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-US displays are rarer, but a skull-faced Statue of Liberty decorates the wall of the former US embassy, and a parody of a US flag, with skull-stars and bomb-dropping stripes, overshadows a major road.
Depictions of foreign politicians are almost unknown, but last week an Iranian Web site showcased photographs of a dramatic new mural against US President Barack Obama near the city’s busy Valiasr Square.
The image is of Obama standing next to Shemr, a villain in Shiite Islam, with a caption 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 the US unfounded insinuations that Obama is a Muslim come from his enemies, in Iran they come from admirers. Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign inspired rumors 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 Shiite theology, the prophet Mohammed’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 Shiite 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 Shiite denominations.
The Shiite, or “Party of Ali” (Mohammed’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 US, EU, or International Atomic Energy Agency demands over Iran’s nuclear program to avoid conflict — is a traitor to the faith. Obama, the state insists, is a “Hussein” unworthy of loyalty.