October 08, 2006

The Ahmadinejad Code


The winners have yet to be announced, but the 200-plus finalists in Iran's "Holocaust International Cartoon Contest" were recently exhibited in Tehran and posted online.

And though not among the finalists, the above image was part of a cartoon accepted into the contest, one of over a thousand entries accepted. The cartoonist's name, Hugh Bradley, can be seen on the contest's list of participants under USA.

Obviously a cartoon featuring Adolf Hitler could be appropriate for such a contest, but there's more to the image than meets the eye. It also contains a hidden message critical of the Iranian regime.

We know this because "Hugh Bradley" is really Cox & Forkum.

I had higher hopes for this covert cartoon, but our efforts have become a "one that got away" story. In this unusually long post, I will reveal the hidden message, show the full cartoon as entered in the contest, recap the contest's history, and explain my intentions, all of which is in the "Continue Reading" link below.

SPOILER WARNING: Readers who want to try to discover what is hidden in the image should do so before clicking the link. The answer is revealed in "The Hidden Message" section of this post.


In February, Iran's largest-selling daily newspaper, Hamshahri, announced a Holocaust cartoon contest in retaliation for the "blasphemous" Mohammed cartoons.


The Mohammed caricatures were published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten as a test of free expression. An author of a book about Mohammed told the Danish newspaper that he was unable to find artists willing to draw Mohammed for fear of Muslim retaliation, because depicting Mohammed is forbidden by Islam. That fear proved justified when the Mohammed caricatures provoked worldwide riots and death threats to the cartoonists.

The Iranian newspaper likewise invoked a free speech rationale for its contest:
"Does the West extend freedom of expression to the crimes committed by the United States and Israel, or an event such as the Holocaust? Or is its freedom only for insulting religious sanctities?"
The newspaper challenged European newspapers to publish the winners of the Iranian contest, which would likely include cartoons that questioned the Holocaust. The very rules for the contest referred to the Holocaust as an "alleged historical event." Why would questioning of the Holocaust be an issue to Europeans? Because in some European countries it is a crime to deny the Holocaust. Challenging European newspapers to publish Holocaust-denying cartoons was an attempt to turn the tables regarding "free speech."


The Iranian challenge, however, was an obvious ruse. The mullahs and their supporters had not suddenly become free-speech advocates troubled by European anti-holocaust denial laws. Nor did the existence of such laws, as wrong as they are, suddenly diminish the broad lack of basic freedom in Iran's Islamic theocracy, which is known for its ruthless suppression of dissent and systematic abuse of rights. Even the newspaper sponsoring the contest is controlled by the municipal government of Tehran. There may be expression in Iran, but it it is not free.

If free speech includes anything, it includes the right to speak against one's own government, which can have dire consequences in Iran. Not surprisingly, even cartoons can get one in trouble.

In 2003, a newspaper was banned and employees were arrested after publishing a cartoon perceived as insulting to the Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution. It didn't matter that it was an American cartoon from 1937 depicting a Supreme Court justice.


More recently, two Iranian newspapers were shut down after publishing the cartoon below, which ridiculed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for saying he felt a halo surround him as he addressed transfixed world leaders at the U.N. (in Iranian culture, the donkey represents idiocy).


Even the director of the Holocaust contest said he would refuse "insulting" cartoons, and it was reported that cartoons critical of Ahmadinejad were indeed rejected (more on this later in the post).

So much for free speech in Iran.

But government censorship is not the only threat to free expression. The Danish cartoons were a test to see if one could simply depict Mohammed without fear of violent Muslim reprisals. The ensuing riots, death threats and embassy burnings all spectacularly demonstrated that Islamists failed the test. A sign at the London protests made the Islamist message clear:


There would be no such Western reaction to the anti-Semitic Holocaust cartoons. No riots by mobs of Jews. No embassy burnings by Israelis. But when it comes to criticizing Islam, a chilling threat of terror remains.

Onkar Ghate, a writer for the Ayn Rand Institute, explained why such terror is the antithesis of free speech:
Freedom of speech means the right to express one's ideas without danger of physical coercion from anyone. This freedom includes the right to make movies, write books, draw pictures, voice political opinions -- and satirize religion. This right flows from the right to think: the right to observe, to follow the evidence, to reach the conclusions you judge the facts warrant -- and then to convey your thoughts to others.

