Though I like to think of myself as a thick-skinned person, it was impossible not to be affronted by Warren Brown’s cartoon in the Daily Telegraph last week, which depicts a swarthy, turbaned, stereotypically Muslim man lasciviously pursuing an Australian nurse.
Independent MP Kerryn Phelps stands between the two, admonishing the man to refrain until after the Medivac bill is passed in the Australian parliament. The image refers to that old-school, Benny Hill-era of comedy and slapstick cartooning in which sexual assault and racial stereotyping were played for laughs.
The bill in question, which passed in the Senate last week, gives doctors the authority to order medical evacuations for critically ill or at-risk refugees detained on Manus Island and Nauru to receive treatment in Australia. Brown connects it to the isolated case of an Afghan refugee (the swarthy, sharp-toothed figure in the cartoon) who allegedly assaulted two nurses at a Sydney hospital after being transported from Nauru. By linking that incident to the issue of medical evacuations, he co-opts the remaining refugees on Manus Island and Nauru as potential sex-predators, tapping into a long history of European racism in cartooning.
Tracing the lascivious foreigner
Brown’s image of the lecherous, foreign rapist builds upon long-running anti-Semitic and Orientalist tropes that have appeared in cartoons and book illustrations throughout the modern period, forming a visual genealogy of racist types.
Nationalist ideology commonly sees women as the symbolic preservers and property of the state — to be defended from marauding foreign invaders. A prominent theme of anti-semitic propaganda is the canard of the lascivious Jew who schemes to seduce or entrap European women. Nazi propaganda, including this image from Der Stürmer (1935), contains many such examples.
Australia has its own version of this in the anti-Chinese imagery that accompanied the arrival of gold prospectors in the second half of the nineteenth century. Racial xenophobia towards Chinese, Aboriginal and other non-European communities was commonplace, gaining legislative force in the White Australia Policy. In this cartoon from 1888, the various states of pre-Federation Australia are gendered as endangered white settler-women, exploiting fears of racial miscegenation.
The 'protection' of white women
In the era of the ‘war against terrorism’, Islamophobia has accentuated the way racism is conceptualised, including the imagined assault on white women by black or brown men. Like the examples shown earlier, this representation has antecedents in European literature and art: in The Lustful Turk, published in 1828, as in fictionalised descriptions of Indian rebels raping British women in popular literature following the so-called ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ of 1857.
The right-wing Polish newsweekly, wSieci (‘The Network’), visualised this fantasy for a contemporary audience in 2014. A woman is assaulted and stripped of her garment (a European Union flag), presumably by Muslim refugees and migrants. The magazine’s title reads: ‘The Islamic Rape of Europe’.
Today the Muslim refugee-as-rapist inhabits the conspiratorial worldview of the far-right wing, anti-immigration movement, who obsess over Islam as an ideological threat to Western civilisation. Yet it also contributes to the demonisation of asylum seekers and refugees in the public mind by a political class intent on manipulating this issue for electoral advantage.
This brings us back to Brown’s cartoon. If racism is about the unjust deployment of power against a group of people (and not just about the unfair stereotypes and generalisations people hold in their minds) then Brown’s cartoon fits the bill — for contributing to a specious narrative that would see hundreds of people continue to languish on Nauru and Manus Island indefinitely.
Why isn't there wider condemnation?
I wonder about the peculiar inability among many in the Australian cartooning community to identify this sort of thing? Today’s editorial cartoonist commands less influence in online spaces than easily generated, shareable memes which devise new ways of roasting the powerful. Yet at this crucial stage in which the profession would do well to adapt, or at least keep up with public sentiment, there seems to be a worrying silence and genuine lack of critical reflection in the cartooning fraternity.
If the furore surrounding Mark Knight and Bill Leak’s images in recent years tell us anything, it’s that Australia has a long way to go in resolving the problem of racism — how it is conceptualised and how it operates.
Yet there is hope if we can rectify the absence of diverse viewpoints in Australian cartooning and commercial media on the whole.
As the inspiring success of Indigenous, queer and POC comedians such as Nakkiah Lui, Aaron Fa'aoso, Steven Oliver, Hannah Gadsby, Aamer Rahman and Nazeem Hussein (to name a few) demonstrates, our culture is both enriched and enlightened when people on the margins get a say.
Safdar Ahmed is the author of the the Walkley Award-winning documentary web-comic Villawood: Notes from an immigration detention centre. You can follow Safdar on Twitter @safdarnama.