Tuesday, October 16, 2012

It's Just a Cartoon. Right? Reposted

I feel a sense of urgency to engage as many people as possible in this conversation. Therefore I'm re-posting my latest piece from my new blog Change is Gonna Come here. 

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. Hey, Phillipe: the only thing frightening to a White Supremacist who has hi-jacked the Tea party and typically votes conservative; A black man with a college education. I've been praying for Malala and the men who seek her destruction. The way I see it is their is a synergistic quality of all the conservative right wing movements around the world that seek to oppress the people of their own community to the point they get submission from the people. Our US Taliban or the GOP speak on issues and want to turn the clock back on social issues. With a grin, they tell us it's for the greater good as well. We all know that's "hogwash". To go so far as to view a little girl as your enemy, it's the most appalling thing I have ever seen on my television. Good post, yo.

  2. thank you for connecting the dots with this analysis. Surely it can be seen as conveying stereotypes. Because of our history.. they are endemic in our US culture and often caricatures, words,phrases can have more than one meaning or suggest more than one thing. Our eyes and ears are attuned to that which speaks to another challenge. However Phillipe I would like your insight and perhaps another blog in answer to your own question in the last paragraph. What might that look like? Seriously it would be great to hear your thoughts. Thanks again for all you are doing to raise the level of consciousness!!!

  3. This is a most thought-provoking piece. I found your analysis helpful and illuminating, and the questions you pose at the end of the piece are of the greatest importance.

    I share your outrage at the shooting of a young girl whose "crime" was to advocate education for girls. The act of those who shot her is morally abhorrent. It is also willfully destructive not only of the girl but also of the perpetrators and of the lives of the communities they infest. It is my understanding that that one of the most effective means for poor communities to develop economically and socially is the education of girl children at least to the end of elementary school, and preferably to the end of high school. If this is so, those who seek to prevent girls from receiving education are, by obstructing the development of those girls' God-given talents and potentialities, undermining the capacity of their communities to thrive. They are also reducing the likelihood that these girls will live a dignified and fulfilled life.

    Is this a culturally imperialist view? Am I, as a white European male who lives in the south east of England, so immersed in a particular cultural, political, racial and economic history and milieu that whatever I say is bound to be distorted? If I claim that there are transcendent and universal values - such as the equality of women and men and that girl children should be given preference over boys if, in situations of great poverty, parents are forced to choose to educate some, but not all, of their children - is my universalism bound to be a "particular universalism"?

    In addition to my particular cultural and ethnic identity, perhaps prior to my particular cultural and ethnic identity, I am a Baha'i. The Baha'i teachings are clear that humanity, in all its marvelous diversity, is one. These teaching are also clear that women and men are equal and that girl children should be given preference where choices have to be made about which children to educate. This preference is a matter of principle and offers, in addition, the practical benefit of enabling mothers as the first educators of the next generation to give their children a head start in life.

    These principles and values make universal claims and have been adopted by people all over the world in a huge variety of cultural and economic circumstances, thus giving the lie to any counter claim that they are culturally particular. However, their outworking in practice is hugely challenging and is being explored in small steps that are being taken in neighborhoods and villages across the planet. These small steps are taken in a spirit of learning by people at the grassroots and involve learning to read the particular realities of each situation. The principles may be universal, but putting them into practice cannot be imposed from above. While we can all learn from each other's experiences, the solution to the educational problems of girls in Pakistan, for example, cannot be to import wholesale models of education developed in the West under completely different conditions and with different assumptions about human reality.

    It may interest you to know that Malala, the 14 year old girl, is receiving expert medical treatment in a hospital in England, which is being paid for by the government in Islamabad. She is under guard and is allowed no visitors. Even in the safety of a British hospital there is fear that the Taliban may find a way of killing her and of trying to scare others from claiming their human right to education.

  4. Quddus X, I agree that fundamentalisms represent a worldview and political approach that is not unique to Muslims and has some common features whomever subscribes to them.
    Tod, my answer to your question about my question is that I'm still trying to figure that out. At the very least, it has to begin with acknowledging the risks involved given our history whenever we are engaged in some form of activism or change process. One thing that comes to mind would be to have the original cartoons with an additional panel where the girl breaks the third wall and asks the author/reader some of the questions I asked about my own reactions. People would not see that coming and it could be really powerful. Maybe I should start a new career as a political cartoonist?
    "Unknown", I hear about about the thorny issue of universals vs. particulars and yes the Baha'i community is gaining some valuable experience in dealing with some of these complexities. At the very least, there needs to dialogue, what Baha'is refer to as consultation in the atmosphere and attitude of genuine positive regard by all parties while mitigating the ever present threat of violence in all its forms. There are people who are engaged in such dialogues both within the Muslim World and between Muslims and non-Muslims for example. We need more of it.

  5. Anonymous1:01 PM

    It isn't the cartoonists, Western media or any other imperialistic conspiracy that perpetuates these cartoons and our reactions to them. It's the action of those who carry them out - relentlessly, unashamedly- and yes barbarically. The Arab/Middle eastern Muslim males need to take responsibility and react to these acts. That community needs to be judged on how it resolves to address the actions of its members. Making excuses and blaming others simply isn't good enough.

  6. But it was the Taliban and a little girl from that area - not everyone who sees it demonizes this image into stereotypes.

  7. Thanks, Phillipe, for starting this conversation. You’ve reminded us of Baha’u’llah’s injunction in the Hidden Words to set justice before our eyes so that we can confide with God and become free of the limitations and biases of our own pervasive cultures and individual histories.

    While it is hard to free ourselves completely of these biases, given the goals of most media to entertain and reduce, rather than seek to understand; we can at least become self-aware, as you urge.

  8. This is a very thoughtful and eloquent blog. Thank you Phillipe. I have a hard time though speaking of the African American experience and the subject of this cartoon in one place. They don't seem connected. The cartoon is making fun of a very specific Muslim man - "Militant Islamic Fundamentalist". It does a great job of pointing out the utter moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the so called Taliban. In fact I just heard that in Pakistan there has been such strong criticism of the Taliban (including cartoons) that they are now beginning to threaten news organs and commentators who are making these criticisms. The Pakistanis don't seem to be confused by the subject of this cartoon and Muslim men.

  9. Unknown, thanks for this. First, it is not the Pakistanis that I'm worried about. Second, it is not really about the cartoons. It's about the implications of the messages embodied in the cartoons and similar representations of Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim men and Black American men for that matter. It's the patterns that I'm encouraging people to think about rather than a particular image. The important thing to me is that people are at least having a discussion, which did not appear to be happening when folks were originally sending these cartoons around Facebook. That was my primary goal, not agreement with me.

  10. Anonymous10:26 AM

    I think, beware whenever there appears to be a "safe" reaction to something out there. There are always always other stories about THE story which have not yet appeared. The question is, "How long can we wait?" to make a reaction. So if we want attention, and attention isnt valueless, as you mention with the web awards, if you want attention, you have to react quickly to what appears. A kind of video/text game, where people sit down and shoot from the insides of their beings, reflecting their innate upbringing. We are what we think, and what we we say,and what what we do. This internet is an iceberg of words without deeds. We cannot see the deeds of the authors, only their words. All of this really amounts, in my opinion, to clouds that obscure or distort, or distract. There are various kinds of clouds. But unless I am mistaken, you have noticed some reflective mirrors imbedded in the cloud particles, namely the images of a news story interpreted by various political artists. And these bits of mirrors, cause you to reflect on what you see in them... more than this, I cannot say. Regards from Japan,

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