In a free society, anyone angered by someone else's ideas has a simple and powerful recourse: don't buy his books, watch his movies, or read his newspapers. If one judges his ideas dangerous, argue against them. The purveyor of evil ideas is no threat to those who remain free to counter them with rational ones.

But the moment someone decides to answer those he finds offensive with a knife or a homemade explosive, not an argument, he removes himself from civilized society. [Emphasis added]
And therein lies what I believe to be the real reason for the Iranian contest, which was announced during the heat of the "cartoon jihad." The sponsors apparently hoped that mocking the murder of six million Jews would divert attention away from the violent Muslim reaction to the Mohammed cartoons, that is, away from the fact that Islamists readily use force against those who criticize, insult or reject Islam.

In short, the Holocaust cartoon contest was nothing but a grotesque attempt to draw attention away from the thugs of Islam.


Since this battle was taking place in the field of cartooning, we were eager to join the fight. We posted the cartoon "Undeniable" and announced that it was our entry to the contest:


We knew the cartoon would be ignored by the judges. It was to be our way of answering the Iranian's propaganda ploy.

Then it occurred to me: What if we entered to win? Would it be possible to enter a cartoon with a dual message: one message designed to appeal to the judges and act as camouflage, and a second hidden message designed to subvert the contest itself?

If such a cartoon happened to win, the government-run newspaper would distribute our message throughout Iran, and other newspapers and Web sites might do the same worldwide. Perhaps we could accomplish what the government suppresses in Iran: harsh public criticism of Ahmadinejad. Perhaps we could eclipse the contest's other cartoons, which were predominately anti-Semitic slurs and attempts to equate Nazis and Israelis:


Perhaps we could bring some focus back to the real issue: the threat to Western freedom posed by Islamists -- in particular, the Islamic Republic of Iran.


That a government-run Iranian newspaper would host a "free speech" contest was absurd enough. That they would host a contest about the Holocaust was beyond absurd.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad is infamous for saying the Holocaust was a "myth" and that Israel should be "wiped off the map.". When confronted recently, Ahmadinejad even refused to acknowledge the experience of a Dachau witness. An Iranian TV report on the exhibit stated of the Holocaust: "This was nothing but a myth -- a myth about the killing of six million Jews." Some cartoons in the exhibit echoed Ahmadinejad's sentiment that the Holocaust is a lie used by Jews as a weapon of war:


In publicly denying the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad became an open apologist for the Nazi genocide against the Jews. In threatening Israel with annihilation, and in light of the Iran's nuclear ambitions and Islamic imperialism, Ahmadinejad is laying the groundwork for the next Adolf Hitler, if he's not the next one himself.

Robert Tracinski, editor of The Intellectual Activist, further explained the parallels to WWII:
We can't avoid this war, because Iran won't let us avoid it. That is the real analogy to the 1930s. Hitler came to power espousing the goal of German world domination, openly promising to conquer neighboring nations through military force and to persecute and murder Europe's Jews. He predicted that the free nations of the world would be too weak -- too morally weak -- to stand up to him, and European and American leaders spent the 1930s reinforcing that impression. So Hitler kept advancing -- the militarization of the Rhineland in 1936, the Spanish bombing campaign in 1937, the annexation of Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the invasion of Poland in 1939 -- until the West finally, belated decided there was no alternative but war.

That is what is playing out today. Iran's theocracy has chosen, as the nation's new president, a religious fanatic who believes in the impending, apocalyptic triumph of Islam over the infidels. He openly proclaims his desire to create an Iranian-led Axis that will unite the Middle East in the battle against America, and he proclaims his desire to "wipe Israel off the map," telling an audience of Muslim leaders that "the main solution" to the conflict in Lebanon is "the elimination of the Zionist regime." (Perhaps this would be better translated as Ahmadinejad's "final solution" to the problem of Israel.)

Ahmadinejad's "final solution" is motivated by religious fanaticism, which he demonstrated during his September 2005 U.N. address. Middle East commentator Daniel Pipes analyzed Ahmadinejad's speech and his obsession with preparations for an Islamic messiah, concluding:
The most dangerous leaders in modern history are those (such as Hitler) equipped with a totalitarian ideology and a mystical belief in their own mission. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fulfills both these criteria, as revealed by his U.N. comments.
(And Pipes noted that Ahmadinejad's recent U.N. speech had more of the same messianism.)


