Interview with Peter Gottschalk, co-author of Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Bias: Picturing the Enemy, 2nd Edition

In the minds of many Americans, Islam is synonymous with the Middle East, Muslim men with violence, and Muslim women with oppression. A clash of civilizations appears to be increasingly manifest and the war on terror seems a struggle against Islam. These are all symptoms of Islamophobia. This book, Islamophobia and Antimuslim Bias: Picturing the Enemy, 2nd Ed., explores the presence of these anxieties through the political cartoon—a medium with an immediate and powerful impact. After providing both background on Islamic traditions and the history of American interactions with Muslims, it graphically shows how political cartoons reveal Americans' casual demonizing and demeaning of Muslims and Islamic traditions—a phenomenon common among both liberals and conservatives. This book offers a fascinating and insightful look at our culture's misperceptions, and why it's so important to stop "making Muslims the enemy." Co-author Peter Gottschalk recently sat down with me to discuss his journey through the pop culture world of political cartooning – Vilmarie Vega, Independent Scholar.


VV: First of all … the book cover … it’s incredible. This is the second edition that we're working with. And “Islamophobia” so, clearly, it's very timely. Tell me what really drew you to this line of inquiry, and to the “physical“ world—to the drawing representations?

PG: I had a teacher who routinely gave slideshows that were describing the ways in which Arabs and Muslims were portrayed in Western media historically. And that really informed the way that I was teaching about Islamic traditions, and about Muslim communities. I began to recognize that, just as I was raised in an Islamophobic environment, that most, if not all, of the American students in my classes were also raised in that same environment. So I was teaching using this kind of [visual] technique to help prime them to some of the prejudices and biases about which they might not be aware of themselves.

After 9/11, I immediately had a very strong sense that Islamophobic and anti-Muslim sentiments were going to spike. And so I began to be more proactive in collecting cartoons that would well illustrate this issue, and to just kind of think about it more. As a result of one of the presentations that I made as a teacher in one of my classes, one of the students asked me if I would be an advisor for his honors thesis because he wanted to look at the history of these cartoons, which was not something that I had investigated yet. I'd already been thinking about writing a book—so I thought, well, if the student—his name is Gabriel Greenberg—does a good job with it perhaps we might be able to work collaboratively. 

VV: So Gabriel was your student? That answers question number two.

PG: Yes, he was my student and I felt that, if he did a good enough job with his thesis, then I would ask him to co-author a book; and he did a fantastic job! And he was willing to co-author the book so that's how the book came to be.

VV: Wow! So you have a lot of content to work with here—more than I would imagine actually. What sources do you mine for this? I mean, old newspapers? Or current newspapers? Where do you get these [cartoons]?

PG: So there is a distributor of political cartoons, and other types of cartoons, online that a great many editorial cartoonists and syndicates use to distribute their work. I literally have a feed from that group that puts—every morning—the cartoons of about two-dozen artists into my mailbox.

VV: That's amazing. How did you find out about that resource? Is it just commonly known?

PG: I think I just stumbled upon it. As I was becoming more methodical in my research, I began to look for examples from particular cartoonists over longer periods of time. This was really the best venue to explore that because they—the cartoonists—don't tend to keep their own archives, but this organization does.

VV: So what kinds of questions did you begin to ask initially … when these ideas were brewing in your mind? Was there an impetus for a particular direction?  Or did you approach it as we already talked about—historically? What angle were you coming from?

PG:  My initial angle was in looking at contemporary cartoons and seeing what kinds of images were being used to portray Muslims and/or Arabs. And it's important to say that, because in the American imagination, historically, very often “Arab” and “Muslim” have been conflated. Most Americans are really surprised to find that only 20% of Muslims around the world identify as that [Arab]. Actually, the realm in which I do the rest of my scholarship—South Asia—has far more Muslims than the Middle East and North Africa. So I was interested in looking to see what types of stereotypes—both physical stereotypes as well as behavioral stereotypes—were manifested in cartoons.

VV:  So when you were researching, was there anything that shocked you? Or wowed you? Or surprised you? Something really unusual?

PG:  Initially, when I was doing the research in the noughts—not long after 9/11—I was surprised that there was an almost perfect symmetry between cartoonists whose content tends to be liberal and progressive in messaging and the content of cartoonists who tend to be conservative in messaging. In their portrayals, they really shared the use of the same stereotypes and messages about Muslims and Islamic traditions, and that surprised me. At the same time, it didn't surprise me because, just as in the academy at that time, there was, and still is, to some degree—although I think less so—a palpable Islamophobic sense among many scholars, many who may have liberal tendencies. Many of them see Islamic traditions as being contrary to their liberal principles, and are not self-reflective at all about the history of where those sentiments come from.

VV: That is surprising! I would never have expected that. Are they open about it? If they are not being self reflective about it … they may not be aware of it, but still, it’s appalling.

