In a cartoon on the cover of the latest issue of the New Yorker, a turbaned Barack Obama fist-bumps his wife Michelle, who sports an AK-47. They are standing in the Oval Office, where a portrait of Osama bin Laden hangs on the wall and an American flag burns in the fireplace.
David Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor, explained that they had only intended to lampoon “right-wing” attacks on Obama: “Our cover…combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are. The burning flag, the nationalist-radical and Islamic outfits, the fist-bump, the portrait on the wall — all of them echo one attack or another. Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to the absurd. And that’s the spirit of this cover.”
Obama spokesman Bill Burton, however, was not amused. "The New Yorker may think," he fumed, “as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Sen. Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree.”
To see a political cartoon being denounced these days should make everyone uneasy. There are indeed plenty of political cartoons that are truly tasteless and offensive, but today international Islamic organizations are making concerted efforts to compel Western countries to limit free speech in the wake of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad that were published in late 2005.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the 57-government Organization of the Islamic Conference, declared recently that “confronting the Danish cartoons and the Dutch film ‘Fitna,’” which showed Muslims acting on violent passages in the Qur’an, “we sent a clear message to the West regarding the red lines that should not be crossed.” He said that Western countries had “started to look seriously into the question of freedom of expression from the perspective of its inherent responsibility, which should not be overlooked.” In other words, they were moving to restrict freedom of speech. Whether or not Ihsanoglu’s confidence that the West will soon outlaw criticism of Islam such as is implied by the Danish cartoons is warranted, it would have been wiser for the Obama camp to have laughed off this New Yorker cartoon.
What’s more, one would think Obama’s camp would have welcomed “a satirical lampoon of the caricature Sen. Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create.” Does Bill Burton think that this is how the New Yorker, of all publications, actually views Obama? That seems beyond the realm of possibility. So the only thing that reasonably explains his dudgeon over what is nothing more than a funny satirical cartoon is that he is afraid that a good number of Americans actually view Obama this way.
This is in line with the Obama camp’s general defensiveness over the issue of Obama’s Muslim ties. Obama has been going to some lengths to make sure nobody thinks he’s a Muslim. Nor has he been making any particular effort to add, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” – in fact, his denial of the claim that he ever practiced Islam is included on his “Fight the Smears” website, implying that to say that someone is a Muslim is to smear him.
And then there was the incident in the primary season where a couple of women wearing Muslim head scarves were shuffled out of camera range.
Muslim groups have noticed, and are unhappy. Junaid M. Afeef, director of public and government Affairs at the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal: “Many Muslim voters love Barack Obama. They love him even if he doesn’t seem to love them back.” Afeef complains that Obama “vociferously denies being a Muslim as if it were a slur.”
In the same vein, Altaf Ali, executive director of the South Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (an organization that the Justice Department has designated an unindicted co-conspirator in a Hamas terror funding case), noted that Obama had visited churches and synagogues, but no mosques – and called upon him to correct this omission. “Since 9/11,” complained Ali, “our community has been portrayed as inherently evil, and what Obama is doing is adding to the negative stereotype. His message is about change, and he has to appeal to every minority group.”
Still, it is unlikely that Muslim voters are going to throw in their lot in any significant numbers with McCain, and so Obama’s keeping them at arm’s length is evidence of his canny political calculation. He seems to be tacitly aware that people are suspicious of the violent and supremacist elements of Islam, although he has never spoken about them. Apparently he is altogether willing to throw a billion Muslims under the bus along with so many of his former friends and associates – at least until after the election.
Meanwhile, of much greater concern is the likelihood that a naïve and overconfident President Obama makes good on his promise to sit down and chat with the likes of Iran’s Ahmadinejad, and ends up becoming the latest national leader to learn the perils of appeasement. That prospect is more tasteless and offensive than any political cartoon.