Cartoon Wars


First, let’s get a few facts straight. All Muslims are not terrorists. The Prophet Mohammed can be illustrated. The Danish cartoons were used to sell newspapers. Western newspaper cartoonists are not free to draw what they want. And there is no such thing as a free press.

How do I know this? I worked for 10 years as an artist for an Australian newspaper, and in March this year, I visited a Muslim country as a lone, female, Western cartoonist during the ‘cartoons crisis.’

If you remember, back in September 2005 the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, printed 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed some of which suggested a link between terrorism and Islam. When the cartoons were re-published (first in Austria in January 2006, and then across Europe), violent protests were ignited across the Islamic world. More than 45 people died during three months of Muslim fury in dozens of countries.

Two years ago, I was invited to exhibit my artwork in Tehran. By February 2006, arrangements had been finalised, my ticket bought and my Iranian visa confirmed. With mounting dread, I watched as the Danish cartoon controversy escalated and reached Tehran.

But instead of listening to the doomsayers, I decided I wanted to find out what was really happening on the other side of the headlines.

I arrived in Tehran on 5 March, trying to look inconspicuous in my black hijab. I usually travel without a great deal of drama, but this was a little different I had never felt my life threatened because of my occupation before.

Tehran is a sprawling city of 12 million inhabitants. It has the usual, big-city problems of drugs, crime and prostitution. Tehran’s roads are filled with cars ripping around in a mad game of dodgems. Enveloped in a mantle of smog, the place looks like the next earthquake will knock it flat if President Bush doesn’t do it first.

Cities are often lonely places but, for all its faults, Tehran isn’t one of them. At an Australian function, I might struggle to be heard though a wall of suits. Here, people spoke to me about their families, lives and world politics with openness and genuine interest. I quickly became my hosts’ special project. Was this a way of tracking me to make sure I wasn’t spying? Maybe. But I was just relieved that someone bothered to care where I was staying, if I’d eaten, and what I’d like to do.

My hosts were the Gilan Cartoonists Association a talented group of dedicated, young artists. The exhibition which included my work was in Tehran’s very modern Saales Gallery. As I sat surrounded by film students, artists, actors and musicians, sipping my cappuccino and listening to Archie Roach on the music system, I had to remind myself I was in Iran not Australia.

Joanne Brooker and two Iranian cartoonists in Esfahan

The cartoonists I met in Iran are a close bunch. They know what they do is risky. In Iran, cartoons are seen for what they are visual opinions that are dangerous and need to be controlled. As the US humourist and journalist Art Buchwald once said: ‘Dictators of the Right and the Left fear the political cartoonist more then the do the atomic bomb. No totalitarian government can afford to be ridiculed.’

The local cartoonists said they were most wary of the ‘gorillas’ a group of militant students otherwise known as the Basiji, who patrol the country as a moral police force. ‘You don’t look a gorilla in the eye,’ the cartoonists told me, ‘or he will attack you. These people are hardliners and are connected to the mafia in Tehran. They organise protests at the embassies.’ How dangerous the Basiji are depends on who they’re reporting to sometimes, they just make it tricky to arrange a good rave party.

Very few of the cartoonists I talked to have been allowed to illustrate for government-run publications and fewer make a living as artists. They work under the political radar aware they could be arrested at any time. I was impressed with their courage and solidarity.

Sixty per cent of Iran is under 25. Most have access to the internet, many travel overseas and have a good education, but their employment prospects are low. It is only a matter of time before these people become the decision makers and then, change is inevitable. Perhaps that’s why the old extremists who run Iran are trying to isolate their people from outside influences? But maybe that’s what all governments do?

Many of the people I spoke to were very different to the screaming hordes seen on television. Highly educated and well-travelled, they are aware of John Howard’s strict immigration laws and his backing of the US, but Australia is seen as a minor player in world politics. Young people know a lot about Australian culture, and Australian universities are high on their wish lists of places to continue their education. They even know about Guy Pearce, Skippy and the antics of Russell Crowe!

What does Australia think about Iran? I was asked. We think you are all a bunch of crazy terrorists. They laughed and asked, why? The TV tells us so, I said.

Brad Pitt, by Joanne Brooker – one of
the cartoons exhibited in Iran

As for the Danish cartoons, by running stories complaining that Muslims don’t have a sense of humor, or about the cartoons’ lack of artistic merit, or the rights of a free press and the opinions of a few Australian cartoonists, our media has skirted around the real issue. Ask an Aussie what they think of the cartoon protests and they will probably say that the Muslims should just lighten up.

But, in fact, these cartoons have (literally) illustrated the massive divide between the Christian and Muslim worlds and that should be taken seriously, not sidelined as some aberration.

The headlines today have 40,000 Iranian suicide bombers signing up for a massive raid on Western countries. One commentator reckons Australia is on the hit list as if we’d be disappointed if we weren’t. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is flexing his trigger finger and promising to blast Israel off the map. Bush is being eased into his cowboy boots by Rumsfeld, while Condi snuggles up to Blair and Howard, whispering sweet propaganda into their receptive ears.

Sounds like a comic book.

If only it were.

But my impressions of Iran are not of the stereotypical, comic book ‘baddie’ hellbent on nuclear war, or offering pocket money for terrorists. My impressions are of a country where Ahmadinejad’s nuclear brinksmanship seems to have little support. Many Iranians are critical of Pakistan and Israel for having nuclear weapons, but they’re not comfortable with their Government’s handling of the issue. They’re concerned that it may escalate into sanctions or even a US invasion. Although confident that Iran would win such a conflict, they are far more interested in improving their economy than waging another war.

But then again, how would I know? I’m just a cartoonist. I went to Iran. I liked it. Bought a carpet.

I want to organise an Australian exhibition of Iranian and Middle Eastern cartoons and caricatures as a way of opening up a discussion between our countries and countering some of the misinformation. This has never been more important.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.