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Cartoon Villains



January 6, 2008




Making Muslims the Enemy.

By Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg.

Illustrated. 181 pp. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. $19.95.


Correction Appended

Is there such a thing as Islamophobia? To show there is, Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg cite a talk show host for CNN Headline News telling Keith Ellison, the first Muslim American congressman: “I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’” Presumably, the host believed that his viewers shared this anxiety — and popular culture seems to bear that out, according to Gottschalk and Greenberg. “Many members of the media,” they write, “characterize Muslims as Muslims to the exclusion of any other aspect of their identity.”

While “Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy” examines images of Muslims in media like TV and the movies, the strength of the book — and its focus — is its collection of cartoons published since 9/11, most of which portray Muslims unfavorably. The cartoons show violent, oversexed males, oppressed females, deceptive foreigners. The cartoonists, the authors argue, frequently conflate terrorist groups or the Taliban with Muslims or Arabs in general. One example shows the Taliban in Arab headdresses. “The underlying presumption is that Pashtun Muslims dress as all Muslims dress — as the stereotyped Arab.” (They don’t.) Another cartoon, they say, suggests that “Islamic beliefs inflamed Arab hatred of the United States.”

Still, it’s hard to tell how representative these examples are, since we can’t compare them with other cartoons that may have been more balanced. It’s also hard to measure their impact on public opinion.

Gottschalk, a professor of religion at Wesleyan University, and Greenberg, a recent Wesleyan graduate, attempt to place the cartoons in a historical perspective dating to the Islamic conquests and the crusades. The illustrators, the authors write, “drew on images they associated with Islam, having inherited these conceptions from the Orientalist artistic legacy of the United States, as well as from impressions — perhaps latent — of Islam understood from European history.” Yet their account of the historical background is far too brief and one-dimensional to be of much help in understanding contemporary attitudes.

How much does history matter, anyway? American views of Muslims are probably more a function of present-day politics and strategic interests than of images in the media. Throughout much of the 20th century, particularly during the cold war, Muslims were often seen as friends and allies of the United States. Even jihad was viewed as a good thing when it was understood as motivating the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

To be sure, there have always been those who were so prejudiced that they have had only negative images of the Muslim world, just as there have always been those ready to exploit such hatred for their own ends. As the authors suggest, the media in general and cartoonists in particular play a role. But most Americans today view Arabs and Muslims through the painful prism of 9/11, just as most Arabs and Muslims see America through their own prisms of pain: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and, more recently, the war in Iraq. These prisms are inevitably distorting; people see primarily those aspects of the Other that relate to their pain and ignore most else. The greater the pain, the more the distortion.

Gottschalk and Greenberg suggest how cartoonists might behave in covering Islam. They recommend avoiding stereotypes and presenting Muslim Americans “acting as Americans.” But it’s doubtful such advice will make much difference, since the most meaningful protections against hatred lie with society’s legal, political and educational systems. Here, it must be said, the verdict is mixed.

“Islamophobia” would have been stronger had it explored some of these larger issues. Government violations of law in the name of national security, for example, are all too well known, as is the rush to enact new legislation that intrudes into civil liberties, especially those of Muslim and Arab-Americans and of foreign nationals. It is not cartoonists who set the tone of debate in times of crisis, but government officials. It’s true that the initial reaction of the White House and Congressional leaders toward Islam was largely positive after 9/11. But as the war on terrorism expanded, officials in Washington became less inclined to confront anti-Muslim bias, and sometimes viewed Muslims as suspects. Here the authors might have drawn on available evidence: of the thousands of Muslims held in preventive detention, not a single individual has been convicted of a terrorist crime.

There is obvious anxiety about Islam in America today. Cable television hosts are not the only ones who feel it. But that anxiety is not as deep as Gottschalk and Greenberg suggest. A shift in strategic interests could easily transform perceptions once again. Even now, the American educational system remains a strong force for civil liberties: most students in the country continue to be taught to be blind to race and religion. Many Americans, meanwhile, have genuinely sought to learn more about Islam, and a number of moviemakers, writers, journalists and scholars have moved to meet the demand for more balanced information. Despite these efforts, the trauma of 9/11 is very likely to shape the views of many Americans for years to come.

Shibley Telhami is a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Correction: January 20, 2008

A review on Jan. 6 about “Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy” repeated the book’s erroneous description of a commentator who interviewed Keith Ellison, the first Muslim American congressman. He is a talk show host for CNN Headline News, not “a CNN anchor.” (The commentator, Glenn Beck, was not named in either the book or the review.) 

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