Iran uses the pen and the sword against Islamic State

Cartoons are displayed as part of the Daesh International Cartoon and Caricature Contest in Tehran.

Cartoons are displayed as part of the Daesh International Cartoon and Caricature Contest in Tehran.

(Atta Kenare / AFPGetty Images)
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Whether the pen is mightier than the sword may be open for debate, but one country is taking no chances and using both weapons in the fight against Islamic State militants.

Iran, which has provided military aid to the Iraqi and Syrian governments in their battles against the Islamist extremist faction, hosted a just-completed cartoon contest with a very pointed goal: using caricature to mock the militants.

The winning entries were being shown last week here in the Iranian capital.

The event, dubbed the Daesh International Cartoon and Caricature Contest (after a pejorative Arabic acronym for Islamic State), was designed to expose the group’s “true nature,” according to Masoud Shojaei Tabatabaei, head of the House of Cartoon, an Iranian organization aligned with ruling hard-liners that organized the event.


“Daesh tries to associate itself with Islam, but in essence it has no idea about Islam,” Tabatabaei said in an interview with Iran’s Press TV last week.

Since first announced in February, organizers say, the contest has drawn more than 1,000 works by artists from more 40 nations, the entries coming from as far as Brazil, Malaysia and Australia.

Judges pared the submissions to 270 for exhibition. Winners Aref Nazari and Ali Reza Pakdel each received a $1,500 cash prize.

The destruction of Islamic State, which has cut a bloody path of destruction across large portions of Iraq and Syria, is a rare foreign policy goal embraced by both Tehran and Washington, although the two adversaries vehemently deny any cooperation in their respective anti-militant campaigns.

Islamic State is an ultra-fundamentalist Sunni Muslim movement that views Shiites as heretics and routinely slaughters Shiite captives. Iran is a Shiite theocracy.

Some of the caricatures on display serve a dual purpose: exposing the barbarity of Islamic State while serving as a choreographed propaganda tool against the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other geopolitical rivals of Iran.


One cartoon echoes the gruesome exploits of the masked British militant known as Jihadi John, who has appeared in Islamic State videos of the beheadings of captives, including U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. In the caricature, his knife is slashing through Nimrud, the ancient Assyrian city in northern Iraq that was bulldozed by militants this year. The group has destroyed historic sites it views as idolatrous, evoking global outrage.

Another cartoon depicts Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi, his mouth set in a cruel grin over a thick “beard” of blood-drenched sword blades. Imprinted on the blood-spattered wall behind him are Stars of David.

That cartoon, like others on display, reflects the oft-stated view of Iranian leaders that Islamic State is an insidious creation of Israel, the United States and its global partners, especially Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief regional antagonist.

Officials in Washington and allied capitals dismiss the suggestion as delusional. Still, U.S. conspiracy theories, long a mainstay of Iranian political discourse, provided a clear undercurrent for the caricature competition.

In one cartoon, President Obama is portrayed engaging in a delicate waltz with an enraptured militant.

A winning cartoon showed King Salman, Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, with the body of a rattlesnake.


“Daesh represents Americanized Islam,” said Tabatabaei of the House of Cartoon.

Special correspondents Mostaghim and Bulos reported from Tehran and Beirut. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.