ExperimentalExperience

Archive for December, 2008|Monthly archive page

The Limits of Photojournalism And Things More Worthwhile

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Essays Related To Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Our Wars, Photography, Poetry on December 31, 2008 at 3:45 pm

It is perhaps the most interesting, creative and compelling book of photography I have ever read. I have looked and read it over a dozen times in the last 8 years.  Edward Said & Jean Mohr’s ‘After The Last Sky: Palestinian Lives’ is perhaps the only example that I know of of a brilliant writer and a sensitive photographer collaborating to produce something remarkably insightful, intelligent and provocative at the same time.

For the first time a writer has worked directly from photographs to produce essays that speak to the deeper, human and ever lasting issues concerning the question of Palestine and the lives of the Palestinians in exile and under occupation.  And has done so without resorting to hysteria or sensationalism. As a book, an endeavor, setting aside its subject, it is a masterpiece of photojournalism that informs and elevates its subject beyond images and words alone.

And similarly, Jean Mohr, a wonderful Swiss photographer I fear is mostly forgotten these days, has traveled beyond the devastated and desperate Palestinian landscapes to excavate the gentle and human rhythms and to reveal the humanity and daily ordinariness of Palestinian’s life.

This is real photojournalism; engaged, creative, insightful, committed, patient, lasting, influential and thought provoking.  It is photojournalism that attempts to contribute to the dialogue about an issue, without seeming desperate to sensationalize or be recognized.  It is photojournalism that goes beyond the personality of the photographer, and instead highlights the lives of the subjects, and issues on hand and the questions that are relevant.  It is real photojournalism, and for the last 8 years, Said/Mohr’s ‘After The Last Sky’ has been my personal measure of how photojournalism should be done.

Anything less is mere picture making.

I met Jean Mohr in Jerusalem in 2003 at an exhibition sponsored by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). He was one of my earliest influences and inspirations, and in fact my early work on the Sattar Edhi Center in Karachi, Pakistan was inspired by one of his pictures from the same center.  Lets be honest, I set out to imitate him! I was drawn to him because of the complexity of his images that never crossed the line into voyeurism, sensationalism or some desperate attempt to titillate.  In person he was appropriately shy – I seemed to scare him.  I thought I saw his champagne glass shake with fear when I introduced myself to him and said that he had been a major influence on my work! The creative, exciting conversation that i had imaged we would have never materialized.  After a few minutes of clumsy and formal introductions and pleasanteries, Jean Mohr was pulled away (or found an excuse to leave?) and I never got a chance to speak to him again.

I have on my shelves a few hundred books of photography and photojournalism.  Most of them large, expensively bound tomes that suggest gravity of intent and purpose.  Serious artists at work.  Only a handful have I poured over in detail, savoring each page, and learning something new from it.  Robert Frank’s “The Americans’ is one that I have come back to again and again.  That is a cliche.  Said/Mohr’s “After The Last Sky’ is in fact not even on my photography book self.  It is instead placed in along my other books.  And that I think is it’s highest achievement.

Said/Morh’s “After The Last Sky’ is the only photography book I know that is filed under ‘Middle East History’, and not under the ‘Photography’ section of any mainstream bookstore.  In fact, that is where I remember finding  my copy – in the ‘Middle East History’ section of the Barnes & Noble store on 555 5th Avenue in Manhattan in 2001.  And that is this book’s greatest achievement – that it has lifted itself away from the shallow and limited value of being just another photo book to being a book about history!

My shelves are laden with these high art tomes of photography.  Most mere decorations.  Clutter.

And so much of today’s photojournalism is mere clutter.  Illustrations really, not illuminations.  We no longer seem to know the difference.  We no longer appear prepared to go beyond the picture and to reveal the more complex political, economic, social and historical issues at stake.  Perhaps worse, there is something rather close to middle class voyeurism in what passes for essential photojournalism.  This is perhaps a little discussed subject when it comes to the field of photojournalism i.e. the class divisions between those who make the pictures and those who become the subjects and how it influences what, who and how we represent.

A brief perusal of the kinds of subject matter that is recognized as ‘photojournalism’ or ‘documentary photography’ reveals this bias;  drug addicts (anywhere), transvestites (anywhere, but especially in Asia), prostitutes (anywhere, but especially in Asia), drugs and drunks in Russia, street children, the mentally ill (like shooting fish in a bowl!), strip clubs/strippers, prisons, the physically handicapped, hungry/pleading Africans, crazy/blood thirsty Africans, exotic ritual/false exotic culture stories that offer us the ‘other’ as primitive etc.  All subjects popular with young photographers, grant committees, and photojournalism education institutes shoving students out towards the ‘downtrodden’ neighborhoods to find their stories. All about comunities that can ‘shock’ middle class sensibilities and offer us a mean to sneer, pity, or simply express remorse.

There have been many discussions and endless arguments about where photojournalism stands today and what ails it.  Few seem prepared to say that it has stagnated, and that its creative energies are being wasted on the purchase of new toys and technology gizmos rather than on the complex and demanding art of constructing and telling new stories from new angles and in new ways.  To the human art of seeing our world for its complexities and attempting to speak about them.

