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Anti-Incitement Tribune Policy
Critical to Fighting Hate Crime

Chicago Tribune






The Problem described:

Fumbling through the pages of yesterday's copy of the Chicago Tribune (9/9/2004), I was taken aback by a political cartoon published on page 20. The cartoon depicts four Middle Eastern caricatures smoldering with anger at the news of Abu Ghraib juxtaposed with an image of them whistling away, a sign of disinterest, at the news of the massacre of Beslan.

I found this cartoon troubling for several reasons. Firstly, the cartoon makes a collective statement about Muslims, any responsible reporter will tell you no good can come out of that. It demonizes Muslims, an obviously disheartening and even endangering situation. Secondly, the message in the cartoon is quite simply not in accordance with the facts. Thirdly, the artwork itself is demeaning to Muslims as it is a rudimentary show of primitive stereotyping and gross generalization.

Robert Ariail, the well respected, award-winning cartoonist who penned this caricature has said, "I don't take cheap shots, but I like to make a point. I want my cartoons to say something, or at least to show the irony of a situation." I think Mr. Ariail’s motto often fails him when it comes to Islam. My letter is intended to show in clear terms why we believe this caricature is more of a “cheap shot”, and less of a portrayal of irony. This is of added significance when realized that Mr. Ariail’s tendency to generalize and demonize Muslims and Islam is not an aberration, but a pattern. Muslims are the only mass group collectively targeted by Mr. Ariail; most of his cartoons target individuals, institutions, or events.

Demonization of minority groups jeopardizes the safety of our citizens:

Fact: hate crimes against Muslims in America are on the rise. Incidents logged by CAIR - our nation's most cited Muslim civil rights and media watch group - range from verbal abuse on the streets, to discrimination at the work place, to physical attacks and even murder. Attacks on Muslim property and Mosques range from the frequent vandalization or desecration to the occasional out-and-out scorching into thin dust.

Though these crimes are senseless, they are not without reason. Irresponsible and sensational media reports that demonize Muslims feed heavily into this frenzy creating an atmosphere that is conducive to, and even incitive of, hate crimes. We do not hold such coverage as solely responsible, but our research has certainly shown it is a major contributing factor. The legal term for this phenomenon is "incitement". It is a serious situation that beckons an immediate remedy.

Primitive Stereotyping:

Thankfully, most respectable American publications have long overcome the use of primitive stereotyping to depict minority groups. It is no longer acceptable to see blatant stereotyping of Blacks, Asians, Jews, or gays in the newsprint. For example, would you publish a cartoon collectively depicting the African world dressed in straw-skirt costumes, or the Asian world dressed in straw hats, and engaging in a collective emotion? Hopefully the answer is "No". Why, because such images are reminiscent of a bygone era whence fair journalistic values and integrity took a backseat to bigotry and scapegoating.

But the question quickly becomes: why then do some media personnel still find it acceptable to subject Muslims to such vintage bigotry? Is it because they believe Muslims as a minority have not yet attained the immunity afforded other more politically-mature groups in America?

Singling out Muslims:

Unfortunately, your readers must face the rude awakening that the dwindling practice of primitive stereotyping has in fact not gone extinct as wishfully believed; it still rears its ugly head from time to time. We are regrettably reminded through your published cartoon that it is somehow still acceptable to casually subject certain groups to this same old bigotry and stereotyping, even as it is out of the question to do so with other groups.

Generalization:

What makes you think the four caricatures in your cartoons are representative of the "Muslims world"? In truth, the attire of Muslims range from thousands of different regional and cultural costumes to universal western fashion. Why do you choose the garb of one particular geographic location to represent 1.4 billion people whose dress code varies widely? We fear this may reinforce the misconception that the Islamic faith is a Middle-Eastern affair. This misconception is a serious one that lies at the root of the widespread misunderstanding of Islam in America. To battle it is to educate and uplift; to reinforce it is to misguide and confuse.

