It’s Just a Cartoon. Right?

Posted: October 15, 2012 in Uncategorized

Listening to National Public Radio while you’re driving can be hazardous.  Once again I almost drove off the road. The reporter was talking about a fourteen year old girl in Pakistan, hunted down and shot by the Pakistani Taliban for the offense of going to school. I was enraged. In spite of myself, all manner of hostile thoughts filled my mind. Since then, I’ve been following the story and the remarkable courage being shown by girls, women, and men in Pakistan.

Then the cartoons started popping up on my Facebook page. I began to feel uncomfortable with what I was seeing. What they all had in common was the juxtaposition of a girl in hijab with some school-related objects and a Middle Eastern/Muslim man (sometimes explicitly Taliban and sometimes not) reacting to her in fear. There was a time when I would have found these cartoons poignant and witty. That time has passed. Let me explain why.

I’ve been on a kind of intellectual odyssey for some years now. Its started after the 9/11 attacks and has accelerated since the Arab Spring. I’ve been trying to better understand how religion, race, gender, sexuality, and economics are all mixed up in the East/West conflict. I knew in 2001 that those planes did not simply come out of nowhere, just like I know now that the recent killing of an American Ambassador in Libya didn’t come out of nowhere. I’ve studied and studied, dialogued and debated, written and written. A pivotal moment in this journey was reading Michael B. Oren’s Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present. Another, was reading Nadine Naber’s ground-breaking essay, Look, Muhammad the Terrorist is Coming: Cultural Based Racism, Nation Based Racism, and the Intersectionality of Oppressions after 9/11.”

Scholar-prophets like Naber have helped me understand that post-9/11 discourses have constructed a villainous caricature that is Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim and male. He is distinguished by cultural characteristics that are treated as “natural” and inherently hostile to “our way of life,” and markers of marginalization such as Arab-sounding names or physical appearance. In addition, he is often an immigrant from particular countries and assumed to be suspect or “criminal” by virtue of his nation of origin. The point of authors like Naber is not to deny that very bad things are being done by people who happen to Arab/Middle Eastern/male. As I understand it, they are arguing that the way we think and talk about such things is deeply connected, however unconsciously, to race and racism. When we fail to recognize this, we end up doing harm even if our intentions are “good”.

In my thinking, the Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim terrorist is part of a kind of domestic axis of evil in the American mind. The black criminal, the Latino illegal alien, the Asian economic and intellectual competitor, and the Native America land appropriator (via casinos) complete this racial rogues gallery. While each of these villains have differed in their perceived role in the American story, what they share is representing a potential threat, sometimes an existential threat,  to the dominant culture and the fulfillment of Americas “destiny” as a benign, global empire (euphemistically referred to as a “superpower”). James Baldwin challenges us to think deeply about why we create such villains and its implications:

“It is the American Republic—repeat, the American Republic—which created something which they call a ‘nigger’. They created it out of necessities of their own. The nature of the crisis is that I am not a ‘nigger’—I never was. I am a man. The question with which the country is confronted is this: Why do you need a nigger in the first place, and what are you going to do about him now that he’s moved out of his place? Because I am not what you said I was. And if my place, as it turns out, is not my place, then you are not who you said you were, and where’s your place?”

It is in this context that something as seemingly trivial as a cartoon becomes complicated. I look at some of these images and wonder if they do not perpetuate the Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim male caricature even as they appear to be supporting women and girls? Angela Davis in Abolition Democracy reminds us that claims of support for women suffering in the so-called Muslim world have a funny way of getting mixed up with military aggression.  I also can’t help but ponder the fact that claims of “defending” women have long been associated with dehumanization and violence directed at men of color. Remember lynching? The epithet “sand nigger” embodies the historical link between the racialization of Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim men and black American men. In light of these realities, I must face a potentially painful question. Was my emotional reaction to hearing about Malala Yousufzai’s shooting just about a desire for gender equity, or was something more going on? Could it have been that my rage emerged from subconscious biases towards Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim men based on a lifetime of racial conditioning? I haven’t made up my mind.

Is it possible to engage in advocacy on behalf of women and girls in the so-called Muslim world without falling into the trap of perpetuating racial/religious stereotypes? Can we engage in cross-cultural critique (violence against women is wrong regardless of culture or belief) while avoiding cultural imperialism (our approach to women is the “superior” way)? What might that look like? I could ask the same question regarding sexist attitudes and behaviors among men of color generally. We are haunted by our racial history. It bedevils every effort at contemporary discourse and dialogue regarding these thorny issues. As such, making mistakes does not require malice on the part of anyone. However, our ideas have real-world implications. Is it wrong to ask that we wrestle with those implications?

I invite you to wrestle along with me regarding these cartoons. We may reach different conclusions but I can live with that. What I can no longer live with is not questioning such things.

