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Fear of an Obama Planet grips some Americans

By Mona Eltahawy

July 17, 2008 | 12:55 am

As soon as I saw The New Yorker cover spoofing right-wing fear mongering over Barack and Michelle Obama, my first thought was that my friend, Sanjay, in Mumbai, India, had a point about Americans and stupidity.

What was it but stupidity that left so many Americans gullible to right-wing accusations that Obama was that turban-wearing, Osama bin Laden-loving Muslim on the magazine's cover, bumping fists with his militant, rifle-toting wife, Michelle, as the American flag burned in their fireplace.

Where was Barry Blitt's cartoon months ago, when a loud "So what?" might have nipped in the bud those ridiculous "Obama is a secret Muslim" rumors? So this Muslim, at least, was relieved to see the stupidity lampooned so starkly.

But as soon as I began to revel in the caricature, a little dismayed hand-wringing began. Because now the very people who were offended by right-wing accusations about Obama were acting offended by a cartoon lampooning those very same right-wing machinations. It is as if America has gone mad, or worse, gone brainless.

I remember a dinner-table conversation in Mumbai a couple of weeks ago when Sanjay -- an architect and businessman -- turned to me quite earnestly to proclaim, "Americans are inherently stupid."

"How do you live with them?" he asked.

There we were -- an Indian and an Egyptian -- discussing America over dinner at the Royal Yacht Club, built by British colonialists for the enjoyment of white privilege and off limits to us brown people back when they ruled India.

Then Manique, a Sri Lankan woman, joined the conversation to tell us that during a visit to the United States a few years ago, someone actually asked her if they had bread in Sri Lanka. I asked her, half-jokingly, if it was the same American who asked my dad at an Athens hotel over dinner years ago whether we had fruit in Egypt.

More than just shocked amusement, these incidents show why all of us would vote for Obama if we could. He would never ask us if we had bread or fruit in our countries. Why? Obama is much like us. He has traveled. He has lived abroad. And he has family in several countries. He has a different script for what an American is. He is an American who is comfortable as a citizen of the world -- with or without his lapel pin.

This is what makes the right-wing "secret Muslim" accusations and the stupid gullibility surrounding them all the more ludicrous and imperative to lampoon -- just as Blitt does in this week's New Yorker.

Those howls of "offensive" and "tasteless" flung at The New Yorker suggest to me Blitt's ability to lampoon not just the right wing but even some on the left wing who have promoted fears about Obama.

Wasn't it Hillary Clinton's campaign that leaked pictures of Obama in Somali traditional garb, looking just like that crazy figure on the cover of The New Yorker? And didn't Clinton herself suggest that white, working-class America wouldn't vote for black, hypereducated Obama?

And wasn't it The New York Times that published an op-ed by a right-wing commentator that was such an ignorant and embarrassing display, claiming that Obama wasn't Muslim enough and would be hunted by Muslims because he had abandoned the faith of his father -- who was an atheist, by the way.

Just as we were amused at how confounded Americans are that we, too, have bread and fruit in our countries, the Obamas confound because they don't fit with in simplistic boxes meant to keep them securely in their place. They're not at all the black stereotype, and it seems to scare the hell out of some Americans.

Jack White points out in an essay on The Root Web site: "We are all, including Obama, in a place we never really thought we would be, and it has knocked us off our feet. We don't know how to act. We don't have a plan. We're searching for our equilibrium. And until we regain our footing, we can expect all sorts of bizarre behavior from people who ought to know better. Hold on to your hat."

Which is why methinks the outrage over Blitt's cartoon is less an issue of genuine offense and more a case of "the lady doth protest too much." It touches on a fear of the world changing much too fast for many Americans to keep up.

The New Yorker cover ridicules an America that is being left behind, grappling with quaint notions of Muslims in regulation turban and white robe and militantly angry black women. And whether other countries have bread or fruit.

We, the children of a post-colonial world, don't fear an Obama planet. It has been our world for a long time. We're happy finally to see the growing success of one of our own.

No, I didn't mean a Muslim. Stop hyperventilating.


Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning, New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

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