I continue to look for stories that connect us to them, reminding us that their lives and our lives are connected in intricate, obvious ways if we would only bother to look. From Kivu to Khartoum, to speak of African alone, what transpires there is directly connected to what transpires here.

Maybe a new photo reportage on Zimbabwe perhaps that does not fall into the simplistic and easy narratives about a nation misruled by a yet another mad African leader – see again Mamdani on Zimbabwe . Or something on Africa’s HIV/AIDS crisis that reveals to us how effective indigenous, small scale programs of prevention and care have been in contrast to the waste and corruption engendered in the multinational/NGO industries involved in the matter – as demonstrated by Helen Epstein in her book ‘The Invisible Cure’.

And maybe that is why Said/Mohr’s work continues to stand out because it is not constrained by the limits of the image, or the need to have a story published in a weekly news magazine, or the preferences of a particular photo editor.  It reveals connections, human, political, social and historical, between its subject and us and does so without cleansing the matter of its uncomfortable realities.

It remains a work liberated from the constraints of the craft, and the media structures that sustain and also constrain it.  Jean Mohr does not like to write, but in the book’s Introduction he reveals the personal, moral and perhaps dissident motivations for his nearly 50 years of work on the lives and displacement of the Palestinians.  He tells of a conversation with ‘… a respected reporter and a perfect connoisseur of the world of photography.’ where this individual asks:

‘And what projects are you working on at the moment?’

‘An exhibition…and…I’m working on the completion of a new book, something very close to my heart.’

‘What’s it about?’

‘The Palestinians’

There was a rather long silence…my friend looked at me with a slightly sad smile, and said ‘Sure, why not! But don’t you think the subject’s a bit dated? Look, I’ve taken photographs of the Palestinians too, especially in the refugee camps…its really sad! But these days, who’s interested in people who eat off the ground with their hands? And then there’s all that terrorism…I’d have thought you’d be better off using your energy and capabilities on something more worthwhile!’ (From After The Last Sky, page 7)

It seems to me today we are all working on ‘something more worthwhile!’ i.e. avoiding works that question our prejudices and misunderstandings, or are just politically impolite and rude, or focus on issues and angles that may reveal new truths and insights to situations considered known.

I simplify; photographers like Jason Ezkenazi, Jon Anderson, Simon Wheatley, Sara Terry to name a few continue to pursue the complex, complicate and demanding.

I am speaking about works that take risks, that reveal independence of thought, and a commitment to confront our seemingly endless need to simplify.  Works that are not constrained by the need for the obvious image, but given flight by the possibilities of what the subject can reveal.  Works that are about teaching us which questions to ask.

I have struggled with these thoughts for every year that I have been working as a professional.  They are guides in my personal journey as a photographer, with all my current works revealing the vast distances I  have yet to travel to reach these ideals.

In the mean time, today, the last day of 2008, I have a copy of ‘After The Last Sky’ in my hands, and a prayer in my heart for the voiceless and forgotten people of Gaza.  As Darwish himself said it best (didn’t he always!)

Where should we go after the last frontiers,

where should the birds fly after the last sky?

Women Are Stupid And Other Pathologies of Patriarchy

In Essays Related To Pakistan, The Daily Discussion on December 27, 2008 at 7:33 pm

The Dawn newspaper, Pakistan’s leading English language daily, reported recently that The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) has declared the term ‘gender equality’  ‘vague and un-Islamic’ and called for its repeal.  You can see the original piece here.

The council argued that the concept of ‘gender equality’ was impractical because of ‘distinct differences’ in anatomy and physical and mental capabilities. The CII described the term as ‘absurd and un-Islamic’.

I will not even raise the point about the validity and legality of a Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) reviewing and recommending changes to the constitution in a citizen’s democracy, however crippled and constrained it may be in Pakistan.

I will not even raise the issue about how this council of ‘learned’ men (there is one woman member of this council of 9 I believe) determined that a woman’s ‘mental capabilities’ are distinctly different (i can’t help but suspect that they meant to say ‘less’) from that of a man.

I will only point out to this group of ‘learned’ men that ‘gender equality’ is not a declaration of a woman’s physical and mental equality with a man, but in fact a demand for equal rights, equal protections and equal freedoms under the law.  These rights are to be bestowed regardless of physical, mental, and any other ‘difference’.   They have little or nothing to do with the fact that a woman is anatomically or mentally different from a man, though again, how they figured out the latter confounds me.

That this body of men, many with long and intimidatingly impressive resumes, don’t understand this simple difference is dismaying.

That this body uses some interpretation of ‘Islam’ as a weapon to further diminish the rights of the weak is quite pathetic.

Ironically this council has never found military dictatorships as ‘un-Islamic’.  Neither have they in their infinite Islamic wisdom made statements about state use of torture, disappearences, summary executions, dispossession of the landless,  or on government graft and corruption.  It seems not to have thought it ‘un-Islamic’ that innocents are murdered, that our legal system is corrupt and dysfunctional, that the ordinary man and woman in Pakistan remains devoid of legal and judicial protection.  It has not found acid attacks, honor killings, police brutality, ‘un-Islamic’, or the killings of the country’s Baluchi or tribal area citizens by the Pakistan Army and police forces as ‘un-Islamic’.