The reality is that Islam is at home in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Far Asia, Russia, and Western Europe as much it is at home in the Middle East. As the matter of fact it is just at home in America as it is in Antarctica. That is because Islam is not an ethnic code, nor a political ideology. It is a state of the heart and mind, one that seeks to put the soul at ease with itself and with its surroundings. Islam is a faith that can be at home wherever a heart beats and a mind contemplates. Any suggestions that Islam is a function of a certain culture or locale misinforms and misguides the public to the detriment of all parties involved.

Misrepresentation:

All four caricatures depict ultra-conservative Muslims, yet the text indicates that they are supposed to represent the entire Muslim world. This is a preposterous misrepresentation. The Muslim world houses the ultra-conservative, the ultra-liberal and everything in between. Why does the cartoonist use one faction to generalize about an entire world? Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan (whom the four caricatures clearly spoof) are not “the Muslim world”.

One way vision:

War in Chechnya has been raging on for a decade. The civilian death toll among Chechens is immense. The breadth and intensity of human rights abuses in Chechnya are some of the worst estimated for the last 10 years. Notwithstanding all of this, Western media coverage of the suffering of the war-battered Chechens has been little to none. Condemnation by the Western masses of the - even non-disputed - atrocities has been little to none. Consequently, some accuse the West of a deafening silence in the face of the annihilation of the Chechens. Did you publish a similar cartoon expressing this viewpoint and chastising the west for it?

Inaccuracy:

Most significantly, the message you are sending out through your cartoon is inaccurate. There is no evidence that the Muslim world was in anyway accepting of, or even indifferent to, the tragedy in Beslan. All indications coming from all corners of the Muslim world clearly point to a strong condemnation of the heinous act. (Do you even realize that Muslims were amongst the victims of Beslan massacre? I am sure you would find the non-silent shrills of their agonized mothers quiet deafening). Countless Muslims from all over the globe strongly sympathize with the victims and their families - Muslim or not. They have no doubt in their minds that the murder of children and innocent adult civilians cannot possibly have any justification - regardless of circumstance. There are a number of circulating reports that describe the horror and condemnation expressed amongst Muslims in the wake of this tragedy, reports such as the one entitled "Siege prompts horror among Arabs" published in the "World" section of CNN.com on Sep 5, 2004.

Requests:

In conclusion, I would like to make a few requests of the editor.

I ask that your esteemed publication adopt a policy that is sensitive to the grave implications of incitement, therefore steering away from reports that demonize any entire group of people, Muslim or not. It is worth mentioning that the very same day the Chicago Tribune published this cartoon, the LA Times, also a Tribune company, published an article by the title "criminals, not Muslims". The article presented objective, informative reporting; therefore, acting to bridge gaps rather than to widen schisms. It better served all parties by helping to stir intelligent conversations about Muslims and the West, rather than cater to embitterment and hate. We point to this approach as an example to be followed.

I ask that the cartoonist in question be advised to show more sensitivity to your Muslim-American readership, just as he would to those of other minority groups. If he fails to do so, I ask that your esteemed publication refrain from publishing any of his inflammatory work in accordance with the Tribune policy of fair and sensible journalism.

I ask that you grant me the opportunity to publish as an editorial, a version of this letter that would filter the informative points into a standalone letter, and not a reaction to a cartoon. It would go a long way in battling misconceptions that cartoons like the one in question help create in the first place. You owe it to your readership.

Lastly, I ask that your publication lends itself as a medium for Chicago Muslims to express themselves at times of need. Part of the reason accusations of silence are leveled at Muslims is due to a shortage in the media affording ordinary Muslims opportunities to speak out. I for one, on behalf of my organization, would be glad to voice the stances of our Chicago Muslim constituency loud and clear through your pages - in support of justice for all, and in opposition to injustice against any.

Our organization, alongside the many concerned members of our community, looks forward to your response. I thank you greatly for your attention.

Ahmed Rehab
Communications Director
CAIR Chicago



copyright © 2004, CAIR Chicago





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