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Stereotypes of Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims PDF Print

The cartoon below was published in 2002 by Philadelphia Inquirer editorial cartoonist Tony Auth. It presents a stereotypical view of Arabs and Muslims that is still held by many people in the United States. The cartoon allows us to examine some of these common beliefs and contrast a simplistic misunderstanding with a more balanced and nuanced understanding of Arabs and Muslims.

Tony Auth  cartoon

In the cartoon, a man dressed in "traditional" Arab clothing declares that, "Islam is a tolerant religion! We tolerate fanatics, suicide bombers, terrorist ‘charities'...and women...barely." Behind the speaker stands a silent woman dressed in a formless black burqa.

Who Speaks for Islam?

The cartoonist is implying that there is a cynical attempt to whitewash the image of Islam as a whole, and to cover up a darker truth of Muslim support for terrorism and violence, religious extremism, and oppression of women.

The man in the cartoon - a supporter of both terrorist violence and misogyny - claims to speak for all of Islam, all Muslims. However, if we think about it, we realize that no one person can speak for an entire religion. This is particularly true of Islam, which does not recognize a single overarching hierarchy that has the authority to decide what Islam must be for all practitioners.

It seems obvious to us that if any one Christian, for example, were to assert that "Christianity is tolerant," or any other positive or negative descriptor, many people would want to point out historical or current counterexamples or complicating factors. Because we tend to know more about Christianity, its traditions, diversity and history, we are more resistant to broad generalizations about it. However, simply because we know less about Islam doesn't mean that it is itself less complex than Christianity; as in Christianity, there is enormous diversity in what its practitioners believe and do.

The reality is that there are many different ways that Muslims practice Islam, just as any religion. There are Muslims who are very observant and conservative in their religious beliefs as well as those who live very secular lives. The political beliefs of Muslims span the spectrum from ardent liberal democrats to committed socialists, from defenders of royal prerogative to advocates for theocracy. There are those who think that Islam is the only possible basis for politics, and those who insist on strict secularism and separation of church and state, and many shades of opinion in between. And only a small proportion of Muslims of any sort believe that violence is mandated by religion.

A Faulty Equation: Muslim=Arab=Terrorist

Who is the man in the cartoon? Does he look familiar? He is wearing a kaffiyah, or men's headdress, which is customary throughout various the Arab countries of the Middle East but often associated with Palestinians. Arafat. Given the date of the cartoon's publication, during the middle of the 2nd Intifada, one could infer that the cartoonist was linking the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and all the violence that that conjures up for the average American, and with Arabs and Islam in general. This erases the distinctions between Palestinian, Arab and Muslim. Why is this problematic?

Arab does not equal Muslim

More broadly, not all Arabs are Muslim (again, about 10% of Arabs are Christian), and most Muslims are not Arabs. Only about 18% of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are Arab, yet the cartoon asserts that Arab and Muslim are the same thing in order to link common negative stereotypes of Palestinians to Muslims everywhere.

Stereotypes of Muslim women

Another interesting aspect of this cartoon is its assumptions about Muslim women. In the cartoon, a figure completely swathed head to toe in a burqa-like covering stands silently behind the man, as he declares that Islam barely tolerates women. The cartoonist thus presents the notion that Muslim women are oppressed, subservient, and silent. How does this compare to the reality of Muslim women's lives?

First, the vast majority of Muslim women don't look like the woman in the cartoon. While many, but certainly not all, Muslim women wear a headscarf and some form of modest dress, relatively few cover their face or wear a version of the Pashtun-style burqa, covering themselves from head to toe.

Secondly, Muslim women are active participants in their families and their societies. Of course, many Muslim women face difficulties in their lives, because of poverty, lack of education, cultural restrictions, war, or domestic or social problems. Some of these may be linked to local practice of Islam; many are not connected specifically to religion and are problems that are shared with other women worldwide.

In all Muslim countries, women participate in discussions of politics, education and social issues. The degree of their  political participation varies from country to country; in some, like Saudi Arabia, women's participation is largely informal; in  others, like Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan, Muslim women have been elected as the country's leader. Everywhere, women have set up organizations to fight for increased political, legal and social rights for women, or to fight particular social issues like domestic violence or the profusion of landmines in combat areas.

Political cartooning and stereotypes

The political cartoon genre, like other types of broad comedy and commentary, often uses common stereotypes to its advantage in making a political or social point. Often, the humor works only as long as the viewers share a common perception about an event or group, so that the cartoonist can use a kind of visual shorthand, in this case based on stereotypes. A political cartoon often tells you more about the point of view of the cartoonist than about the subtleties or diversity of the issue on which they are commenting. In this case, the cartoonist explicitly erases any differences amongst Muslims and creates a monolithic "Muslim" representation with qualities contrary to American viewpoints.

Activity: Students should survey political cartoons in their local paper and online for a week, and bring in at least one example. Students should point out how the cartoonist uses visual shorthand, i.e., how he or she exaggerates features, creates representative figures or elements, or uses stereotypes to make his or her point. What is the cartoonist's critique? Do you agree with the critique? Do you agree with the cartoonist's visual representation in making his or her critique?