Our constitution is used and abused almost daily by self-serving criminals in political garb, but the CII has remained politely tolerant of these mutations, focusing instead on the culture threatening implications of the term ‘gender equality’!

They fill their resumes with long lists of qualifications, certificates and degrees, and yet find ways to remain so supremely stupid.  It is quite an achievement.

Note:  I did not realize that Pakistan had such a body looking into matters of whether Pakistan’s constitution met with the standards of the Koran and/or the Sunna.  It seems to be a child of the Ayub Khan military government and was entered into the 1962 constitution as an ‘advisory’ body whose members were selected by the President.

Note: An editorial in the same newspaper expressing outrage can be read here

The Anti-Semite In Me

In Journalism, Our Wars, Photography on December 27, 2008 at 5:32 pm

In 2002, just before I left for Gaza to begin nearly 2 years of work on the impact of Israel’s occupation of that land, I wrote a short email to Edward Said.  Much to my surprise, he wrote back.  It was a short response, wishing me luck with my project and expressing an interesting in seeing my work once I thought it was ready to be shown.  Edward Said died about a year later and I never got a chance to take him up on his offer, though I knew that he had made it out of politeness.  And I could never tell him how much even that polite offer had meant to me and how much it had inspired the work that I did eventually manage to produce.

I am thinking of Gaza today as its people are once again asked to bear the brunt of the world’s indifference and casual justifications for their murders.  On this first day alone, over 200 have been been quietly killed. Indeed, it is Israel that is carrying out the air raids but it is we who have permitted this to be done.  Prepared as we are to quickly forget the political aspirations of the Palestinians, eager as we are to reduce this struggle from the broader one about throwing off an occupation to a petty one about ‘rockets’ and ‘retaliations’.  All to avoid the fact that we are not prepared to ask of Israel the very things she and her citizens insist on asking of European powers that once wronged her people: justice, compensation, respect for law, criminal prosecution, acknowledgment of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

After 2 years of work in Gaza the images were published in a few obscure and unread Internet and print journals.  It took just a few days for the reactions to come in and unsurprisingly I was accused of being an anti-semite, and a supporter of terrorism. By friends, and by strangers. The work had offended them, and dismissed as the rantings of a misguided, unqualified and naive photographer. 

Apparently I had not understood anything, or realized the foolishness of my ways.  Many who attacked me were quaintly ignorant of the history of the conflict.  And determined to remain so.  Most had in fact never even been to Israel but defended her history and her actions on the basis of a religious, ethnic, or some other affiliation.  Many had read a book or two, largely biased.  Most had not read the best of even Israel’s own.

Israel’s academies and individuals have produced some fine historical research and independent writings about her emergence as a nation, its Palestinian victims and the perpetuation of myths that sustain the conflict.  It surprises me even today and I can’t help but admire the courage of these men and women who have so bravely carried out their work as Israeli citizens about Israel’s history, in a national and social atmosphere imbued with an extremely militant and sectarian nationalism.

Benvenisti’s Sacred Landscape, or Pappe’ ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’, or Sternhell’s “The Founding Myths of Israel’ to name just a few.  I list the Israeli’s first because I will be accused of ‘bias’ or anti-intellectualism if I list voices from the Arab and the rest of the world, a world painted as irrationally hostile to the Middle East’s ‘only liberal democracy’.

But for those interested in works that reflect academic rigor, intellectual honesty and excellence in research, they should also look at Khalidi’s  ‘The Iron Cage’, or Shehadeh’s  ‘Strangers in the House’ or Nusseibeh’s  ‘Once Upon A Country’, and Edward Said’s masterful ‘The Question of Palestine’.  And there are a lot more.

Some years ago journalist Jonathan Cook wrote an essay called From Highcombe to Nazareth: How I Found Myself with the Islamic Fascists He was writing some years after my time in Gaza, but it captured wel the things I felt back in 2004.  Jonathan has been accused of being an anti-semite as well for his rigorously researched writings and honest appraisal of the realities of Israeli politics and policies in the Occupied Territories.

If you have not read Jonathan’s work, make sure you do.  He has written 3 books on Israel and a number of insightful articles and essays on the situation inside Israel, her management of the Occupied Lands and on broader geo-political matters.  I am proud to call Jonathan a friend.  He has also been called an anti-semite.  I guess misery loves company.

We live in a world where an unarmed population, trapped inside what can only be described as a prison, is being attacked with missles and soon with sophisticated armoured vehicles.  One of the most powerful military nations in the world has convinced us, us with our civilized codes of behavior and morality, that this tiny little portion of the earth with its dangerous and barbaric people, are a threat to its existence.  We have been convinced that this is about ‘rockets’ and ‘peace’ all so that we do not remember that this is actually about an occupation, oppression, dispossession and simple theft.

We live in a world where we, the educated, modern, evolved, superior, civilized and wealthy have decided that the evil that we confront is the unarmed, hungry and trapped masses of Gaza who have the temerity to refuse our ‘peace’ and to demand something more: justice, compensation, respect for law, criminal prosecution, acknowledgment of war crimes and crimes against humanity. And I find, illogically perhaps, that I cannot be part of this civilized, modern, progressive, evolved, superior world.

