It’s Not Just About “Cartoons”

Kebab-Shop-Attack-Lyon
In addition to several mosques, a Kebab shop located near a mosque in the eastern French town of Villefranche-sur-Saone was bombed in a revenge attack.

I posted this message on my Facebook wall this morning and upon the request of some friends, I decided to share it on my blog. I’ve expanded on it a little here and included links to some of the references I made.

I did not want to comment or write anything about the shootings in Paris yesterday morning. I have been wanting to write about the attacks in Peshawar on my blog and I remember what my reaction was upon hearing the news on that day. I grieved for the victims, who were mostly children, and then later, after seeing mainstream media coverage, the Islamophobic narratives, and the jingoistic responses from the Pakistani government and certain Pakistanis (particularly the privileged class Pakistanis living in the west and arrogantly proclaiming they know what’s best for the country and speaking as if there aren’t people in Pakistan with a conscious for justice), I felt angry and exhausted. Most of all, I worried about the escalation of Islamophobia — not just in the form of interpersonal racism and bigotry, but also in its institutionalized forms — and the continued military operations, violence, and displacement against people in Waziristan (please read Orbala’s important post about the Peshawar attacks here).

After the shootings in Paris, I worried again about the increase of Islamophobia. I have said this countless times on my blog (and I know so many Muslims have said it too), but I am just fed up with the expectation that Muslims have to answer for violence that was carried out by other Muslims. The problematic and apologetic responses from western-based Muslim organizations continue to be frustrating, as they play into the assumption that Muslims must take collective responsibility for these attacks. Muslims are considered “guilty,” “suspicious,” and “enemies” by default until they “prove” to the west that they are “civilized,” i.e. that they will swear allegiance to the state first and foremost, even if that means supporting the surveillance of their communities, racial profiling, imperialist wars, etc.

The condemnations from imams, religious leaders, and Muslim organizations never do anything in the eyes of Islamophobes, the state, and the general public. Instead, Muslims are demanded to “do more” than condemn (as Fareed Zakaria recently stated in his awful CNN video). Of course, this demand to “do more” is never made to white non-Muslims whenever other white non-Muslims commit acts of terrorism. For Muslims, the call for “doing more” constitutes turning on their communities and, if necessary, fighting against other Muslims, as if every Muslim, including the children, must be drafted into a war to exert greater violence against the “extremists.” Because when Muslims kill other Muslims, it’s never a loss for “western civilization.” Our lives are disposable after all.

But we must grieve the lives of white people, we are told, especially when they are murdered by darker-skinned people. The world, not just one country, must mourn their deaths. Furthermore, we see simplistic narratives that perpetuate the nationalist, racist discourse that Muslims and communities of color need to be policed, profiled, and spied upon. I wrote this on Facebook to express the frustration and concern I had about these narratives that were reducing this issue to being about “free speech” and Muslims being “offended” by “cartoons.” The post is pasted below:

I’ve been really bothered by all of the posts that are framing the shooting in Paris as being about “oversensitive Muslims” being “offended” by “free speech” and a “cartoon.” This is reductive and terribly misleading, to say the least. Weren’t we just posting Jesse Williams’ video where he explains why Exodus is NOT “just a movie” and how racist, anti-black imagery in media is powerful and interconnected with white supremacist violence? I only mention his video here because some people on the Left seemingly forgot the importance of critiquing and challenging images in media and, instead, defended the cartoons as “free speech” and “just cartoons.”

I do find those racist cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) offensive and I’m not ashamed of admitting that. But I’m not offended by them simply because they are “just cartoons” or because I’m “insecure” about my faith. I find them offensive because the images are harmful in the same way TV shows like “24” and “Homeland,” and films like American Sniper (which glorifies a racist murderer who declared that Iraqis “weren’t human beings”) and Zero Dark Thirty are harmful. We challenge those images because we recognize the significant role they play in perpetuating the demonization of Muslims and Islam, racist laws, policies, and surveillance programs, drone strikes and wars, hate crimes, workplace discrimination, apathy and victim-blaming towards Muslims murdered by the US and western nations, etc., but how can we now decontextualize and depoliticize these racist cartoons as if they don’t serve as propaganda to fuel Islamophobia, state racism, police brutality – specifically against North African Muslims in France – and imperialism?

Too many people are defending these cartoons as “satire” and arguing that Muslims “need to learn how to take a joke” (which is another way of narrating that Muslims are “uncivilized” and “backwards” people). No – Muslims, like everyone else, know what jokes are. We even tell them, too (gasp). But those cartoons are not “satire,” they are racist propaganda. And racism is racism; not a “joke.” Nazi Germany produced anti-semitic cartoons and films as propaganda to dehumanize Jews (and we know where it led to) — should we defend those images as “free speech”? Or what about the racist minstrel shows and blackface cartoons that dehumanize black people (caricatures that still surface – e.g. the horrifying cake in Sweden, in the Transformers 2 movie, and basically seen every Halloween, etc.)? Mainstream media never talks about how dangerous these images are and how they directly impact communities and shape nationalist discourse and norms, including our understanding of “freedom” and “free speech.”