  1. Kaj says:

    There is no longer much difference between pre WW 2 Nazi germany and the US. The Jew was depicted by the Nazi propaganda machine exactly the same way the Talibal and Muslem is depicted in american media. The public eats this stuff up like its candy. Social Enginneering at its finest . Why do they do it? Very profitable for outfits like Blackwater,KBR,Lockheed Martin,Smith and Wesson. Keep the Bogeyman alive and the stupid population frightened . Lets keep those wars going and those troops deployed.

    • Vilma says:

      Why does the info provided in your itfarmonion always appear to be a matter of history? You are offering me info about upcoming Firefox 4.0b7, which you note is delayed until December, while I am now running Firefox 4.0b8. Maybe, there is a difference in the tree matrix and I am on a different limb?

  2. it’s refreshing to hear such genuine and sincere honesty combined with historical and intellectual thoughtfulness and reflection. the post stimulated my mind and heart. thank you

  3. Mike says:

    I believe that outrage over “a fourteen year old girl in Pakistan, hunted down and shot by the Pakistani Taliban for the offense of going to school.” is the appropriate response. A response that yearns for justice. It is very difficult to imagine a way to channel our outrage into a process that actually may result in justice for the perpetrators of this action. Broadening the target of our outrage to all Muslims, all middle easterners, or all men based on the villians that society helps us create in our minds, allows us to justify the use of violence against these groups. And so, in response to injustice, we become the perpetrators of injustice on others. Thank you for the reminder to look closely within ourselves before acting or allowing others to act for us in a way that moves us farther away from unity.

    The outrage we feel is there for a reason; to remind us of our shared humanity with this brave fourteen year old girl and motivate us to support her and others like her. So within me a question still remains unanswered. Is there a non violent way to become part of a process that brings more justice to the world and to all those who are oppressed?

    • Phillipe says:

      Mike, thanks for your thoughtful response. Your question is really important. I’m curious if you have an answer to your own question. What might such a response look like in your opinion?

      • Mike says:

        Well, I was hoping someone else would pop in with a perfect answer to that question. My only real response is to try to channel the energy of my outrage and use my desire for justice to deal with injustice in my own backyard and in my own heart. It renews my resolve to work for the full equality of men and women by trying to be understanding and supportive, especially for those who have been affected by the oppressions of sexual assault and domestic violence. Thanks to your articile, I will also to be more fully aware of the stereotypes that you mention in your piece and try to avoid being the perpetrator of oppression based on race, religion, sexual orientation and other avenues that my own priviledge allows me to have. it reminds me to love

        I see this response as useful because it channels my own energies to work on holding people accountable who are actually oppressive(including myself) and supporting those negatively impacted by it. It reminds me that loving the diverse people around me means looking beyond the surface.

        This response is not totally satisfactory to me though in that it does not address the specific injustices that caused my outrage to begin with. So I’m still hoping for some avenue that is more useful on the broader scale.

        Thanks for all you do. Be well.

    • Abdou says:

      A psychiatrist is a phiyscian who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. I have a bachelor’s degree in the social services field. For several years, I have worked with children who have been diagnosed with mental disorders. It is upsetting to see children victimize at an early age and even more disturbing to see them as predators as early as 5 years of age, however knowing that I am doing my part to assist them in becoming functioning youths and adults is rewarding. The empathy, confidentiality and maturity of a medical assistant are definitely needed in this area. I enjoy establishing a rapport with these clients and helping them to find adequate coping skills to deal with their disorders, therefore I would like to work for a psychiatrist.I would not like to work for an emergency phiyscian for several reasons. I will explain a few. Patients who come to the emergency center typically have serious injuries or trauma. I would not like to have my mind constantly focused on who is coming thru the door and how sever the prognosis is. Knowing myself, I know that would be my focus and I would not be very productive. Also, in the emergency room the staff has to be prepared for anything, I would prefer an area that focuses on a particular specialty. Most importantly, I do not wish to see excessive amounts of blood loss on a regular basis. Actually, not even a minimal amount of blood loss on a regular basis. Giving my opinion and thoughts about this specialty, I would not be an effective employee.

  4. Phillipe says:

    Mike, I knew you had more to say. None of us have all the answers, but we can join one another in asking the questions. I look forward to hearing what you learn as you try to take action in the spirit you’ve so eloquently described. I hope to do the same. You be well too, brother.

    • Grasy says:

      I can’t explain how much, almdhaulillah, almaghrib has changed my life. It has been that ilm boost that we all need and now I can’t imagine my life without it. I am always eagerly awaiting the next seminar while still remembering the life changing experience of the last seminar. Thank you almaghrib for making me change to who I am today and who inshAllah, I will become in the future.jazakallahyour scottish sister, Suffiya Qadar

  5. Reblogged this on Barbara Talley's Blog and commented:
    WARNING!!! For independent thinkers only. Do not read this if you have a closed mind, and you wish it to stay that way.

