Regarding the ‘Halloween Photo’
On Halloween a group of students posted a picture of themselves on Facebook which represented, as best I could tell, four American soldiers posing with an ambiguous, bearded, dark-skinned man. Two of the “soldiers” pointed toy guns at the man, who was kneeling below them. A Muslim-American student posted a lengthy reaction on Facebook denouncing the photo as offensive and racist. A flurry of comments followed retorting that the brown man in the picture represented not just any Muslim but Osama bin Laden, and that the white men in the photo represented SEAL Team Six. She was told to “stop being ridiculous,” that the photo was not anti-Muslim but rather a celebration of a mass-murderer brought to justice. That she took offense to such a photo was seen as largely illegitimate.
All those who dismiss her response as illegitimate are displaying an ignorance—whether willful or not I do not know—of the most basic fact about visual symbols, which is that they always have many meanings. Individual people, drawing on their own experience, read them differently. With regard to this incredibly charged photo, to say that the image depicts a specific person does not and cannot rule out other readings. This warrants a closer look.
Since the launch of George Bush’s war on terror (and further back, too), Americans have pointed a lot of guns at a lot of brown people, many of whom look a lot like the kneeling man in the photo. In the Internet age, these confrontations are often caught on film and posted online. In many cases the circumstances behind the photograph are very ugly and are rightly disturbing to most Americans. There are, of course, the notorious pictures from Abu Ghraib. Add those to the pornographic photos from the war in Afghanistan showing American soldiers mocking dead Afghanis, including urinating on corpses.
In the Halloween photo, two of the American “soldiers” flank the implicitly Muslim man; one leans over him to the point where he is nearly directly above him. He is smiling. Another “soldier” raises an American flag with his head tilted back, disinterested and apathetic to the violent scene before him. Those who insist that this photo can only be read as a reference to Osama bin Laden should educate themselves as to the images that are circulating around the globe, images that document the U.S. war on terror, images markedly similar to the Halloween photo in question. This context cannot be ignored.
For a long time now there has been a movement among some Native American communities to change the name of the Washington Redskins, a team in the NFL. The response of the greater American football fan base has been largely dismissive. Their argument is exactly that made by the defenders of the Halloween photo, namely that there is only one possible (and legitimate) reading of the word “Redskins,” that it is simply a name and innocent of any racism. The fact that the name could have another meaning for Native Americans, for whom the word evokes their genocidal history at the hands of white Americans, is often denied. For the sake of Muslims here and abroad, and for the sake of America’s position in the world, let us not dismiss the multiple meanings behind scenes such as the one enacted by students at our university. Personally, I’ve had it with marginalized American communities being told what they should and should not be offended by.