I find that I remain accused of being an anti-semite.

I can’t look away.

I can’t explain it away.

I can’t accept the ‘truths’ I am supposed to.

I can’t accept that the only alternative to ‘us’ is the ‘terrorists’.

I can’t forget their history.

I can’t ignore their dispossession.

I can’t excuse their murders.

I can’t justify their suffering.

I can’t remain numbed by a media bought.

I can’t ignore their courage.

I can’t ignore their right.

I can’t explain away their struggle for justice.

I can’t transform what is clearly wrong into a geo-politically convenient, socially acceptable, polite-company approved  ‘right’.

I can’t.

I have with this same naivete and foolishness continued my work on the Palestinians – both in Israel and in the Occupied Territories.

I remain in awe of the courage, dignity and determination of the Palestinian people.  I am proud of having stood alongside them.  And if being an anti-semite can be contorted to mean anyone who argues for the rights and justice of the Palestinian people who have suffered decades of dispossession, expulsion, and oppression, than I remain an anti-semite.

And for those who may have forgotten, this is the Palestinian flag, bloodied and torn as it may be today and for decades past, but that it is the Palestinian flag.

6a00d8341c562c53ef0105369ab0a5970b

Read: Chris Hedge’s ‘Party To Murder’

Read: Sara Roy’s ‘If Gaza Falls’

Read: Tariq Ali’s ‘From The Ashes of Gaza’

Read: Richard Falk, Princeton University emeritus professor of international law who has also been an investigator of Palestinian human rights for the United Nations, report on Gaza human rights, where if I may summarize the following statements can be clearly read

  1. ‘…a policy of collective punishment, initiated by Israel to punish Gazans for political developments within the Gaza strip, constitutes a continuing flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.’
  2. …an urgent effort should be made at the United Nations to implement the agreed norm of a ‘responsibility to protect’ a civilian population being collectively punished by policies that amount to a Crime Against Humanity.’

NOTE: The term “anti-Semitic” (or “anti-Semite”) usually refers to Jews only.  It was coined in 1873 by German journalist Wilhelm Marr in a pamphlet called, “The Victory of Jewry over Germandom”. Using ideas of race and nationalism, Marr argued that Jews had become the first major power in the West. He accused them of being liberals, a people without roots who had Judaized Germans beyond salvation. In 1879 Marr founded the “League for Anti-Semitism”.  (See Wikipedia Entry)

However, The term Semite means a member of any of various ancient and modern people originating in southwestern Asia, including Akkadians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arabs, and Ethiopian Semites.

Unfortunately, It Was A War Crime

In Journalism, Our Wars on December 21, 2008 at 4:24 pm

For those of you who may have missed it, Vice President Dick Cheney recently admitted on TV to Jonathan Karl of ABC news that he in fact did authorize the use of torture techniques such as waterboarding and other forms of torture.  The dialogue went like this:

KARL: Did you authorize the tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

CHENEY: I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn’t do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.

KARL: In hindsight, do you think any of those tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others went too far?

CHENEY: I don’t…

KARL: And on KSM, one of those tactics, of course, widely reported was waterboarding. And that seems to be a tactic we no longer use. Even that you think was appropriate?

CHENEY: I do.

And just for those who may have not realized, but waterboarding “…has been defined as torture by the United States since at least 1903, the first military court-martial. The United States views waterboarding conducted for intelligence purposes during wartime as a war crime, and it has prosecuted both civilian and military figures involved in the chain of approval of its use. Penalties applied have ranged up to the death penalty. The crime is chargeable under the War Crimes Act and under the Anti-Torture Statute. There is no ambiguity or disagreement among serious lawyers on this part, and Cheney’s suggestion that what he did was lawful and vetted is the delusional elevation of political hackery over law.” This clarification and public service details from Harper’s Scott Horton.

I leave you with a statement from Major General Anthony Taguba (Ret.), a man who was forced to retire because of his statements about the Abu Grhaib prison, as published in a recent report for Physicians for Human Rights

“After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.

Indeed.

UPDATE: David Cole, Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, has written a new piece in the New York Review of Books called ‘What To Do About The Torturers’ which examines 3 books that detail America’s torture program and its proceedings.  The books also provide us with details that yet again confirm the collaboration and support of the highest members of the Bush administration in the institution and functioning of the torture program at various sites in the USA and abroad.

UPDATE: Scott Horton at Harper’s has written an extensive piece Justice After Bush about the need for, and alternative ways, to prosecute the Bush administration that ‘… did more than commit crimes. It waged war against the law itself. It transformed the Justice Department into a vehicle for voter suppression, and it also summarily dismissed the U.S. attorneys who attempted to investigate its wrongdoing. It issued wartime contracts to substandard vendors with inside connections, and it also defunded efforts to police their performance. It spied on church groups and political protesters, and it also introduced a sweeping surveillance program that was so clearly illegal that virtually the entire senior echelon of the Justice Department threatened to (but did not in fact) tender their resignations over it. It waged an illegal and disastrous war, and it did so by falsely representing to Congress and to the American public nearly every piece of intelligence it had on Iraq.’

