"Liberal Snobs" and the Rest of Us: Arab American Reaction to the New Yorker

This week’s New Yorker cover showing Barack Obama in Muslim garb and his wife, Michelle, dressed as a Black militant has shown that even in a political campaign where race, gender and age barriers have tumbled, there are still some segments of American society that the media must handle with the utmost delicacy. The cover, meant as a parody of right-wing rumors about the Obamas, has instead re-ignited long-standing complaints by Arab Americans about mainstream media depictions of Islam.

Leading Arab American organizations have released statements and sent letters criticizing the New Yorker for falling prey to the same stereotypes that the magazine had aimed to dispel, or at least poke fun at, in regard to the Obamas.

“What this puts on display is the deep disconnect that exists between the “liberal snobs” of NYC and the rest of us,” Dr. James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute wrote Feet in 2 Worlds in an email.

“They think this is cute. Those of us who get our lives threatened and our careers ruined by the bigots who believe this crap do not think it is cute,” Zogby added.

The magazine’s cover, which places the Obamas in the Oval office with a picture of Osama bin Laden on the wall and an American flag burning in the fireplace, and shows the couple giving each other a fist bump, has been rebuked by both the Obama and the McCain campaigns along with the bulk of the mainstream media.

Arab Americans have pointed out that the imagery of the cover, which doesn’t have a title to clearly label it as a parody, could be used as right wing propaganda.

“The power of imagery is much stronger than that of satire. The average person that sees this, how do they feel?” asks Kareem Shora of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee. “Maybe the average reader of the New Yorker is not one of those people.”

Shora and Zogby both point out that by poking fun at the fear-mongering associated with rumors that Obama is Muslim, the magazine forgets that satire can backfire and can reinforce stereotypes rather than dispel them, especially among those not familiar with the New Yorker.

“Racism is not a very sophisticated mechanism, Zogby said in a formal statement released by the Arab American Institute. “Racism won’t read between the lines. It won’t even buy the New Yorker. It will simply point to that cover as vindication of all it believes to be true.”

Since the cover appeared in the liberal-leaning New Yorker, which has been supportive of Obama in the past, the thrust of the media debate has focused on the appropriateness of the satire. ABC’s Jake Tapper wondered if a conservative magazine could have gotten away with the same picture.

But some Muslims feels that the discussion is missing another key point: The New Yorker cover lumps being a Muslim with being a terrorist. The fact that a liberal magazine could make this association without a second thought is what should give people pause, Arab Americans said.

Arab commentator and stand-up comedian Ray Hanania tells Feet in 2 Worlds, that the cover was a “mirror” that reflected the ugly attitudes American society, across the political spectrum, has towards Islam.

“More offensive then them publishing it is the fact that so many Americans out there have such ugly hateful views … it’s so not American and yet it is a reflection of what America is all about today,” Hanania said.

Yaser Tabbara, Community Development Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, calls the cover part of a “holistic problem” that has denigrated Islam in America.

“… the New Yorker’s statement, astoundingly goes as far as referencing an “Islamic outfit” in the same sentence as flag burning, nationalist-radical outfits, hanging Bin Laden’s portrait on the wall, etc,” Tabbara wrote in an op-ed  provided to FI2W. (You can read Tabbara’s op-ed here.)

Tabbara says that while attempting to deal with a, “real problem,” the magazine, “falls miserably short of objecting to the same vitriol leveled against Muslims within the context of the said Obama attacks.”

But what of the role of satire and parody in political commentary? Since the days of Mark Twain, American funny men (and women) have been commenting on politicians and the political process through humorous and often edgy depictions.

In a statement the New Yorker claimed that the satire was meant, “to bring things out in the open.”

But Tabbara and Zogby argue, the New Yorker’s explanation shows a misunderstanding of the depth of anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. since 9-11.

“When your life is threatened—and mine has been, on at least six separate occasions since September 11, 2001—and when you deal with discrimination every day of your life, how can one ‘lighten up’, as someone suggested?” Zogby also said in his statement.

Islamic scholar, Mahmoud Ayoub, a professor emeritus at Temple University and a current fellow at Hartford Seminary says that there’s been a blind eye turned towards anti-Arab discrimination in the country.

He pointed to a new Homeland Security proposal that calls for a wide expansion of surveillance and interrogation laws that Arab groups say will make large swaths of the community subject to arbitrary racial profiling.

What Ayoub finds so dangerous about the New Yorker cover is, “the parodying, the smear tactics against Islam. This is what happened to the Jews before they were persecuted,” he added in reference to the Holocaust, “where will it all end?”

As to Obama, Ayoub believes, “it may not hurt so much in the long run.”