Muslims are expected to “prove” they are “not terrorists” and condemn violence whenever other Muslims are involved, but we don’t hear about the Islamophobia Muslims experience and we don’t see white people condemning the frightening Islamophobia that is widespread in the west (e.g. the anti-Muslim rallies in Germany, the attacks on mosques in Sweden and in France today). If white people do not need to prove that they don’t support murderers like Elliot Rodger, Anders Breivik, James Holmes, Wade Michael Page, Darren Wilson, and Timothy McVeigh, then why should Muslims? No one deserved to die, but the west never says the same for the Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Somalis, and countless other communities who have been oppressed, tortured, raped, murdered, and bombed in the name of the very “freedom” and “democracy” people are defending.

It’s sad and absurd that I’m expected to write a disclaimer about how I condemn the shootings (and there it is), but before you defend a racist, Islamophobic, homophobic, and misogynistic magazine, look at the images you are defending and learn about the ways in which they perpetuate racism, hate speech, and violence.

Because it’s never “just a movie,” “just a TV show,” or “just a cartoon.”

11 thoughts on “It’s Not Just About “Cartoons”

  1. Couldn’t have said it better myself. What I find fascinating is that people who champion “Freedom of Speech” won’t do so for marginalized groups who also face violence & threats simply for sharing their lived experiences. Seems like “Freedom of Speech” is for White dudes who thrive on offending people.

  2. I’m not sure your comparisons with blackface cartoons or the cake in Sweden are apt (I haven’t seen Transformers so can’t comment on that one). Leaving Zwarte Piet aside, blackface is not socially acceptable now ( and would generally be considered racist. Secondly, the minister in question had to resign due to public outrage following that incident with the cake. So, it’s not as if the West is blind to these issues and that they can only be tackled by brutally gunning down journalists.

    Also, this line “we don’t see white people condemning the frightening Islamophobia that is widespread in the west” is factually incorrect. German Chancellor Angela Merkel used her new year address to decry the recent rise in anti-immigrant parades, saying its leaders have “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts” (you can find similar condemnations from Swedish politicians e.g. after the far-right brought down the government about 1 month ago).

    “After the shootings in Paris, I worried again about the increase of Islamophobia”. Was this before or after you empathised for the poor humans who needlessly lost family members that day (including two policemen and the caretaker who was unfortunately standing at the reception when the gunmen arrived).

    So, don’t worry, you don’t need to publicly condemn the killings. Your condemnation is very much apparent from the proportion of the article that even alluded to the victims.

    1. You are gravely mistaken about blackface not being socially acceptable. Countless number of Hollywood celebrities have dressed up in blackface, not to mention all of the examples of blackface we see at Halloween parties. Colton Haynes from the TV show “Arrow” shamelessly posted a picture of himself wearing blackface to look like Kanye West. The next year, he wore brownface and claimed he was dressing up as Gandhi. Most of the time, there isn’t any serious backlash against these celebrities. In fact, Colton Haynes was promoted to being a regular on “Arrow.” There are lots of articles on modern day blackface that you can find on Google. Oh, and have you looked at Joel Edgerton (and the rest of the cast!) in the Exodus movie?

      “German Chancellor Angela Merkel used her new year address to decry the recent rise in anti-immigrant parades, saying its leaders have “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts” (you can find similar condemnations from Swedish politicians e.g. after the far-right brought down the government about 1 month ago).”

      You’re missing the point I’m addressing about white supremacy and white privilege in particular. White privilege means white people don’t have to worry about a societal expectation or being demanded to apologize for crimes that other white people committed, nor do they have to deal with assumptions that they support and condone that violence. There isn’t any concern about racial profiling, hate crimes, workplace discrimination, informants/spies in your community, attacks on places of worship, etc.

      “Was this before or after you empathised for the poor humans who needlessly lost family members that day (including two policemen and the caretaker who was unfortunately standing at the reception when the gunmen arrived).”

      This statement of yours has insidious implications and is a shameful attempt to depict me as heartless. This is exactly the type of accusations and assumptions that Muslims have to deal with. I’m not going to answer this question because I’d rather let your Orientalist stereotypes about me swirl in your mind. Let me flip it around and ask you: why didn’t you say anything in your comment about the murdered Palestinians, Pakistanis, Iraqis, Afghans, Somalis I mentioned? Where is your condemnation for the Pakistani grandmother who was killed by a drone or the children in Gaza ruthlessly bombed by Israel? Do you know their names?

      “So, don’t worry, you don’t need to publicly condemn the killings.”

      You end your comment by saying I don’t need to publicly condemn the killings, but a sentence earlier, you ask a question that implies that I need to clarify my condemnation. Why are you asking me if I mourn for their deaths? Do YOU mourn the deaths of Muslims? You would have to be in a privileged position to tell Muslims “don’t worry” about continued increase in Islamophobia. Islamophobia is a reality and it’s not just limited to ignorant people saying mean things — it’s systematic and it impacts us in serious ways. Muslims in the west have been murdered by Islamophobes, beaten and harassed, discriminated against, shot at, profiled, kicked off planes, kicked out of classrooms/schools, detained, spied upon, regardless if they’re making condemnations or not. Please educate yourself, read more about Islamophobia, and get to know more Muslims.

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