    • Luis says:

      That was an interesting excpeienre and I learned a lot from it. I think that having the 140 ch. limit of twitter does a lot to keep the conversation really focused. You have to be clear and make your point in as few words as possible, and that really makes you think carefully about your responses! Thanks for hosting it.

  6. Basil says:

    You know, John Lennon wrote a controversial feminist song called “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” The point of the song was missed – if you can catch the interview on youtube with Dick Cavett – it’s worth a look. I was juxtaposing that song – with the decade long marginalizing, fear mongering, and hostility towards men of middle-eastern origin. Wondering whether, for lack of a better term, Olive is the new Black.

  7. Stephanie says:

    Thanks for this.

    This is an issue that is very close to me and one that is the subject of frequent discussions in our household, since my husband is an Arab and Muslim male. I also very much appreciated the perspective in this paragraph and couldn’t agree more:

    “In my thinking, the Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim terrorist is part of a kind of domestic axis of evil in the American mind. The black criminal, the Latino illegal alien, the Asian economic and intellectual competitor, and the Native America land appropriator (via casinos) complete this racial rogues gallery. While each of these villains have differed in their perceived role in the American story, what they share is representing a potential threat, sometimes an existential threat, to the dominant culture and the fulfillment of Americas “destiny” as a benign, global empire (euphemistically referred to as a “superpower”). James Baldwin challenges us to think deeply about why we create such villains and its implications:”

    One way to encourage people to think about the incident in order to disassociate the heinous crime from the usual male Muslim terrorist stereotype is to look at Malala’s father– a male, a Muslim and a champion of education for girls from what I have read about him. It was her father that encouraged her to be the girl she is.

    It is very hard for most people, due to popular stereotypes and racism as you know, to associate Muslim males with being pro women’s rights or egalitarian in their gender politics. Equally hard to believe is that Muslims generally are peaceful and not war loving and violent—probably similar to stereotypes of the aggressive and angry black male so popular in the American conscience. People have come to think of the Koran as violent and anti-women when actually the reverse is true. Some days it makes me very angry. Other days it makes me tired. This year during Ramadan was the first one my husband felt tired by it all, tired not of explaining his faith (that part he doesn’t mind), but defending his faith in the very basic of acts: fasting.

    Something that has become a consequence of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the US is people have come to think of the religion as a whole as inferior, in every single aspect. They see any practice of the religion, subconsciously usually, as being inferior and a subject to question. The perfect example of this is the fast during Ramadan, as I noted above. If a Buddhist tells you they are fasting, the usual response will be “That’s cool! Great!” You think that person is “enlightened” and feel a certain admiration perhaps. If a Muslim tells you they are fasting, the response is, “Is that healthy? No water all day, really? Do kids have to do that?” When you tell them children do not fast, the response is “Oh good.” As in, thank god the religion is not that mercenary on children. Fasting, or observing any practice of Islam, is also associated with conservatism (and conservatism = bad). Friends of mine who have come over for Ramadan have been asked by their friends if my husband forces me to wear a veil or be Muslim (cause if you celebrate Ramadan, you must be conservative, right?! And don’t even get me started on the whole Western obsession with the veil and how much value outsiders to the faith place on the veil as some sort of symbol of oppression, which for the record it is not). If you observe Lent or Yom Kippur, for example, no similar association is made.

    Thank you so much for writing this Philippe. It really touched a nerve and is an issue I feel so strongly about. I am so glad you chose to bring attention to this and wish more people would think as deeply as you have about their prejudices, both overt and subtle, against Muslims. I’ve shared this post across facebook and twitter!

  8. Basil, I never knew about that song. Olive is the new Black? You could say that Black is the new Olive as well. The parallels of racialization and oppression are really fascinating and something I intend to explore further in future writing.

    Stephanie, thanks for adding a personal dimension to this discussion. People need to hear the stories of families like yours and get beyond the caricatures. I wish utmost well-being and safety for you and yours.

  9. oakritchie says:

    Reblogged this on Steady Flow and commented:
    Yes, Fam!
    This is a solid comment on some serious reflection that many of us need to make that I couldn’t help but repost this! I’m very interested to hear what emotions and thoughts run through your mind as you consider the points here:

  10. Anonymous says:

    Oak!!! My answer is simply……….. LOVE……… Love your fellow man……… God, Allah, Yeshua(SP)? ….. All can be solved if we love each other and treat each other the way we desire to be treated!……. PEACE to YOU!!!!!

  11. Nandita says:

    Think also on the expense of havnig one. Like insurance, fuel and care. Add that to the monthly payments and you will see how much will cost to own one.Honestly, I would not buy any vehicle of that type. Too expensive to maintain and any car is not a good investment.

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