The New Yorker Lampooning of Barack Obama Insults Muslims

The old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” is not so evident on last week’s New Yorker cover and its satirical lampooning of presidential hopeful Barack Obama which it shows robed in Muslim garb fist-bumping his Angela Davis afro-wearing, machine-gun toting wife Michelle.

And if you want to either chuckle some more or gasp in fear of The New Yorker cartoon either poking fun at the question of the Obamas’ patriotism or driving an unflattering point about it, then the American flag burning in the fireplace with a picture of Osama bin Laden hanging above it has evoked visceral reactions.

“Stop whining! The magazine is doing what it does — poke fun. It’s much ado about nothing. There’s no racial or ethnic slur attached,” Gladys Jones told me. Jones, a Chicagoan, is an African-American lesbian and not an Obama supporter.

Obama supporters, however, feel differently about the controversy.

“It undercuts Obama’s campaign, diminshes his chances, and exploits the fears people have about Obama,” said Nigel Jenkins, an African-American gay male, a friend of Gladys, and also a Chicagoan.

While The New Yorker states that the intent of Barry Blitt’s cartoon titled, “The Politics of Fear”, is to satirize “the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the presidential election to derail Barack Obama’s campaign…it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to prejudice, the hateful, and absurd,” the magazine has not only fallen short in its intent, but it has also fallen short to hold up a mirror to itself.

During an appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” last Tuesday, Barack Obama addressed the firestorm.

“Well, I know it was The New Yorker’s attempt at satire. I don’t think they were entirely successful with it…You know, this is actually an insult against Muslim-Americans, something that we don’t spend a lot of time talking about. And sometimes I’ve been derelict in pointing that out. You know, there are wonderful Muslim-Americans all across the country who are doing wonderful things. And for this to be used as sort of an insult, or to raise suspicions about me, I think is unfortunate.”

And unfortunate it is, because one veiwer, after hearing Obama’s remarks, still thinks he’s a Manchurian Muslim.

“Finally, Obama comes out as the pro-Muslim terrorist he is. I respect him for that. His pro-Muslim stance scares me, but his honesty is refreshing…. He’s bringin’ Muslim back,” a blogger wrote on Chistopher Frizzelle’s blog SLOG.

It would be too simplistic and morally irresponsible to summarily justify these fears and acts of prejudice on the dangerous times we now live in or to place the blame on a few paranoid individuals. If we did, we would not be examining at least one of its root causes: Islamophobia.

On a national television talk show in November 2002, I recall Christian fundamentalist the Rev. Jerry Falwell unapologetically stating, “The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, was a terrorist . . . a violent man, a man of war.”

While many of us can dismiss Falwell’s Islamophobic diatribe, we cannot ignore centuries of polemical Christian Orientalist literature that excoriates Muslims.

This tradition views Muslims as a people of the anti-Christ who are theologically misled — a fanatically violent people of faith journeying on the road to Hell.

And, for many Christian preachers, theologians, and writers, Hell is the place where Muslims belong.

One such proponent of that view was Dante Alighieri. In his classic text, The Divine Comedy, Dante reflects the attitudes and Christian views about Muslims during the Middle Ages. Those views, we find, have not altered that much today. Dante depicts Hell as a hierarchy of evil, consisting of nine circles. With his views of Muslims as the sowers of scandal, schisms, and heresy to the Christian faith, Dante places the Prophet Muhammad and his disciple Ali in the eighth circle, just one above Lucifer. Today’s attitudes about Muslims would now place them in Dante’s ninth circle.

In an interview on CNN, Ayman Gheith, a Muslim, said, “I learned that injustice, regardless against whom, is wrong. It is against us today, tomorrow it could be against you.”

As I ask myself the question Gheith poses about who will be America’s next suspect, I am reminded of the pink triangle, a symbol known to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community worldwide. The pink triangle dates back to the Nazi Holocaust when gay men were prisoners and confined to death camps because of their sexuality. Relegated to the lowest rung in the death camps’ hierarchy, gay prisoners were forced to wear the symbol which signified their rank; thus, making them among the first to die.

I see the symbol of the pink triangle everyday on a poster on a wall beside my computer. Beneath the symbol are the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller. Niemoller was once an early supporter of the Nazis, but who eventually led the church’s opposition to Hitler. He wrote:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

Suspicion of the “other” has always abounded in the psyche and soul of this country. And oddly, the suspicion of the “other‚” does not have to be a person who is an alien to this country or a person who is a stranger to this country’s morals or mores. Suspicion of the “other” is simply predicated on being different.

Barack Obama is the “other” to most Americans because he’s a presidential hopeful we have never seen until now.

Published July 16, 2008 in The Bilerico Project, New England Blade, LA Progressive, and Windy City Times.

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