Dialogue Between Bigots: Part VI of VI

In Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars on December 21, 2008 at 12:46 pm

This is the final installment of the interview, part VI, of ‘Dialogue Between Bigots’

EDITOR: Spanish, French Portuguese and Italian derive from Latin, yet can one argue that today these are the same language? They have diverged to the point where they are mutually unintelligible and hence different languages. All Indo-European languages derive from Sanskrit (including Farsi), yet can one claim they are the same as Sanskrit?
Christianity, Judaism and Islam have a common genetic origin, for sure, but over time these religions have diverged to the point of being mutually exclusive.

When you say Islam offers variations and adjustments, what does that mean? Let’s consider one example that goes to the heart of the matter. Christianity says that Christ was crucified for our sins, and he arose three days later in fulfillment of His promise to us. Islam says that at the last minute, a woman was substituted for Christ and it was she who was actually crucified. Christianity says God manifested himself as the Trinity (the Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit). By definition, to be a Christian is to accept the Trinity and the Crucifixion and resurrection (you can throw out everything else). Islam says there is no Trinity, period. Now, I ask you, are these the same religions? These are mutually exclusive, diametrically opposite, irreconcilable positions.

Of course there is cultural interaction, particularly on the peripheries and borders of civilizations. But that is not the norm nor the point under discussion. I am referring to the law of the land and where it derives from. Again, to use a secular example, If I live in Detroit, I am subject to US laws, if I live in Windsor, I am subject to Canadian laws, even though these cities are next to each other and separated by Lake Superior (a 15 minute drive across the bridge). The laws of the land are well defined even at the peripheries, though the cultural practice not dealing with legal issues may in fact be muddier (i.e., music, art).

One cannot ignore 2000 years of Christianity, 1400 years of Islam, and 3000 years of Judaism when considering the origins of these systems. The weight of thousands of years of history cannot be dismissed, and this is manifestly obvious even from a cursory examination of today’s civilizations. If Islam and Christianity were so similar, why do they lead to such starkly different civilizations today?

As for your comments on Sharia, I am not referring to the process. Sharia, irrespective of how it is arrived at, is a body of law that is supreme and cannot be superseded. That is the point.

You can disagree with me or Daniel Pipes about this point, but to say that he has not studied his demons is an ad hominem argument. It suggests there is something wrong with him, which is not fair. He is not the only one who shares this opinion — as you say yourself, even Muslims (and not fundamentalists, either) have this opinion. And I again I point to 1400 years of history to demonstrate this.

The Caliphate was a political structure, to be sure, but it was an Islamic political structure. It was a direct expression of Islamic law. It began as an Islamic governance system and stayed so until its dissolution when the Ottoman empire ended. There is no legal mechanism within Islam to separate the religious from the secular, unlike Christianity, where the secular principle was expressed by Christ himself (“My Kingdom is in heaven” and “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”). The examples you provide are all because of Colonial influence. Before European colonialism, there were no secular structures in the Islamic world. Of course, the secular principle was not always applied in Christendom, but that’s a different discussion.

Again, I think we have different definition of “nation.” A nation is a group of people with a common culture, language, religion and history. It is not a race-based entity, it is a belief-based entity. Are there pure races? No. Are there pure individuals? Yes. Are there pure nations? Yes. Are there mixed nations? Yes.

I think you under-estimate the cohesive force of religion. What does a Christian in Iraq have in common with a Christian from Trichur or a Christian from Texas? A lot more than you may realize. Similarly for a Muslim from Baghdad and a Muslim from Bangladesh. Your worldview is fundamentally shaped by your religion, and ultimately I, as a Christian from Baghdad, would have much more in common with a Christian from China than a Muslim from Baghdad..

I don’t think my views are bigoted or biased. I am bi-cultural and worldly, and I don’t come to these conclusions lightly. But we are talking about different things. You are talking about the machinations of empires, which I don’t dispute, and I am talking about religions.

I am not aware of modern persecution of immigrants in Europe. Can you give me examples

In conclusion, the problem with Edward Said and his Orientalism is that it is unbalanced and dismisses legitimate Western argument, criticism and points-of-view. It’s like that old joke, just because you are paranoid, it DOESN’T mean there ISN’T anyone out to get you :) Edward Said ultimately misses, dismisses, trivializes or just plain ignores the point that there are real and irreconcilable differences between civilizations and they cannot be deconstructed away are made to appear to be pathologies afflicting the West. That’s ridiculous.

As you have tried to argue that Islamic civilization is not monolithic, so is the case with the West.

END OF INTERVIEW

Dialogue Between Bigots: Part V of VI

In Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars on December 21, 2008 at 12:36 pm

This is part V of the interview ‘Dialogue Between Bigots’

AR: I think you are being very liberal in your belief that European law begins with the Bible and that Islamic law begins with the Koran. To claim that Europe takes from the Bible and Morocco from the Koran is to indulge in a terrible simplicity that can only be achieved by suspending genuine intellectual engagement in the history of societies and the development of their social, legal and criminal systems. Perhaps a re-reading of Michelet’s ‘History of France’ is due or at the very least Todorov’s ‘Imperfect Garden’. Lets remember that Europe also has an Islamic/Muslim heritage. I speak not just of regions that were part of various Muslims entities, like Spain or Italy or cities like Genoa, but i mean by the centuries of relationships that have existed between Europe and the east. Anyone familiar with the history of a city like Seville, or Sicily, or Venice for example, will be hard pressed to tell me where ‘the west’ starts and ‘the east’ ends. Through commerce, trade, travel, study, administration, settlement, conquest etc. Europe and the Middle East shared and exchanged over centuries and consistently and constantly. Here is Pankaj Misra on Venice.

