Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Bias

Picturing the Enemy, 2nd Ed.

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Peter Gottschalk, Gabriel Greenberg
  • New York, NY: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , July
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.



In Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Sentiment: Picturing the Enemy, Second Edition authors Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg update their original 2007 work—Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy (Rowman & Littlefield)—including a new introduction and three additional chapters. Picturing the Enemy examines anxieties about Muslims, primarily in the United States, by looking at two forms of popular expression: cartoons and films. Throughout the book cartoons accompany the text, ranging from a publication in 1787 of Catherine-the-Great of Russia battling Sultan Selim III, to a 2016 cartoon of a disgruntled man looking to escape American election coverage (42, 238). Through the medium of cartoons, Gottschalk and Greenberg examine complicated concepts such as Islamophobia and stereotypes in a manner that is both accessible and comprehensive. This book is accessible enough to include on an undergraduate introductory syllabus, but also specialized enough for readers who are familiar with the concept of Islamophobia, or the study of the Muslims in the United States, to benefit from.

Gottschalk and Greenberg join a growing list of academics—including Khaled Beydoun and Erik Love—who seek to theorize anti-Muslim sentiment. Gottschalk and Greenberg defend the term Islamophobia against those who say it is overly pathologizing, arguing that the phenomenon is a result of social anxiety rooted in cultural memory and production (4). This defense is well supported by their analysis throughout the book. For example, a cartoon in 2016 draws a parallel between Muslim women in burqas and establishment US Republicans. This cartoon represents Islam as a civilizational “other” whose values are different from America’sand draws on the Islamophobic trope that Muslim women are oppressed (the corollary trope to this is that Muslim men are violent) (67).The authors distinguish between Islamophobia as a “fear of religious ideologies and practice” and anti-Muslim sentiment as the “rejection of certain types of bodies.” This distinction may be difficult to maintain in practice, but it a helpful discursive tool, and presents a more nuanced way of approaching Islamophobia. 

Throughout their analysis, Gottschalk and Greenberg return to the theme of normativity. They explain succinctly that those with the most power in a society establish its norms (81). Muslims in the West are keenly aware that their views on Christianity do not hold the same weight in terms of influencing real world policies as Western notions of Islam do (12). Power dynamics determine what topics are off limits and sacred, and what topics are fair game for humor. The imagery used by political cartoonists frequently sends the message that Muslims are outside of the norm of American society. 

Gottschalk and Greenberg define and clarify for their readers the differences between symbols, stereotypes, and caricature. Some common symbols of difference in Islam are obvious—such as the crescent and the veil—but readers may be less aware of others, such as the scimitar (a curved sword), despite their prominence in cartoons. The authors explain that caricatures purport to resemble those they depict (even if its exaggerated), whereas symbols are representations. The authors draw from a plethora of historical examples throughout the book, which helps to effectively illustrate the ways in which symbols and stereotypes change over time. For example, they point out that during the Cold War the Americans and Soviets did not care about the religious affiliation of their proxies. 

When the caricature relies solely on symbols used by outsiders to depict a group, the image then becomes a stereotype (84). For example, a Jeff Danzinger cartoon shows the Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan using Arab-specific symbols, including the wearing of kaffiyehs and thobes (86). Stereotypes are not concerned with accuracy; their main purpose is to put down “them” in order to define “us” (90). In several instances throughout the book there are striking similarities between depictions of Jews and Muslims in political cartoons. A French cartoon from 1903 called “The Qualities of the Jew” and a 1956 cartoon called “Reading the Arab Mind” are almost identical. Both depict large-nosed men with sections of their brains labeled with negative (stereotyped) qualities (89). It was beyond the perview of this book, but in future collaborations, it would be fascinating to see these authors explore in more detail the overlaps in stereotypes about Muslims and Jews.

In the introduction the authors state that they do not want to draw attention to any individually prejudiced cartoonists, rather it is their belief that the sentiments displayed in these cartoons are indicative of how many Americans feel about Muslims (7). This is a fair sentiment, but it might have been helpful to provide a little more context for the uninitiated reader as to how the world of cartooning works. Are these cartoons commissioned? Or did the cartoonists pitch their own ideas? Certain cartoonists’s names appeared more prominently than others—do some cartoonists carve out a niche for themselves, commenting on a particular subject manner, similar to a journalist? As the authors explain in the conclusion, many Americans have not personally met a Muslim, so these cartoons are not just a commentary, they are also creating and informing American perceptions of Muslims (236). 

In a footnote in the first chapter, Gottschalk and Greenberg write: “[s]ome readers responded to the first edition by asking why we did not similarly explore cartoon characterization of Americans in Muslim-majority countries (21).” Such a response is indicative of the importance of this work. As the authors’ note, this request implies that Muslims do not have a right to complain about the stereotypes foisted on to them. Many historically-oppressed groups have been able to shift the majorities’ perceptions of them by naming and bringing attention to malicious stereotypes (234). Through identifying and dismantling common tropes, Gottschalk and Greenberg open up space for us to imagine more nuanced and multidimensional depictions of Muslims.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yasmine-Flodin-Ali is a doctoral student in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where she studies the racialization of Muslims in the United States.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Gottschalk is Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University. His books––which include American Heretics and Religion, Science, and Empire––draw on his research and experience in India, Pakistan, and the United States.

Gabriel Greenberg serves as the Rabbi of a synagogue in New Orleans, where he lives with his family.


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