We had already created a number of cartoons critical of Ahmadinejad (including the two above). But the Holocaust contest presented a unique opportunity to further highlight his similarities to Hitler and possibly get our message past censors and into an Iranian newspaper.

In political discussions, Nazi comparisons are grossly misused, particularly by the "anti-war" left which has made an industry of comparing President Bush to Hitler. Such a comparison renders the Holocaust meaningless, for whatever Bush's faults, he is no more the next genocidal mass murderer of Jews than Cindy Sheehan is the next Secretary of Defense.


On the other hand, Ahmadinejad, the Iranian mullahs, and their weekly chants of "Death to Israel" would have made Hitler envious. (See video of Ahmadinejad leading the chant.)

During the Hezbollah/Israel war, leftists, Islamists, and even Ahmadinejad himself accused Israel of being Nazi-like. Such atrocious moral equivalence requires a massive evasion of reality, including the fact that it is Iran's Hezbollah terrorists who goose step and salute like Nazis while openly fighting to destroy the Jewish state.


Yet the answer is not to dogmatically eschew Nazi analogies because of their misuse, for that would only serve to undermine any lessons we should have learned from history. For the reasons stated above, I chose to apply the Hitler comparison to someone who is truly earning it.


But how does one make such a comparison and hide it in a cartoon? There may be a number of ways, but the idea I hit upon was a reversible caricature. We've all seen topsy-turvy drawings like the one below, "Growing Pains" by Rex Whistler (*see footnote at the end of the post for more information about optical illusions):


In these inversions you see one face right side up and then a different face upside down, in this case a young man and an old man.

But could such an inversion be created using two famous people? My results are below. I designed and illustrated the Hitler caricature so that when turned upside down, Hitler becomes Ahmadinejad.

Move your cursor over the caricature to turn it upside down (if you see no picture below, click here)

Below is the Ahmadinejad caricature isolated beside his photo:


The fact that Hitler's face is so well-known provided room to distort his features to fit Ahmadinejad's, which is why Hitler is so stylized. Hitler's caricature had to be recognizable enough to allay suspicions about a trick picture, while at the same time be a trick picture. Ahmadinejad suffered a few distortions, too, such as his forehead and his left eye (no, that's not meant to be an eye patch).

(The "Never Again" type was added later, my way of making the reversible caricature a stand-alone graphic for use outside of the contest. The type was of course not included in the final cartoon submitted to Holocaust contest.)

A Hitler/Ahmadinejad comparison would hopefully leave an impression on Westerners as well as dissidents in the Middle East. But for Islamists this wasn't exactly an insult, knowing that some of them parade around with signs like this:


In studying the cartoons posted at the contest Web site, I noticed that devil and Satan analogies were common, especially when depicting "enemies" like Jews and Danes:


And Islamists have long referred to America as "The Great Satan" and to Israel as "The Little Satan." Even though such demonization gets no traction in America (where devils are used for food logos and sports mascots), I decided to include horns for the Islamic fundamentalists (see the Ahmadinejad caricature above).


Hiding Ahmadinejad in a Hitler caricature was one thing. A completely separate challenge was to devise a cartoon that would feature the caricature and be competitive in the contest. Early concepts had Hitler and Ahmadinejad down-playing the Holocaust, which, though it fit them both and the contest, would have been a distasteful cartoon to produce.

Eventually I realized that I could literally frame the reversible caricature with a cartoon about the illegality of Holocaust denial, that is, create a camouflage cartoon that exploits the contest's "free expression" pretensions. Such a cartoon would be an exaggerated comment on a fact (some European countries do ban Holocaust denial) rather than a cartoon which itself denied or minimized the Holocaust. Here is the full cartoon as entered in the contest:


The kaffiyeh headdress, popularized by Yasser Arafat, was used to invoke the highly-politicized Palestinian war against Israel, which was another theme emphasized in the contest rules. The risk with this approach was creating too mild a cartoon. Would it be able to compete with out-and-out anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and moral equivalence?

We could only hope the camouflage cartoon would act as a Trojan Horse for the Ahmadinejad/Hitler caricature. My partner John usually draws all our cartoons; this time he illustrated everything around my caricatures (frame, Palestinian, policeman and balloons), and he used a style different from his usual cartooning. Early versions also featured dialogue, but it became clear that the fewer words the better. The question marks and a prohibition symbol were the last aspects I devised in hopes of simplifying the cartoon and making it more universally accessible.