PG: Well, things have changed, I think, for many academics in the last decade as the recognition of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment became more widespread. And that's kind of an interesting facet of all of this—that although there is clear evidence of Islamophobic and anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, in different forms and in different historical contexts, since before the founding of the republic, having the term “Islamophobia” helped to coalesce attention, to draw attention to this issue in a way that general discussion about antagonism to Muslims was not doing.

We find a similar sort of history in terms of the coining of the term “sexism” … the coining of the term “racism” … the coining of the term “anti-Semitism” … that in each one of those historical moments when that term was coined, it helped to crystallize both attention to the dynamics, but also attention to a set of dynamics that are associated with that term. So the same thing happened with “Islamophobia,” though less so with the notion of “anti-Muslim sentiment.” I think this was really helpful in convincing many liberals, both in the academy and outside the academy, that this was actually a very pernicious form of discrimination, that it involved elements of racism, and that involved elements of a anti-religiosity, and that it was simply a bias on the face of it.

What was interesting in the second edition of Islamophobia—and we added “anti-Muslim” sentiment to the title in order to draw out these sets of issues—was that when I looked through the 1500 cartoons that were created by ten cartoonists over the period of a year—five of them were perceptively liberal, five were perceptively conservative—there had been a major change. The liberal cartoonists tended to be much more sympathetic, if not empathetic, to Muslim oppression in the United States, to the persecution of the Muslim experience, and to the fear mongering around Islamic tradition that has existed. 

Unfortunately, the conservative cartoonists have really demonstrated no change from the kind of content they had, and other conservative cartoonists had, created earlier. And they still traded in the same sorts of racist stereotypes that commonly portray Muslim men as having a lot of hair on their face and their body, with a kind of crooked, broken or hawk-like nose, who are scowling because they're angry, and who are brown skinned as well. So that's part of the stereotype.

VV: So are you keeping current with the political cartoons now … after the Trump administration? Are you finding any changes? Or is it more of the same? Or is it perceptively worse?

PG: Yes I am. Sadly, it seems to be pretty much the same. I think that the conservative cartoonists seem to be doubling down and holding a certain line. Although some of them have demonstrated some skepticism toward the Trump administration, some seem to be holding firmly to a defensive posture, at least among the ones that I've examined. The others—the liberal cartoonists—are, I think, continuing to demonstrate a loyalty to their notion of “critique”… of “social critique” … which includes Muslims as much as it includes Jews and Christians and atheists and agnostics, but at the same time, recognizing that there are some real issues of injustice, especially with regard to the Muslim travel ban and the portrayal of American Muslims as inherently foreigners.

VV: I can picture a conservative cartoon the way you just described it. What is a typical example of a liberal cartoon?

PG: Liberal cartoonists dealing with “Islamophobia”—that is, when they're deliberately portraying Muslims as Muslims—they often do not put the person into any particular types of clothing, or particularly portray them as having one skin complexion as against another … When they are drawing a group of Americans, we generally see an increasing use by liberal cartoonists of women in hijabs, particularly as markers of Muslim inclusion. That way, a woman in hijab is just as much a part of an American scene … as a man in a New York Yankees baseball cap … as a woman wearing blue jeans; so it's not drawing out that this person is Muslim, but marking the person as just part of an American scene.

VV: I don't have the correct terminology, Islam is not my field, but my question is, again, without the proper terminology, I understand that it is in some way prohibited to depict Muhammad in a cartoon form. The Charlie Hebdo incident, and things like that, I've been alerted to, but just the way anyone else would be, I have not studied it in that way, so I'd love to hear your take on this … Is there anything that the conservative cartoonists do? Do they try to depict Muhammad in some way or do they stay away from that?

PG: First, let me just address the perception of the prohibition on depiction of the Prophet because I think that is something that many Americans are quite misinformed about and about which, unfortunately, even really well-regarded news sources like The New York Times and The Washington Post continue to perpetuate a misunderstanding. For instance, the cartoon controversy that was generated by the competition in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten to have portrayals of Muhammad published about 15 years ago, which generated a dozen cartoons of the Prophet and other figures. One of these actually criticized the editor for commissioning these cartoons in the first place … recognizing that he was, in some ways, baiting Muslims to respond. But one of the particularly offensive images that many Muslims point to, and especially ones with whom I've spoken to, is an image that depicts Muhammad with a cartoonish bomb in his turban; one of those bowling ball sized bombs with the fuse hanging out. Muslims with whom I've spoken, and many others about whose perspectives I've read, have not objected to this primarily because it's “against Islam” to portray the Prophet. In fact, we see pictorial portrayals of the Prophet, for instance, in Iran today. Meanwhile, if you go to almost any large museum that has a historical collection of Islamic art, you'll probably find Persian, Turkish, and South Asian miniatures that portray the Prophet. It was never seen as common in most Muslim communities, and in some Muslim communities it was prohibited, both in others it might at times have been prohibited but at other times it was allowed. There are all sorts of variation about this. But the most important aspect of the issue it that the Muslims with whom I've spoken really objected to the imagery because Muhammad—for many Muslims—exists as a type of role model that is quite distinct from the ways in which many Christian see Jesus, or Jews might see Moses, or Buddhists might see the Buddha, because there's a sense that this person was an everyday person, this person was fully human; this person had a life that involved being not just a son, but also being a father … being a husband … being a political leader .. an economic leader … somebody who struggled in his life in various ways and so he's a role model in a much broader way for Muslims than we find in many religious communities.

