By Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 151 pages
Reviewed by Thomas Koruth Samuel
Islamophobia – Making Muslims the Enemy by Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg is an attempt to understand the anxiety towards Islam through an examination of a particular type of popular expression – the political cartoon. The authors have chosen such an indicator because, according to them, political cartoons are images created as immediate responses to events. As such, these images are perceived as an expression of the latent sensibilities of the cartoonist and by extension, of society. The book begins by examining the reaction of Muslims to the caricatures that appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The authors argue that media outlets broadcast a series of repetitive messages regarding Muslims and Islam that mutually reinforce negative views among American non- Muslims through what they do and do not say, write or demonstrate. They also argue that the mass media deliberately overlook the voices of moderation that come from the majority of Muslims. Such averse reporting, the authors contend, has led to the impression that Muslims are twodimensional, existing only as Muslims and seemingly never sharing identities or interests with non-Muslims. They argue that while American and Western depiction of Muslims and Islam has evolved, there nevertheless remains a constant nervousness and distrust of those associated with those terms.
The authors define Islamophobia as an ‘anxiety of Islam’. They believe that Islamophobia accurately reflects the social anxiety towards Islam and the Muslim culture, which is largely unexamined yet deeply ingrained in Americans. The first chapter, Overview of Western Encounters with Muslims, examines how the initial perception of Islam by the West was seen through the lenses of the Crusades as well as European imperialism and hegemony. Subsequently, the authors indicate that the Soviet containment during the Cold War, oil concerns, Zionism and terrorism, have further reshaped and at times, reinforced the Western stereotyping of Islam. The second chapter, Symbols of Islam, Symbols of Difference, takes a close look at the symbols of Islam, via political cartoons, such as the scimitar, the mosque, the crescent, the veil and Muslim men, as seen through the eyes of the West. The authors then describe how these perceived symbols of Islam are then used to communicate the American understanding/misunderstanding of Muslims and Islam. According to them, these inaccurate, and at times, prejudicial presentations, further reinforce the negative view on Islam and Muslims. In the third chapter, Stereotyping Muslims and Establishing the American Norm, the authors examine the dynamics between caricatures and stereotypes. Stereotypes are defined as “descriptions of a group of outsiders using characteristics understood both to be shared by all members and to define them as different from ‘normal’ society”. Caricatures on the other hand are “practices by which artists focus on one or more unusual physical or behavioural features of an individual, and exaggerate those characteristics in their portrayal.” Among the stereotypes that are identified via political cartoons are the assumptions that all Muslims are Arabs, against progress and evil. Arabs, particularly the Saudis, are also generally stereotyped as duplicitous and treacherous. In the fourth chapter, Extreme Muslims and the American Middle Ground, the authors examine via political cartoons, five themes, namely, Religion and Government, Nationalism, Men, Women and Morality, through which Americans have positioned themselves as representing the norm of the middle ground, while at the same time, casting Muslims and Islam as being extreme. In the final chapter entitled Moments, the authors examine four distinct moments, that is, the Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, the oil crisis of 1973, the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis of 1979-1980, as well as the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and its subsequent events, and show how on each occasion, cartoonists depict the principal players in question in a negative and hostile manner.
The authors contend that no freedom exists without limits and while the mass media deserve special protection, there is a need to portray Muslims and Islam in a more nuanced and balanced manner. They conclude by indicating that America’s growing Muslim population, as seen in the increasing conversions to Islam, means that it is already part of the Muslim world and thus, portraying them in a prejudicial manner would be greatly detrimental.
There is an underlying assumption that the U.S. is inherently and particularly biased against Muslims and Islam. However, past events have shown Americans employing similar attitudes towards the Russians (during the Cold War period), the Jews (during World War II) and the Japanese (the forcible relocation and internment of approximately 110,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans to War Relocation Camps during World War II). These past instances could indicate that the U.S. does not seem to have any specific prejudice towards Muslims and Islam in general; but rather, the American society – like most other societies – tends to view migrant communities as foreign and alien in nature. While this is not necessarily positive, it does show that the U.S. does not have a particular dislike of Muslims or Islam specifically, but rather perceive anything or anyone foreign as being non-American and hence, viewed rather cautiously or at times even suspiciously.
The authors examine the perception of the Americans by critically examining their political cartoons. While it is probable that the cartoons reflect the thinking and prejudices of the cartoonist, it is pertinent to examine if such prejudices reflect the opinion of the majority of its society, especially one as diverse as the American society. Furthermore, given the inherent disposition and message of cartoons which are lampooning and extreme in nature, it is questionable if such a medium is therefore well suited as an indicator to gauge and understand the feelings, thoughts and perceptions on a certain issue or topic.
This book nevertheless does provide compelling and graphic evidence that there has been and is at present a distorted and prejudiced view of Islam and Muslims as seen via political cartoons. The authors however have not been able to show that such cartoons actually reflect the general sentiment and that such political cartoons per se is able to both convince and influence the general public opinion on Islam and Muslims.