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    Middle East
     Sep 20, 2007
US cartoon no joke to Iranians
By Omid Memarian

BERKELEY, California - As the war of words between Western nations led by United States and Iran's hardline government over its nuclear program has escalated in the past few weeks, a cartoon published on the editorial page of the Columbus Dispatch on September 4 has created a furor among Iranians worldwide.

The cartoon by Michael Ramirez portrays Iran as a sewer with the word "extremism" on its lid. Cockroaches are shown spreading out across the region and infecting Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq

and Afghanistan with "extremism".

Ramirez is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Los Angeles Times editorial cartoonist who left the paper involuntarily as part of restructuring. He is well known for a series of provocative cartoons defending the administration of US President George W Bush and its "war on terror". Ramirez' syndicated work has a subscription/distribution base of about 400 publications through Copley News Service.

The cockroach cartoon has not provoked the violent response that followed the publication by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, which many Muslims perceived as offensive and blasphemous.

But for many Iranians, it is a visualization of a new propaganda war that echoes the way a large part of the US media backed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ali Sheikholeslami, executive director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, said the cartoon perpetuates the dehumanization of Iranians, and Muslims in general.

"Comparing people to cockroaches happened during the Nazi era and before the Holocaust in Germany," he said. "A similar pattern happened in Rwanda before the genocide in 1994 - a comparison between Tutsis and cockroaches.

"When you dehumanize a group of people, then you can nuke them, you can kill them, you can destroy them, and unfortunately that process is moving [forward]."

He believes the cartoon is a continuation of the theme shown in a special program aired by the Fox network on Iran a few months ago. That documentary, Obsession: Radical Islam's War against the West, was promoted by a group called HonestReporting, which monitors the media for allegedly negative portrayals of Israel.

"It's very sad that American media have come down to such a level and there is no public outcry of the American public against these types of cartoons or this type of dehumanization of an entire nation," Sheikholeslami said.

Nikahang Kowsar, an award-winning Iranian editorial cartoonist based in Toronto, said: "I can't agree with [Ramirez'] ideas. His cartoons are mostly in favor of the Bush administration. He reminds me of the Russian cartoonists who were loved by the Kremlin.

"Although we all exaggerate objects in our cartoons to give a better sense to our subjects, showing the whole country as a sewer didn't amuse me. I interviewed Mike Ramirez for my radio show and asked him what he meant," Kowsar said in a phone interview. "Mike said that he did not mean to harm Iranians but just wanted to point out the danger of extremism and its roots in the Middle East, related to Iran's government.

"Let's say he's right. But didn't he think that his drawing was somehow insulting the whole nation? Many of us have nothing in common with the Iranian government, but we love our land, our origin and our people," said Kowsar. "I see it as unfair journalism that is in favor of power, lacking balance and part of the neo-con propaganda against Iran."

Ramirez' portrayal of Iranians as cockroaches reminds Kowsar of the racial profiling that has taken place in the United States since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "If we go back to [Egyptian-American scholar and activist] Edward Said's concept of 'Orientalism', we are all the 'Others' that have to be dealt with in a different way."

Several calls to Ramirez for comment were not returned.

Hans-Henrik Holm, a professor of world politics at the Danish School of Journalism and adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley, noted that "there is no law against stereotyping".

"However, if the cartoon is seen as a statement against a country or its people, then of course it is directed against a group of people, not against the policies, and goes beyond the stereotyping and becomes hateful and hate speech," he said. "The problem with this cartoon is that you can read it in both ways. I don't know the cartoonist, but I would doubt that he is thinking of this as directed towards Iranians as a people. But many Iranians see it that way."

After Ramirez' cartoon appeared, Dokhi Fassihian, a board member of the National Iranian American Council, sent a protest letter to the editors of the Dispatch, based in the US state of Ohio.

"The bigotry demonstrated by the publication of this cartoon not only betrays the mission to inform your readers, it endangers our country at an extremely sensitive time in our nation's history by serving to further divide us at home and thrust us toward further conflict abroad," she wrote.

Fassihian said that by publishing "this shocking cartoon", the editors of the Columbus Dispatch insulted and propagated hate against a large segment of the US population that traces its roots to an ancient and proud civilization.

"Iranian-Americans have been living in the United States since as early as the 1950s and 1960s, first as students, then as immigrants seeking a better life," Fassihian wrote in her letter. "In a short period of time, they have established themselves to be one of the most successful and highly contributing immigrant groups that have recently settled in this country."

In an entry on Iranian.com, a popular website, Tinoush, a blogger, commented on the cartoon's subtext. "What do you do with a cockroach? You kill it, most likely. How guilty do you feel if someone dropped one of those exterminator bombs in a hole infested with roaches? Not really guilty; you may even thank them or at least feel relieved. Well, Iranians are now cockroaches and Iran is a roach-infested sewer."

Holm said his main problem with the cartoon is that the name of the country as a whole is on the sewer. "If the cartoonist put the name of the president of Iran or something which identifies with ... Iranian foreign policy, the drawing would have been more clear on this point," he said.

"It can easily be misunderstood, and in that sense the cartoonist has failed because [he] has wanted to be critical. A good cartoon should make a political statement without stereotyping. The more a cartoonist reverts to stereotyping, the greater the risk is to be misunderstood and be hurtful to the people," said Holm.

The five permanent United Nations Security Council members - the United Kingdom, China, France, Russia and the United States - plus Germany are due to meet in Washington on Friday to discuss a draft UN resolution on sanctions against Iran. Tehran has said any new sanctions will lead it to review its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency - a step that could put an end to the diplomacy between Iran and the West that has been gradually going forward over the past few weeks.

Omid Memarian is a peace fellow at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has won several awards, including Human Rights Watch's highest honor in 2005, the Human Rights Defender Award.

(Inter Press Service)

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