For me at an intellectual level these ‘religious’ civilizational divisions do not ring true nor do they reflect reality. And i would add that I think you under value European law, and Arab or other national laws, by linking them to just Bible or some other religious text. In fact, I would say that you denigrate their laws. Thank goodness for laws that allow rights for homosexuals, for abortion, for contraception, and many other liberties and humane rights we have instituted despite our religious texts instructions! One would like to believe that we have left the simplistic, inhumane, often cruel black & white simplicities of these religious texts behind. Remember, the Bible took us to the inquisition, a justice and religious institution the taliban would really have loved!

It also appears that you do not understand what ‘sharia’ is. Sharia is not laws. Sharia is a method of arriving at law. It is a judicial, legal process that also includes Ijma (consensus), Qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and centuries of debate, interpretation and precedent. Furthermore, that there are many different versions of these processes that rely, traditionally speaking, on different versions of the hadiths to execute their process. There are at least 4 recognized schools of hadiths for example. a sharia process can begin in the Koran (or not) but that is a start, not the end. It can’t be of course because the Bible, the Koran, the Torah and in fact most any religious text are very simplistic, in fact quite banal in their ideas of right and wrong and life’s complicated problems are best not handled by referring to them directly. ‘Thou shall not kill’ is not a very interesting legal precept. So, there is no one sharia because sharia is not law, it is a procedure to arrive at law. It requires legal experts, religious experts, academics, it is open to debate and challenge, it is open to review and study, it is open to interpretation and revision. As any other legal system in the world. What comes out on the other end is the judgment of men to respond to the needs of their society to best offer justice. and as all legal procedures, sometimes it is good, other times it is bad. and in the latter case can be changed – or prevented if it serves someone’s power interests.

I will add that Islam does not offer a political system. There is a great myth, very popular amongst orientalist and religious fundamentalists that Islam offers ‘a complete system’. There is no discussion what so ever in any aspect of the philosophy of the religion on ‘political systems’. Daniel Pipes loves to bring this one up all the time and it is actually quite funny because the rest of us can see how little people like him have really bothered to study and understand their demons. I think that Daniel Pipes actually claims that the political system offered in Islam includes ‘tawhid‘, ‘risalat‘ and ‘khilafat‘. Well, 2 of those concepts have nothing to do with politics – tawhid is monotheistic belief in one god (shared with Christianity and Judaism), and risalat is that this one god has sent messengers (e.g. Jesus is in Islam’s structure itself). So this is not politics.

Khilafat is simply a version of a monarchy and given divine Islamic sanction. No European king would have survived long without the claim of the divine sanction, and the support of the church. It is not defined by any religious declaration, or divine ordination. Calling it an ‘Islamic’ political system would be like calling Constantine’s dictatorship a ‘Christian’ political system! And it is not the preferred or sought after political model for any Arab or Muslim state in the world today.  For example, Iran has a parliamentary system. It is a constrained one, but nevertheless, they hold elections, they elect their representatives, and participate in the government. Pakistan has a parliamentary system designed around the British system, and is different from the Iranian.

Now, speaking of ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Christian’ or other such, I have to ask where does one find ‘pure’ nations in our world? Where are these communities who have been so isolated and segmented that their collective behavior is only influenced by some ‘nation gene’? Are the Assryians so pure that their 2000+ years in the middle of a region of rich trade, artistic development, intellectual development, social development, economic progress, never affected them? Is there nothing Arab culture, traditions, values, morals, and norms that have affected them or been adopted by them? I believe that we are never just ‘Muslims’ or ‘Christians’. Nations are not just ‘Muslims’ or ‘Christians’. They are many different things. Just as an individual identity is made up of many things, and s/he stresses one or the other at certain times, but contains with him/herself all. This is of course simply Edward Said’s argument read back in an amateurish way.

To argue that my ‘Muslim’ identity is the most important or the only important part, is a choice, not a fact, and a misleading and narrow fact at that. Governments can through coercion create common actions amongst men and common opinions. But this abstraction of ‘nations’ is a very weak and poor construct. Just your language alone, and the other languages that have influenced it, reveal that falsity in this belief. Christianity is not ‘pure’. As a creed it carried over myths, rituals, structures of earlier religions and societies. And also absorbed the behaviors and values of people who lived in and around the lands in emerged in. When in fact Freud examined the life of Moses in ‘Moses and Monotheism’ he was doing precisely this – examining the various strands of culture and history and ethnicities that were absorbed/adopted by the Jews as they adopted Moses, an Egyptian, into their religion.

As for Lebanon, my point is tangential to Lebanon’s war so i will not address it here. My point was about how one understands man’s actions in this world. We do not run around trying to understand the brutalities of the Christians in Lebanon by studying the bible, or claiming to have found some verse there that justifies genocidal madness. My point was about the way to understand the behaviors of men.

