distorted historical event."

Iran's Holocaust cartoon contest arrives amid worsening anti-Semitism across Europe. In France, Jewish people comprise 1 percent of the population—yet they are the victims of almost 40 percent of all hate crimes in the country. Jewish community leaders say that nearly 100,000 French Jews have left the country since 2010, and many more have made plans to follow them. Two days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks triggered international outrage over terror attacks on free speech, Amedy Coulibaly took several hostages inside a Jewish grocery store. Six died, Coulibaly included, when police raided the store.

The Iranians who organized the cartoon contest believe that shunning Holocaust denial means Western commitment to free speech is shallow. The real hypocrisy, though, is that by the deliberate offense of the world's Jewish population, the cartoonists are mocking a group that in many ways is as threatened and marginalized as they are.