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.
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
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
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.
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
"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."
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
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."
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
"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
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
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,"
"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
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.
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.