Tuesday, October 16, 2012
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.