The forgotten controversy of Imam Khomeini

Rudolf Wijbrand Kesselaar, known by his stage name Rudi Carell (1934–2006), was a Dutch-born television personality who made it big in Germany. your programs The Rudi Carell Show (1965-1972) and Rudi’s Tagesshow (1981-1987) were watched by around two-thirds of West German viewers.

He used to make fun of politicians using photo montage tricks, and did so for many years without any major problems. Until he dedicated a very brief televised fragment to the Supreme Leader of Iran. The skit was broadcast on Sunday, February 15, 1987, and viewed by more than 20 million viewers. The short showed real footage of a mass demonstration in Tehran celebrating the eighth year since the triumph of the Islamist revolution, combined with visual tricks that made it look like Iranian women were throwing their underwear at the Ayatollah’s feet. Ruhollah Khomeini. The fourteen seconds of the short that were broadcast on the national network ARD could be interpreted as an amusing criticism of the Iranian government, which four years earlier had imposed the veil and the obligation to dress modestly on Iranian women.

Paul Cliteur narrated the details of the case in his book Theoterrorism versus freedom of expression: from incident to precedent (2019).

Immediately after the broadcast of the program, Reinhard Schlagintweit, the official responsible for Middle East contacts at the German Chancellery, received a phone call from the Iranian ambassador in Bonn, Mohammad Djavad Salari. He strongly protested the “miserable offense” that meant the broadcast of the short, which, in his impression, had insulted the Supreme Leader of Iran and to Muslims “all over the world”.

Soon, retaliation manifested itself. Iranian consulates in West Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg were closed. An Iran Air Flight from Frankfurt to Tehran was delayed for six and a half hours because Iran Air staff organized a strike to protest the TV show. The Ayatollah regime ordered two West German diplomats to leave the country. Iranian students staged a protest outside the West German embassy in Tehran, chanting slogans against West Germany and the United States. The Goethe Cultural Institute in Tehran was closed. And as expected, Rudi Carrell was threatened and had to receive police protection.

Four days after the short aired, Carrell personally called the Iranian ambassador to apologize: “If my joke about Ayatollah Khomeini has caused anger in Iran, I am very sorry and wish the Iranian people would forgive me.” He also made his mea culpa public on his show Tagesschau. The German Foreign Ministry regretted that Carrell had made fun of Khomeini but stressed that the government guaranteed the freedom of expression. The day before Carrell’s apology, government spokesman Friedrich Wilhelm Ost said in a meeting with the press: “We hope we can smooth things over a bit by explaining that West Germany has free television, newspapers and radio on which the state has no control. The German TV station also apologized for him. The director of Westdeutscher Rundfunk, producer of the program, lamented that “a political-satirical attempt has been placed in a religious context. (…). Nobody wanted to offend the feelings of believers.” Cliteur notes how quickly the focus of interest shifted from the Ayatollah to “believers” in general.

These cries did not convince the Iranian ambassador in Bonn. On February 20, Mohammed Djavad Salari demanded a formal apology from West Germany for the television program in question. Friedrich Ost replied that the German government had already expressed regret over the parody and recalled that Carrell himself had also apologized. But Salary continued to complain at a press conference: “Our people and our government expect the West German government to take more concrete steps. An apology would make things easier.” Admirably, neither Chancellor Helmut Kohl nor Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher did. Bonn instructed its officials to explain that in German democracy the government did not control the media.

The case drew global attention. New York Times headlined: “Iran chokes on German joke”. The Boston Globe harshly criticized the government in Tehran: “The Iranian people have suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of Khomeini and his henchmen. (…). They are the ones who owe Muslims in Iran and around the world an apology.” But since Carrell was of Dutch origin, the episode resonated especially in the Netherlands.

The socialist broadcasting corporation Vara decided to broadcast the short of discord. On February 23, eight days after the broadcast in Germany, Dutch television was preparing to broadcast it when “something unusual happened” according to Cliteur: the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hans van den Broek, personally called the Broadcasting Corporation Dutch a few seconds before the start of the program to convince the presenter, Paul Witteman, that will cancel the publication of the sketch. The journalist invited the minister to call again and present his request for self-censorship live. Van den Borek nodded and the two debated in the air. At one point Witteman asked: “Don’t you think it’s a bit strange for us in the Netherlands to have such regard for a sense of humor in Iran?” Even so, he agreed not to broadcast the fragment.

Two years later, Khomeini is going to make public his homicidal edict against the Indian-Muslim writer Salman Rushdie for his novel the satanic verses, which the Supreme Leader of Iran never read. Over time, other controversies (or worse situations) will follow for offenses, real or perceived, around the religion of Islam: the assassination of dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh for his critical film Submission (2004) and the beheading of the French teacher Samuel Patty for showing images of the prophet Muhammad in class (2020), the publication of burlesque cartoons of Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten (2005) and the French magazine charlie hebdo (2015), Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at the University of Regensburg (2006) and the censorship imposed in several Muslim nations on the English film Lady of Heaven (2021), to recall some emblematic cases.

“What in 1987 seemed like an ‘incident,'” noted Paul Cliteur, “Little by little it became a pattern.” Though long forgotten, this fourteen-second-long German parody of Imam Khomeini may have marked one of the earliest modern antecedents of cultural misunderstandings — to put it elegantly — that still haunt relations between East and West.

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The forgotten controversy of Imam Khomeini