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Trapping Australian Arabs in a cartoon

By Abe Ata - posted Wednesday, 16 August 2006

Australian, and other Western ignorance about the Arab world - its peoples, religion, culture and literature - has mutated into many stereotypical forms: jokes, cartoons, TV commercials, serials, songs and films.

Cartoons are particularly a unique species. They require different criteria of assessment and approach. Unlike editors and news analysts, cartoonists may not feel obliged to present all sides of the story. Rather they make a blunt assault on the characteristics of their subjects, and pride themselves on being selective in their presentation.

Clearly cartoons are created to entertain. They present information and transmit unambiguous messages. They have also played a significant role in defining racial stereotypes.


The long-term effects of racist cartoons are enormous. My intuition compels me to believe that the damage caused to Australia’s Arab image – both Christian and Muslim - is beyond repair.

Other minorities such as Aborigines, Asians, Greeks and Italians have been the cartoonists’ delight since World War 1 but it has been with a difference.

The pitch of imagery targeting Muslims finds no match. The extent of the psychological wounds inflicted may warrant a nationally funded survey. Admittedly, the so-called Arab (Christian and Muslim) community leaders have not always been good at presenting their case.

Since the Six-Day War Australian cartoonists have adopted a different standard of assessment from those of ordinary journalists. To them an “objective” political caricature is considered to be a contradiction in terms. For a Muslim caricature to help sell more editions, the political or social comment must be graphic, blunt and succinct. It should also be a distortion of selected behaviour or morals.

Cartoonists in the Australian and Western press tend to pride themselves on their independence, and so they consider protests from their victims as attacks upon their own integrity. They have recognised that their success depends on their ability to reflect the prejudices and preferences of their readership. But they also seem to reflect those of their employers.


When the recent racial vilification laws were introduced most Australian cartoonists defended trapping Muslims in cartoons as satire. A cartoonist of a regional paper rejected that he was a propagandist promoting a particular editorial posture. However, he recognised that Muslim caricatures were often more effective in influencing community attitudes than news and current affairs programs.

A 20th century Punch-like caricature of a bog Irishman or long-nosed Jew, or Norman Lindsay’s grotesque Huns or "Chinamen" now seem repugnant. Not so for Australia’s Christian and Muslim Arabs. Clearly the cartoons are now infrequent but are highly pitched when they surface.

Early in the 1990s a sign, placed in the foyer of a Melbourne theatre where Barry Humphries’ An Evening’s Intercourse was being staged, offered an unequivocal directive: “Arabs, use the dunnies please.”

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The following individuals are to be acknowledged with great and sincere appreciation for providing permission to incorporate their cartoons in this article: Patrick Cook, Ron Tandberg, Peter Nicholson and Larry Mendonca.

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About the Author

Abe W Ata was a temporary delegate to the UN in 1970 and has lived and worked in the Middle East, America and Australia. Dr Ata is a Senior Fellow Institute for the Advancement of Research, and lectures in Psychology at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne). Dr Ata is a 9th generation Christian Palestinian academic born in Bethlehem.

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