Media Monitors Network: Since When is Muslim a Smear? A Deeper Look at the New Yorker Obama Cartoon

From CNN’s Glenn Beck to Comedy Central’s Daily Show, and from The Weekly Standard to The Nation, America’s political pundits hold wildly varying opinions on almost everything. But when it comes to Islam and Muslims, both ends of the political spectrum are too often equally comfortable with simplistic two-dimensional treatments that end up reducing Islam’s more than one billion followers to caricatures and stereotypes.

Whether it is news analysis, a political cartoon, an investigative documentary, a stand up comic’s 15-minute set, or a satirical take on the ridiculous Obama smears on the front cover of the liberal New Yorker magazine, one thing audiences are never offered is nuance.

The recent New Yorker “satirical lampoon” cover cartoon depicting the Obamas as projected through the lens of rightwing propagandists is not so troubling because of the images themselves – I get the joke. What I find troubling is the confusion inherent in the magazine’s clarification, which they issued to deflect the ensuing criticism.

That statement lists being Muslim as one of several equally evil accusations made by the right against Obama, alongside flag burning and support for Bin Laden. While the other “slurs” were easy to depict, “being Muslim” was captured in the cartoon via the help of what the New Yorker called an “Islamic outfit,” and “traditional Muslim garb.”

Such language and associations, which often go unchallenged, speaks to a deeply-rooted orientalist attitude that often manifests itself in simplistic pop culture depictions and articulations of what supposedly sums up “Muslim.”

In the minds of the New Yorker’s editors, sandals, a robe and a turban constitute “Muslim garb.” This is disturbing for a number of reasons.

First, other than attire that is modest and clean, there is no such thing as “Muslim garb.” What is presented as Muslim attire by the New Yorker looks more like what some cultures in parts of Africa and perhaps Asia may use as clothing appropriate for their climates. The world’s Muslims – much like the world’s humans – tend not to have one uniform.

Just as there are no Jewish or Christian outfits, there is no uniform attire for Muslims. In fact, if the New Yorker were to attempt to depict Jewish or Christian “garb” – even just in the name of the creative freedom required for cartooning and caricaturing – it would be instantly deemed either anti-Semitic or absurd.

Second, the New Yorker magazine, a bastion of cultural sophistication, fails miserably to deal with a real problem – namely the attacks by some in the right wing in the form of hateful, xenophobic, racist depictions, lies and fabrications.

Instead, the magazine’s statement references an “Islamic outfit” in the same sentence as flag burning, nationalist-radical outfits, and hanging Bin Laden’s portrait on the wall. As such, it ends up equating all of these right-wing claims as insidious “attacks” on Obama; something that the Obama campaign has been guilty of as well.

If the statement had said: “We were trying to highlight the absurdity of the right wing’s simplistic depiction of Obama and the entire Muslim culture,” the statement would have accomplished its goal.

As I monitor the consistent anti-Muslim attacks against Obama and the wide array of responses to those attacks, I find myself perturbed by the inability of even those who champion fair play, cultural sensitivity and tolerance to extend their criticism to the demonization of Muslims and their various cultural, political, and ideological manifestations. Worse still, I am dismayed by the inability of most commentators to even recognize that such a problem exists.

“Satire is part of what we do,” said the New Yorker, “and it is meant to bring things out into the open.” It seems the New Yorker’s “mirror to prejudice, the hateful and the absurd” is quite foggy.

Copyright © 2008 M. Yaser Tabbara