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The New Yorker's Obama Cover: Fanning the Fire

by Eboo Patel, Asia Society Fellow

Originally presented in ABCNews.com, July 15, 2008


My wife called as I was staring at the cover of this week's New Yorker, trying to decide whether the depiction of Barack Obama dressed in traditional Muslim garb giving his machine-gun-toting wife a fist tap in the Oval Office was "tasteless and offensive" (as both the Obama and McCain camps stated) or mere humorous satire.

I am a loyal New Yorker reader and not easily offended, but something she said gave me pause.

Driving through central Illinois on a business trip, my wife could not believe what she was hearing on right-wing radio talk shows:
"Do you know what they're saying about Muslims on the station I'm listening to now?" she asked. "Basically, that we're a bunch of fundamentalists intent on suffocating people of other religions, and the only way to stop us is to get us all to convert to Christianity."

And that is what concerns me: The New Yorker cover is not so much offensive as it is dangerous, precisely because of the prevalence of negative stereotypes of Muslims (not to mention the resurrection of the ghost of black militancy), stereotypes now further cemented in much of America.

As the progressive Huffington Post blog said: "Anyone who's tried to paint Obama as a Muslim, anyone who's tried to portray Michelle as angry or a secret revolutionary out to get Whitey, anyone who has questioned their patriotism—well, here's your image."

Magazines exist in a broader environment and have to take that into account when they publish. There is a difference between falsely shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater and shouting the same word in an open field, where everyone can look around and see that you are lying.

Unfortunately, too much of the American populace is fearful and suspicious of Muslims. In a 2007 Pew Poll, 45 percent of Americans said Islam encourages violence. And a recent Gallup World Poll found that Americans' views of Muslims have actually gotten worse between 2006 and 2008, dropping 13 points.

This fear is not just in places like central Illinois. I am a frequent guest on public radio in cities like Minneapolis, Philadelphia and New York, places where The New Yorker has a strong readership, and nearly every show brings callers who ask me why Islam is such an inherently violent religion. For my group, Interfaith Youth Core, replacing religious misunderstanding with religious tolerance is a daily challenge.

There is a well-organized campaign under way to brand Barack Obama an extremist. Sean Hannity has made "stop the radical Barack Obama" a virtual chorus on his radio show. Claiming that Obama is secretly a Muslim—a rumor that Daniel Pipes has nurtured through an essay on his Web site, and which about 13 percent of the country believes—may be the quickest route to that goal.

The fact that Obama speaks frequently and eloquently about his Christian faith suggests that the "Obama is a secret Muslim" campaign may actually be a proxy for something else: the question of what role Muslims should be allowed to play in American public life. And that is a question that goes to the heart of what America is about.

I believe America is fundamentally a nation in which people from different backgrounds—white and black, Muslim and Christian, gay and straight—live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty. That is the nation that our founders envisioned.

Consider Benjamin Franklin, who insisted that the pulpit of a Philadelphia church he supported be open to a Muslim preacher in 1739. Or take George Washington, who wrote in a letter to a Jewish congregation in 1790, "May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants."

That is the America Obama speaks about building, and it is that America that those who are leading the whisper campaign are deliberately violating.

My sense is that the editors at The New Yorker were trying to depict that battle. Unfortunately, their efforts ended up illustrating the fantasies of conspiracy theorists rather than the possibilities of America.

Eboo Patel is a founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, and an Ashoka/Asia Society fellow.