Friday, May 8, 2009

Islamic Stereotypes

(These two letters reference the accompanying cartoon from July, 2001.)

Dear Illustrator Berge and Editors of Between the Lines:

I am writing to you today about your editorial cartoon that appeared in the July 12-18 2001 issue of "Between the Lines." This particular cartoon dealt with the United Nations conference on HIV/AIDS. Clearly you were just as annoyed as me listening to accounts of the UN conference and the inane commentary from some member nations about the inclusion of certain terms like, "gay" or "lesbian." If I were a graphic artist, I too would want to comment on such lunacy as well! At least, there were some sane people there who acknowledged the role the glbt community has had in educating the public at large on AIDS/HIV.

I looked with interest at your editorial cartoon on the whole thing, and initially, made one of those snorts of approval, you know the type. However, as I looked at your piece a little bit longer, there was something that bothered me. I do understand the conventions of the genre in editorial cartoons call on the use of caricature, however I do sometimes questions the conventions (of anything). In your piece I am questioning particularly the representations of Arabs: a robe wearing, saber toting, bearded man with combat boots on seems to be more of a stereotype rather than caricature.

I think that those of us in the gblt community must be aware of not only how we are stereotyped, but also then think about how we ourselves might be doing the same things to others. It only stands to reason that if we do not want others to essentialize us, then we should not do that to other people.

Also, one other additional side note. I noted a figure toward the back that looks a great deal like the pope. As a point of reference: of the 188 member states of the United Nations, the Vatican is not one of them!

Thanks for your time, and thank you for considering my thoughts.

Katie Scott
Department of English
Wayne State University
Detroit Michigan 48202

Greetings. I'm writing in reference to the cartoon that appeared in my local BLTG paper, Between The Lines (Michigan), for the week of 7/12/01--7/18/01. I am familiar with the situation at the U.N. and that it was specifically the representatives of Muslim countries that continue to object to a reasonable and inclusive discussion of the global AIDS pandemic. As an HIV/AIDS counselor, I am well aware for the need to address this problem on the international stage. However, I am concerned that your characterization of the 'protestors' plays on ethnocentric stereotypes held by the majority of Americans (U.S.). Yes, I see that you included a papal characterization as well; however, the prominent figures are all portrayed with exaggerated features with mean looks on their faces. In a country where sterotyping, is rampant and contributes to a climate of intolerance of many ethnic and religious groups, particularly Muslims, I have to conclude that you picked a poor subject...or rather, picked a problematic way of addressing it. There are many, many Muslims who would and do support a dialogue on AIDS. Just as George W. doesn't represent the majority of U.S. citizens, neither do the heads of state of many Muslim countries represent all their people.

I found the caption funny, by the way, as I have many of your cartoons. I just wanted to let you know that the drawing was offensive to me and possibly to others as well. I have not sent this to the paper for publishing; I have, however sent it to the founder of the Al-Fatiha Foundation for LGBTQ Muslims. Someone from their organization would be able to address this issue more eloquently than I am; however, they have much bigger issues to deal with at the moment.

Please take this in the gentle spirit in which it is given. I do not mean to offend, only to share what may be a minority, yet important, viewpoint. Thanks for listening.

Heather MacAllister
Field Organizer
Triangle Foundation
Report Hate Crimes 1-877-7-TRIANGLE

(Cartoonist's note: These two women have a legitimate complaint. It can be rough to find a balance between a caricature that everyone will recognize and one that is so overblown that it can only offend.
(Incidentally, the guy in the back with the kaffiyeh was originally intended to represent the various military regimes in Islamdom, but he kept looking more like a stereotypical 1970s era Latin American dictator. I made him a representative of the Faisal family instead--but kept the boots.
(As for including the Pope, I had read that the Vatican was involved in the background in the creation of the conference report. Putting him in the background of the cartoon seemed like a good idea at the time.)

(In 2005, there was a well-publicized incident in which George W. Bush held the hand of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah as the latter was visiting at Dubya's Crawford ranch. By the time my cartoon deadline rolled around, there had been plenty of late-night TV and editorial cartoon jokes about how gay that looked, mostly imagining horrified reactions from the president's many homophobic political allies. Meanwhile, there was a trial going on in Saudi Arabia of several Saudi men arrested for attending a same-sex wedding. I drew a cartoon obliquely referencing this incident by having Abdullah comment that in his country, "two men holding hands like this would be severely flogged."
(The cartoon drew this response from gay columnist Paul Vernell:)

While the Q-Syndicate editorial cartoon of Bush and the Saudi official holding hands was a cute idea, it is based on a factual error.

It is simply not true, as you have the Saudi official commenting, that "two men holding hands like this" would be "severely flogged." In fact, hand-holding is extremely common among Arab men and indicates nothing more than warm friendship. Nothing about it is viewed as homoerotic. That is why Bush, as an act of diplomacy, held the hand of the Saudi prince. He was playing to the Arab audience.

U.S. military handbooks regularly warn American servicemembers serving in the Arab world not to assume that two Arab men holding hands are homosexual. And at least one U.S. anti-terror expert advised American businessmen in Arab countries that if they felt at risk of imminent attack for being American, they should immediately grab the hand of some other male in their group and amble along slowly as if they had nowhere special to go--in imitation of typical Arab behavior.

Most sincerely,
Paul Varnell

(We had a polite exchange of e-mails after this. Incidentally, I've since finished reading Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, which does a nice job trying to explain some of the basic societal differences between the West and the Islamic world.

(Then, after becoming fully sensitized to Islamic sensitivities, I heard news of the arrest by Pakistani authorities of Mukhtaran Bibi, preventing her from traveling to the United States to attend a convention of the Asian American Network Against Abuse of Women. Mukhtaran Bibi had been sentenced by a tribal order to be gang raped -- as punishment for adultery committed by her younger brother. I'll remember her the next time someone tells me how much more revered and respected women are in the Islamic world than in the West.)

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