One last trick: Our pseudonym for the project was "Hugh Bradley," which, though not random, has no special meaning. "Hb" was a convenient letter combination to use for a reversible signature. Upside down the signature reads as "C+F":


We could have entered the cartoon from another country using a correspondingly fake name. We could have posed as an Iranian or a Frenchman or even a Dane (which had a nice irony to it). But few Americans were entering the contest. I thought that maybe the Iranians would want to flaunt an American winner in America's face.

I submitted the cartoon on May 11 as "Hugh Bradley" from the United States. In the e-mail I wrote: "Thank you for a chance to speak the truth."


On August 14, 204 finalists out of 1,193 entries were unveiled at an exhibit in Tehran, but it was not immediately clear which cartoons were included. On September 6, the exhibition was posted online, and "Hugh Bradley" was not among the finalists.

Here are some cartoons that were exhibited:


Was our hidden image eventually discovered? Or did the camouflage cartoon simply fail to appeal to the judges? I tend to think that the hidden cartoon was not discovered.

As you can see above, finalist cartoons included Hitler/Nazi comparisons involving Bush, Sharon, Uncle Sam, Lady Liberty and even Jews. But not all such comparisons were accepted into the contest, as revealed in this report:
[Shimon] Samuels said a member of the Simon Wiesenthal Center submitted two cartoons to Iran's competition, depicting Ahmadinejad as Hitler.

Samuels said the cartoons were sent back.
Our Ahmadinejad-as-Hitler cartoon was not sent back, and our "name" was included on the list of accepted participants throughout the contest. We consider that to be a partial success.

Despite falling short of our ambitions, we are proud of the illustration, and we thought our regular visitors would enjoy seeing the cartoon and reading the story behind it.

* * *

*Footnote: In researching this post, I found two good sources of information on optical illusions. Planet Perplex is a fun Web site where you can experience numerous images such as ambiguous, impossible, hidden and upside-down illusions. Also, the book Masters of Deception by Al Seckel is an excellent reference. The author set up a Web site to supplement the book with video. Regarding inversions Seckel wrote:
"No one knows when inverted images were first created, but they started to become popular on coins during the Reformation. These early topsy-turvy images typically contained hidden political and theological statements. ... [The coins] made fun of the Pope, whose image when inverted would turn into the devil. ... In the 19th century, they took on a more amusing motif and were very popular in advertisements and puzzle cards."
* * *

Related links not included in the post:

The Cox & Forkum Mohammed cartoons
The Cartoon Jihad: Free Speech in the Balance by Christian Beenfeldt and Onkar Ghate, The Ayn Rand Institute, Feb. 10
Publish or Perish: The Lessons of the Cartoon Jihad by Robert Tracinski, TIA Daily, Feb. 13
MEMRI video of Iranian TV report on exhibit: Video (requires search for Clip 1240) and Partial Transcript, Aug. 17
Iran shows anti-Jewish art by Michael Slackman, New York Times, Aug. 25
A Clash of Cartoons by Investor's Business Daily, Aug. 25
Ugly images in Iran by The Boston Globe, Aug. 30
Danish paper prints Holocaust cartoons from Iran AFP, Middle East Times, Sept. 8
Cartoons mocking Holocaust prove a flop with Iranians by Angus McDowall, The Belfast Telegraph, Sept. 14
Iran's Holocaust cartoon contest reveals country's isolation by Christine Spolar, Chicago Trinbue, Sept. 19
Senator compares Iran's Ahmadinejad to Hitler AP, Sept. 19
Iran's proud but discreet Jews by Frances Harrison, BBC, Sept. 22
Toothless negotiations didn't stop Hitler -- and won't stop Iran by David A. Harris, Chicago Sun-Times, Sept. 25
Moderate Muslims urged to speak out [against reaction to Mohammed cartoons] by Jan M. Olsen, AP, Sept. 30
Norwegian TV Channel TV 2 will show Mohammed cartoons News From Norway blog, Oct. 1

Special thanks to Iran Press News and Ardeshir Dolat for advice on Iran, and to Chris Davis at Quent Cordiar Fine Art for advice on CSS coding.
Posted by Forkum at October 8, 2006 12:44 PM