A new cartoon by IranWire colleague Mana Neyestani appears in two frames. The first frame, which features the text “Germany, 1930s,” refers to the persecution of the Jews under Hitler. The second frame, with the text “Iran These Days,” is an adaptation of the first frame, and depicts the Islamic Republic’s persecution of the Baha’i religious minority — which faces harassment and imprisonment and bans from education. [Bahai’s] are often forced to leave their country.
When the cartoon was posted on Instagram, reactions, as expected, varied. Some criticized it and others referred to it simply as the truth. But a large number of people expressed praise and support for Hitler and the Nazis. “Granted, Hitler committed many crimes at the global level, but he was good for his own people,” read one comment. Other comments included “Personally, I love Hitler” and even “Heil Hitler!”
We usually don’t interview our colleagues, but in the wake of the controversy, IranWire decided to talk to Mana Neyestani.
Do you think these people really represent a social group? More than 70 years after the downfall of the Nazi regime and the revelations about crimes committed by them and their allies, why do you think there are still people who defend Hitler and the Nazis?
Today’s Iranians are highly suspicious, are terrified of being duped, are pessimistic and see an ulterior motive behind everything. In many instances they might actually be right, but this suspicion is not merely directed at reasonable and well-founded cases. Every conspiracy theory finds an audience because the audience cannot clearly see through the fog built around them.
But this is not unique to Iran. Lack of trust in the media combined with a sense of helplessness about solving ever-increasing economic, social and political problems, has helped to spread conspiracy theories around the world. But in Iran it is a hundred times worse because even relative freedom and prosperity does not exist. As a consequence, some people have come to believe that whatever they have been given as facts and historical evidence are lies and conspiracies to deceive them.
A couple of people have sent me private messages saying that Hitler was a very democratic and liberal-minded person who fell victim to conspiracies by the “Jewish lobby.” Now why he invaded other countries, why he would not let other parties beside his own National Socialists breathe and why he sent Jews to concentration and death camps — these must come from fake evidence concocted by the Jewish lobby!
With this kind of reasoning you never, ever, make a mistake. Because even if Hitler himself came alive and announced that he had indeed been a racist and a dictator, [people] would say that he is a fake copy of the real Hitler produced by the Jewish lobby, and would entertain no doubt that [they] have got it right. Some of it undoubtedly results from anti-Semitic tendencies.
Part of it can be attributed to the crushing of patriotic and nationalistic feelings of our people and the humiliation of these feelings vis-à-vis Islam in the last four decades — so much so that people are not allowed to visit the tomb [of the founder of the ancient Persian Empire] on Cyrus the Great Day. We must add to this the humiliation suffered by Iran and Iranians on the world stage because of the adventurist and wrong policies of the Iranian government.
It should come as no surprise that all this oppression and humiliation has resulted in tendencies toward extreme nationalism and racism — so much so that some people have come to believe that the only way to save the country is for a patriotic and tyrannical dictator to come along and dictate his intentions, even if he does it by bashing people on the head. It is no surprise, then, that they have a historical empathy with Hitler.
Besides supporting Hitler and the Nazis, some commenters have repeated the slogans the Islamic Republic Regime has circulated for the last four decades — slogans like calling the Baha’i faith a cult or that Baha’is are spies for Israel and so on. Why do you think people have chosen to repeat these slurs?
I believe that the regime has influenced even how we oppose it. There was a time when branding people and character assassination were the hallmark of official media. Now we see that a portion of the opposition uses the same language and the same approach toward persons and ideas of which they do not approve. This has been the Islamic Republic virus’ biggest victory — or rather its biggest damage — when it comes to the character of Iranians, even those in opposition.
Naturally, the teachings of the official media chorus, which expresses only one point of view, results in one of two extreme outcomes: Either we accept the propaganda and allow many of their teachings to make a home in our subconscious or, instead, we react sharply against everything that our official media proselytizes. Take for instance the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The whole world saw it as a crime by Saudi Arabia and a violation of human rights. But in Iran, many had the opposite reaction and maligned the ill-fated journalist because the government exploited the news about the murder and saturated the media with it to deal a blow to its strategic enemy, meaning Saudi Arabia. Even I, a cartoonist who had condemned his murderers like my American and European peers, was labelled a “regime’s mercenary!”
Why do you think there are so many different readings of your cartoons? Why are there so many controversies about them on social networks?
I believe this is how editorial cartoons work. They portray sometimes complex and multi-dimensional events and situations in a simple and presentable way in a small frame and probably add a humorous judgment or comment. Simplification and allegorizing, humorous language and the angle chosen by the cartoonist can lead to misunderstanding and displeasure from the viewer.
The issue is not agreeing or disagreeing with the cartoonist’s judgment and point view. We are free to agree or disagree with his point of view and offer our reasons for it. But stigmatizing the cartoonist, encouraging the public to pressure him or even to threaten him with losing his job and with isolation by throwing accusations at him that can have legal and social consequences are, in my belief, a precursor to a modern and terrifying kind of fascism — one that has turned modern and enlightened values into a new ideology.
It seems that humans are inherently taboo-makers and ideologues and are only happy with public kowtowing to what they hold sacred. The only solution is to understand the nature of cartoons with all their limitations and capabilities, to encourage the audience to be tolerant, to avoid stigmatization and to avoid a threatening approach, even if the cartoonists are in error.
In my opinion, it was the right thing to do when, after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, people in France and other European cities marched and chanted: “We are all Charlie Hebdo!”. But the fact is that since then the world has been on a slippery slope of censorship and of paying ransom to the opponents of freedom of expression out of the fear of violence by intolerant audiences.