Your last set of comments sadden me that because the contain in it so many false assumptions and misunderstandings about the Middle East, Muslims, Islam, modernity, democracy and such that i don’t even know where to begin.  But as I said, we are on opposite ends of the spectrum here. To me statements like ‘Islam needs to modernize’ are deeply bigoted comments. And they are simplistic as well. They paint America as a purveyor of good and justice in the world when in fact it is not that alone but something else as well. They suggest a belief in the intellectual and moral backwardness of millions of people and dozens of cultures that inhabit the Middle East, and do so without once acknowledging their real lived histories and struggles against colonialism and imperialism. They engage in sweeping generalizations about falsely concrete concepts that are in fact abstractions and contested forms (e.g. ‘Islam’), fail to point out our (American) deep economic, political and historical connections to countries like Saudi Arabia, obfuscate our role in the repression of modern democracy in the Middle East (e.g. assasination of Mossadeq in Iran for example, or the constant funding of dictators like Mubarak, the Shah, the Saudi family, the kings of Jordan etc.), its mindless unthinking support of the repression and brutality of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, its complete disregard for the human and political aspirations of the people of the lands where American claims it ‘interests’, etc. etc.

You condemn regions, cultures, peoples and societies to backwardness, barbarism, terrorism and extremism by conveniently leaving out our shared history.

Dialogue Between Bigots; Part IV of VI

In Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars on December 21, 2008 at 11:36 am

This is Part IV of the interview ‘Dialogue Between Bigots’

EDITOR: Whereas I agree with you that there is nothing inherently ‘Islamic’ about laws in many nations i.e. your statement is prima facie true. However, the question is what is the source of the common law of the land in Pakistan, in Iran, In Saudi Arabia? You will, of course, find examples of secular law or behavior, but the common law springs from the Koran, just as the common law in Christendom (the West) springs from the Bible. To me the question is not whether a system is secular or not, it is where its common law derives from. Even Sweden, with its famed secularism, derives its common law from the Bible, so that even if Swedes don’t know they are Christians, for the most part they act according to Christian law. It is the historical tradition and culture that determines whether a country is Muslim or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist.

Only Islam (and to a lesser extent, Judaism) offers a complete system — religious and political. Because Shari’a cannot be superseded by and other law, it ultimately shapes societies into an Islamic image. This is not true in Christianity. From the beginning Jesus articulated a distinction between church and state, i.e., Christianity does not offer a political system.

When you speak of the influence of religion on American politics and law I don’t know what supreme court decisions against family planning laws you are referring to. I assume you
mean abortion. The issue for Christians is not family planning, that is a red herring, the issue is taking a human life. If you believe that the fetus is a human being with a soul, then you cannot support abortion, because that is murder. No one argues against family planning. There are a hundred different ways to do that (i.e., condoms, birth control pills, natural methods, abstinence, &c.).

I don’t claim that America is not a religious state, it is (segments of it, at least). There is nothing wrong with that, just as there is nothing wrong with an Islamic state. If that’s what the people want, more power to them. The issue is tolerance of others. When different religious groups live with each other, there should not be religious violence. If there is proselytizing, let it be peaceful and let the merits of the arguments determine the winner. But that has not proven to be the case historically with Islam. See ‘Symposium: Islamic Cultural Genocide’

Now, blaming unscrupulous leaders may be true for the immediate past, i.e., in the post-colonial era, but how do you account for the persecution of minorities in previous eras? This persecution started almost immediately after the Caliphs established themselves in Baghdad, and has lasted since. Again, one cannot ignore the history. I think we may be speaking at different levels. I am not so much concerned with geographic states as much as nations, which may span borders. Nations conform to a code of behavior (i.e., Hindu, Christian,
Muslim), and that is what concerns me. Looked on in this light, one sees the larger patterns in history.

As for your comments about the Christians in Lebanon; Lebanon was destabilized because Yasar Arafat and his PLO moved into Beirut. What choice did the Christians have but to fight? There is no excuse for the Sabra and Shatila massacres, of course, but that is not germane to what happened to Lebanon.

As for Europe, I will say that Europe is firmly a Judeo-Christian civilization, it is not an accident that it is called Christendom. Europe is now losing this, and that is why it is beginning to ask questions. It should not lose its heritage, of course, because it is a proud heritage, it is part of the mosaic of cultures that make up our world. I think as Islam is practiced now by the majority of Muslims, it is incompatible with most of the world. It needs to modernize, it needs to catch-up.

And as for why America is in Iraq, I can tell you my opinion about why America is in Iraq. This is my opinion, of course. The Iraq war is to contain Saudi Arabia, which is the real backer of Islamic extremism. Saudi Arabia has spent $80 billion dollars to date on spreading Wahabism. The war on Islamic fundamentalism will be won only when the ideology is defeated. This is a long range plan to modernize the Middle East, liberalize Islam, introduce democracy and raise the standard of living in the area so that the people will have other outlets beside fundamentalism. There is also the divide and conquer strategy. Look for Iran to become a nuclear power (with covert or tacit support from the US) so that it will stand opposed to the Sunni states. The funds spent on spreading Wahabism will be redirected to defense spending.

