Thursday, September 20, 2007

Cockroach Cartoon Crossed the Line, Iranians Say

by Omid Memarian

As the war of words between Western nations led by United States and Iran's hardliner government over its nuclear programme has escalated in the last few weeks, a cartoon published on the editorial page of the Columbus Dispatch on Sep. 4 has created a furor amongst Iranians worldwide.

The cartoon by staff member Michael Ramirez portrayed 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 the restructuring. He is well-known for a series of provocative cartoons defending the George W. Bush administration and its "war on terror".

The cockroach cartoon has not provoked the violent response seen following the publication by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad which many people of Muslim faith perceived as offensive and blasphemous.

But for many Iranians, it is a visualisation of a new propaganda war that echoes the way a large part of the U.S. media backed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ali Sheikholeslami, executive director of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Northern California, told IPS that the cartoon perpetuates the dehumanisation 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 dehumanise 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 added.

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

"It's very sad that American media has 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 dehumanisation of an entire nation," Sheikholeslami added.

Nikahang Kowsar, an award-winning Iranian editorial cartoonist based in Toronto, told IPS: "I can't agree with [Ramirez's] ideas. His cartoons are mostly in favour 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," he said.

"I interviewed Mike Ramirez for my radio show and asked him what he meant," Kowsar told IPS 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 favour of power, lacking balance and part of the neocon propaganda against Iran."

Ramirez's portrayal of Iranians as cockroaches reminds Kowsar of the racial profiling that has taken place in the United States following the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks. "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 Berkeley University in California, 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 told IPS. "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's 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 U.S. 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 added that by publishing "this shocking cartoon", the editors of the Columbus Dispatch have insulted and propagated hate against a large segment of the U.S. population that traces its roots to an ancient and proud civilisation.

"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," Fasihian 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, 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 says 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 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 -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- plus Germany are due to meet to discuss a new draft U.N. resolution on sanctions against Iran in Washington on Friday. Iran has said any new sanctions will lead Tehran 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 last few weeks.

Omid Memarian is a peace fellow at Graduate School of Journalism at University of California, Berkeley. He has won several awards, including Human Rights Watch's highest honour in 2005, the Human Rights Defender Award.