Images of Muslims: Discussing Islamophobia with Peter Gottschalk


11-19-07, 10:30 am

Editor's Note: Peter Gottschalk is author along with Gabriel Greenberg of Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy.

PA: I’d like to begin by asking you what inspired the book and what its aim is?

Peter Gottschalk: The inspiration behind the book was basically a sense by my co-author, Gabriel Greenberg, and I that there is a form of stereotyping in the United States, which parallels and is similar to stereotyping against African Americans, women, and other groups, that we now see being perpetuated against Muslims and Islam itself. We thought that was something that was worthwhile to bring to the attention of the reading public.

PA: The title is Islamophobia. How do you define that?

PG: Islamophobia is basically an anxiety about Muslims and Islam that exists on a social level. As opposed to some phobias which are individualistic and psychological, this one is more sociological.

PA: The book focuses on the use of images in cartoons. Could you explain how images in cartoons contribute to social perceptions about a particular group of people?

PG: We were particularly interested in editorial cartoons, which have a specific type of impact on readers of newspapers, whether online or in print, in that cartoons represent very concise, dense editorial comments on contemporary issues and affairs. As such, they are made to catch the eye and to get their point across very quickly. That brevity of depiction and editorial comment made them ideal for exploring the larger Islamophobia that we see in American society. As cartoons manifest Islamophobic attitudes, they unwittingly confirm those attitudes among their readers, thus perpetuating stereotypes. Our argument isn’t that American political cartoonists themselves are raving Islamophobes – it’s nothing like that – but rather that their representations of Muslims demonstrate very clearly and concisely the Islamophobia that is pervasive in America today.

PA: You talk about how this form of stereotyping parallels stereotypes of other racial and national groups. Do you see a relationship between this negative cartoon imagery and other expressions of Islamophobia, such as religious and racial profiling and violent hate crimes?

PG: Yes, I do. I think that American history very handily demonstrates that when a group becomes stereotyped, that is when a set of key characteristics are universally applied to a particular group, that group tends to come in for greater prejudice and discrimination.

What is happening with these cartoons is that a stereotype is being perpetuated that is not just about the physical appearance of Muslims – they are usually assumed to look like Arabs and dress like Arabs – but also a set of characteristics, that is, that the men are violent, the women oppressed, and that the religion itself is prone to extremes of both violence and oppression. This eases the ability of government to justify to the public their case for unwarranted detention of and violent action against Muslims.

As for the parallels that can be seen with other groups in the United States, when I was growing up in the 1970s, Hollywood would so often depict African Americans only as people who were victims of slavery, or young African American males as perpetrators of violent crime. One did not see too many African American actors outside of those kinds of limits. The same thing could be said, of course, about Latinos in Hollywood until fairly recently – they were only banditos or lazy Mexicans.

PA: Given our recent history – I’m thinking of the last few years – one might suspect that Islamophobia in the US is something new. Do you think it predates 9/11?

PG: It definitely predates 9/11. We find evidence of Islamophobia in America predating even the Revolution. It’s interesting that when the Spaniards came here and introduced slaves into their American colonies, they were often quite nervous about having any African Muslim slaves, because they were concerned that the Muslims would be more likely to revolt. Among the slaves that they had, they often forcibly had them enact a play called Moros y Christianos, which celebrated the Reconquista, the “re-conquest” of the Iberian Peninsula by crusading Christian forces fighting against the Moors, that is, the Muslims who had previously politically dominated the area.

In the Revolutionary period, you have the example of John Adams making a derogatory comment about the French Revolution, commenting that if there weren’t some sorts of checks on the passions of the Revolution, a madman might come to power, a kind of powerful demagogue over everybody, who would be like another Mohammed. His son John Quincy Adams, interestingly, when he was defending his father from a perceived attack by Thomas Jefferson, attempted to denigrate Jefferson by proclaiming that there is one goddess, Liberty, and Common Sense is her prophet, mocking Thomas Jefferson’s approval of the common sense of the masses as a democratic ideal. He was mocking that from his own critical perspective on the general population, but by using the Shahadah, the proclamation of faith of Islam. For him to make a public declaration like that, he clearly had a sense that people would understand where he was coming from, and that to associate Jefferson with this Islamic creed would be to denigrate him. Thus you can see that the roots of Islamophobia in the United States go back quite far.

But the manifestations of Islamophobia have changed over time. That is a key thing, and that is why it can fly under the radar a bit. As the United States has moved into different political and economic contexts, the manifestations of Islamophobia have either become more pronounced, less pronounced, or have changed form.

PA: The subtitle of your book is “Making Muslims the Enemy.” This is now playing a real role in presidential politics. These days we are seeing a host of right-wing pundits, politicians, and presidential candidates making use of rhetoric that is, in my view, unmistakably Islamophobic. How do you relate the focus of your work, which is about events in the US and the images of Muslims, to these larger political and foreign policy questions?

PG: There is a direct relationship. It demonstrates clearly why Gabe and I were particularly concerned to bring this book out now. There is today a kind of latent Islamophobia that works unconsciously among many Americans. There are also those who recognize that there is political advantage and political leverage to be gained by keying into that American Islamophobia. Of course, by doing so they are propagating it and helping it grow even larger. When you have presidential candidates and political commentators talking in certain ways, whether they are trying to do it indirectly, or, in the case of some of the commentators and candidates, very directly, they are keying into those fears of Muslims in order to get higher ratings or more votes.

PA: Islamophobia here is wielded to justify foreign policy.

PG: I think that’s entirely the way it’s meant to work. If you look at President Bush’s speeches, you notice that in 2005 he begins to use the term “Islamofascism.” October 6, 2005 was actually the earliest instance I could find that he referred to this. He is making reference to it as part of an image, not of a universal Islam that is antagonistic to the rest of the world – he goes to great extremes to say that that is not what he is attempting to say. But at the same time he is keying into these Islamophobic impulses among Americans, and tying them to American memories of World War II by referring to fascism. There is no justifiable reason why he would use that term. It is not as though Islamists who are looking for some sort of political change refer to themselves as fascists in the way that, for instance, Mussolini did. It is clear that he is trying to connect that term – fascism – with Islam, because it has a resonance among Americans of violent dictatorship, as opposed to the freedoms that we supposedly all share, recognizing that it will help him connect his policies with some of those latent fears.