So much is this so that there are plenty of examples of Muslims who, for instance, will dye their beard with red henna because of the fact that the Prophet did that. Or there are ways in which the Prophet prayed that some Muslims copy because of the literature that repeats other Muslims’—early Muslims’—recollections of the Prophet. This depicted not just what he said, but how he behaved, and many Muslims modeled their own behavior after these depictions. They see Muhammad as the best of all humans—not just the best of all Muslims—but the best of all humans. So to criticize the Prophet … to portray the Prophet as inherently violent … to have a bomb ticking in his turban … is to imply that he is essentially violent and a terrorist, which is really to implicate all Muslims—in the minds of many Muslims—to suggest that all Muslims are inherently violent, are all terrorists. This is something that almost no media outlet has picked up on. Unfortunately, these media outlets are simply re-inscribing this “West versus Islam” … “Christianity versus Islam”… “Judaism versus Islam” notion as an absolute difference in values. The misperception also plays into the equally unfortunate narrative that Muslims are against the freedom of expression. So that's really something that has to be undermined.

At the beginning of all my classes in which I'm going to use images of the Prophet or the family, such as when I'm going to talk about the early uuma—the early community of Muslims—I send around a simple questionnaire which says “if you have an objection to the portrayal or seeing the portrayal of the Prophet as family, please just put an x—no name, just an x—on the sheet.” Most of my Muslim students never write an x … but some do, and I honor that (I have an alternative version of the lecture in which I just don't show these particular images, as they are not critical to what I'm teaching—since I'm not teaching art history). But this just goes to show that this is not an issue for every Muslim.

VV: Is there a particular audience that you wanted to reach with this book? 

PG: Gabe and I really wanted to write a book that was going to be accessible to college audiences. We really saw a college audience as our primary audience.  If it had reach to more general audiences, that would be fine, but we didn't want to diminish the level of scholarship that we were using in order to do that.

VV: Are you happy with the reception that you've gotten so far?

PG: It's been very gratifying that, ten years after the initial publication, Roman & Littlefield decided to come out with a second edition, and that we were able to contribute new chapters to update the last ten years and the changes that I spoke about, but also to have another chapter on the depiction of Muslims in films that deal with terrorism.

VV: I want to say I that love the cover so much. It looks like a superhero comics. I wondered what went into that? How did you find that artists for this? What went into the cover?

PG: It’s a far less deliberate process then you might think. The publisher was interested in an image that we could get a royalty-free, so that drastically reduced the options that we had. We were trying to avoid any of the options that would play into the stereotypes that we were critiquing—since that would be counterproductive to our purpose—so we thought of this cover as being one that, in some ways, is its own satire of cartooning that is sensationalistic and exaggerated.

VV:  Yes, I see that. Especially with the “boom” … the comic book style “boom, crash” imagery. 

PG: And that is, unfortunately, what some of the political cartoons have done … to exaggerate and exacerbate notions of inherent contestations and inherent violence so we thought that the cover image really helped to demonstrate this, while putting it into the genre of cartooning itself, which is obviously instrumental to the entire volume.

VV: How do you want the book to be used in that “college audience”?

PG: I think that Gabe and I would be most pleased if the book was used in college classrooms in which students see—in the images—a reflection of some of the sentiments they might themselves have. Just for myself, as somebody who was raised in a society filled with Islamophobic sentiments and ideas, I have found that conversations with people help to draw out those sentiments, help me to realize them, to put them into a different light so that I can realize how I hold them, and how illogical and unsubstantiated they are. We hope that some of the cartoons do that while, at the same time, some of the other cartoons demonstrate ways in which we can think about Muslims as not “just Muslims,” but also as our neighbors … as fellow Star Trek fans … as our fellow students … and to really build models of inclusion and pluralism.

VV: What is your next project? What are you currently working on and does it relate at all to the cartoon issue?

PG: I'm interested in the ways in which academic discourse about Islamic traditions itself might be part of the problem: a call for reflectivity.

VV: The last question: is there anything else at all you'd like to mention about the book that we haven't covered?

PG: The one thing that I haven’t spoken on is how gratifying it was to work with Gabe on this project. The collaboration with a former student was so terribly fruitful, and that he helped me in so many ways to think about these issues in ways that I had not thought about before. I'm really grateful to Gabe that he was willing—and is still willing—to share this journey with me.