08012014Fri

Iran's Obama billboard: what it really means

The Guardian

Tehran's latest propaganda offensive shows Barack Obama on a huge mural side by side with a seventh-century Shia villain

For connoisseurs of political symbolism, Tehran – a city whose best billboard real estate is devoted to Islamist ideology – is a feast. Government-sanctioned murals of ayatollahs and "martyrs" of the Iran-Iraq war are visible around every third or fourth corner. Anti-American displays are rarer, but a skull-faced Statue of Liberty – an apparent homage to an Italian second world war propaganda poster – decorates the wall of the former US embassy, and a parody of an American flag, with skull-stars and bomb-dropping stripes, overshadows a major road.


Depictions of foreign politicians are almost unknown, but last week an Iranian website showcased photographs of a dramatic new anti-Obama mural near the city's busy Valiasr Square. The image is of Barack Obama standing next to Shemr, a villain in Shia Islam, with a BBC-style caption at the bottom attributing to both men, in the years 2013 and 680 respectively, the loaded phrase: "Be with us, be safe."

This is an example of what one might call "high-context" propaganda. Whereas in America unfounded insinuations that Obama is a Muslim come from his enemies, in Iran they come from admirers. As Iranian-American journalist Hooman Majd recalls in his 2012 book, The Ayatollahs' Democracy, Obama's 2008 presidential campaign inspired rumours in Iran that the senator from Illinois had Iranian roots. Some fans made much of his middle name – Hussein – which he shares with the central martyr in Shia theology, the prophet Muhammad's grandson. Others made an omen of his surname, observing that it sounds like Oo ba ma'st, or "He's with us", in Farsi.

The Tehran mural aims to invert this occult symbolism by recourse to Shia tradition. The villain Shemr belongs to the narrative of Hussein's martyrdom at the Battle of Karbala in 680, the trauma that split Muslims into Sunni and Shia denominations. The Shia, or "Party of Ali" (Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law) sought hereditary leadership of Islam. After the murder of the Caliph Ali, and the death of Ali's son and successor Hassan, Ali's younger son Hussein clashed for succession with the Umayyad Caliph Yazid, who sent Shemr's army to destroy Hussein and his followers. Shemr offered some of Hussein's supporters a "letter of protection" in exchange for betraying him, but they refused.

In the mural, Shemr extends a similar letter to the viewer, as he and Obama utter the words Ba ma bash – "be with us" – playing on the president's name, and insinuating that anyone who still likes Obama in the wake of tightening sanctions – or who advocates meeting American, EU, or International Atomic Energy Agency demands over Iran's nuclear programme to avoid conflict – is a traitor to the faith. Obama, the state insists, is a "Hussein" unworthy of loyalty.

 

Search

Act of Cowardice

Iran's ruling tyrants have executed yet another political prisoner in flagrant violation of international law.  READ MORE

The rush to Tehran amidst rise in executions

World leaders should halt these visits and link any deal with Iran to its human rights record.  READ MORE

Arming a dictator

What if President Obama ordered the sale of arms to Syrian dictator to massacre his opponents? READ MORE

Slaughter intensifies under Rouhani

231 executions have occurred since the presidential election in June which brought to power Hassan Rouhani. READ MORE

Silence is not the answer

Iran: Bloody crackdown targeting dissidents aims at terrorizing the people into submission. READ MORE

Iran’s Murder Machine

The wheels of Iran's Murder Machine turn in tandem with its nuclear machine. READ MORE

What now?

The West must drop the dangerous pretence that talking to a regime not interested in listening constitutes the winning strategy. READ MORE

A facelift

This cosmetic facelift should not dupe the West into thinking that there are fresh prospects for a nuclear deal. READ MORE

An Act of Cowardice

The terrorist attack against Iranian exiles at Camp Liberty, Iraq, is another sign of Iranian regime's weakness. READ MORE

Much atalk about nothing

In Istanbul they merely agreed to talk about talking later in May in Baghdad, of all places. READ MORE

An unholy alliance

The brutal state-imposed bloodbath in Syria deserves uncompromising reproach. READ MORE

Iran cries for freedom

The clerical regime in Iran has predictably unleashed another wave of terror against the citizenry since the outburst of the latest string of mass protests beginning on 14 February. READ MORE

A new Iran policy

The latest round of nuclear talks had an all-too-familiar result: more time for Tehran and less time for the international community to prevent a nuclear-armed theocracy. READ MORE

Murder overlooked

What would the rest of us do if a mad gunman was in our midst, systematically murdering our fellow human beings in front of our eyes? The responsible amongst us would not look the other way, because that would serve as a source of encouragement for the murderers to carry on with their heinous acts unchecked. READ MORE

Standing up to Iran's executioners

The Iranian regime's malicious noose has yet again taken an innocent life. Political prisoner Ali Saremi, 63, was hanged in Tehran's infamous Evin prison after a lifetime of peacefully espousing human rights and democracy. READ MORE