Dialogue Between Bigots: Part III of VI

In Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars on December 21, 2008 at 11:17 am

This is Part III of the interview ‘Dialogue Between Bigots’

EDITOR:  By Islamic states I mean the countries that are majority Muslim and whose power structures are in the hands of Muslims. Iraq is not an Islamic theocracy, but it is surely an Islamic state. It’s history, tradition and values are shaped by Islamic religion and culture. Let us narrow the discussion. Let’s focus on Iraq and it’s history since 1800 — though we must keep in mind the 1400 year weight of Islamic history and tradition in Iraq. I will rephrase the question. I am not sure that your statement that secular governments exist in the Middle East is true. There are governments who don’t emphasize Islam, except when convenient to retain power (e.g., Saddam), but the governments are Islamic in substance. Are there truly secular governments, like Sweden, for example? Actually, your comments below are a good response to the question as it was framed. I think you have answered the question very well :) Why don’t you incorporate the comments below into your answer and we can take the discussion from there. This organic discussion is turning out well.

AR: Thank you for taking the time to put these clarifications together. i am glad that we are actually discussing these specific points because i feel that most American media is too quick to jump to use too many unconsidered labels and phrases when it comes to speaking about anything ‘Muslim’.

So in the same spirit – i think that you mean ‘Arab’ states, and not ‘Islamic’ ones. For example, India is a nation with a deep Islamic history, heritage and culture, but it is not an ‘Islamic’ state. There are 130 million Muslims in the country, and its laws and codes are deeply influenced by this heritage, but it is not an ‘Islamic’ state by any means. and more controversially, neither is Pakistan. There are powerful, state supported religious fundamentalist political organizations in the country and they have been allowed to distort the law or contravene the constitution, but the nation and its legal and civil code procedures are less influenced by dogmatism than by pragmatism. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for example have been foisted on the country by fundamentalist mysoginists in the pay of authoritarian rulers searching for a support base but are contested daily by a battery of legal experts, women’s rights activists and citizens. There is nothing inherently ‘Islamic’ about them, other than a small group of fundamentalists shouting loudest to claim that they are. The voices of opposition often get lost.

We are too quick to grab the ‘sensational’, the demeaning, and to claim it as ‘Islamic’. Any Arab nation as any other is a contested space and in fact there is no one ‘Islam’. A Pakistani from Baluchistan will be horrified to sit with a Chechyan and vice versa! They would not recognize what the other calls ‘Islam’ where alcohol sits comfortably with namaz.  Though there are common ritual practices, but like all cars with 4 wheels but that does not make the similar, the importance is in the differences.  We are not merely our religions, and do not see our world only through that prism.

In Iran, with all its grandiose theocratic weirdness, can reveal a very modern and pragmatic approach to birth control and family planning. In Morocco recent adjustments to its family code captures the rich and complex dialogues prevalent in most any nation whether Arab or other. My point being that the social and legal laws of these country are far more complex, far more interesting when seen in the specifics and not just sweepingly called ‘Islamic’. There is little in common in the way issues of family planning, or inheritance or such are handled in Iran vs how they are handled in Lebanon for example. The richness of the region, the richness of the variety of peoples, ethnicities, cultures, histories, traditions of the region (the Middle East, South Asia, or any nation that is predominantly Muslim in heritage) is lost if we do not see the specifics.

Labeling a country as ‘Islamic’ hides more than reveals, obfuscates more than clarifies.

You are right that few if any country in amongst the Arab states can claim a truly ‘secular’ government and you are right that few if any country in amongst the Arab states can claim a ‘secular’ government such as Sweden. But even ‘secular’ governments reflect influences that would not be defined as secular.  For example, would you contest the United States government and its administration, its supreme court and its recent adjustments against family planning laws are not influenced by conservative Christian thought? Would you call the USA a truly secular state when both Obama and Bush were at Saddleback church just this week, to say nothing of the many other churches both conservative and liberal, that they have been trawling through to get to ‘voters’? If America is a secular democracy, then why is it so important to constantly shake your religious credentials, to seek ‘counsel’ from influential (and really wealthy) pastors? See Kaplan’s ‘With God on their side’, or Woolride & Mickeltwaith’s ‘The Right Nation’ or Hedge’s ‘American Fascists’. But this is not just me reading in my apartment.  I did an entire story for National Geographic magazine called ‘Religion and Power’ over the course of many months on the influence of the religous right on American society and politics.

The point being – nations and their laws have a lot of influences, and bring many centuries of heritage to them. But they need not necessarily only be determined from the point of view of a religious heritage. Pakistan is a Muslim state, but this heritage is not an all encompassing and exclusive influence on its laws or even its society.

What instead I do see and that which I think is the principal threat to minorities in Arab states and that we should discuss is this; most all Arab states have unpopular and unscrupulous leaders who have failed their nations and contorted their societies. These same unpopular leaders have exploited radical Islamic groups to bolster their power and allowed at times for these groups to contort their constitutions and civic code. This is of course not a uniform situation, but is true for Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the gulf states etc. In such nations religion is merely a tool of politics and power. The persecution of the Copts by the Muslim Brotherhood was a political move, one that in fact can change as the political demands change. In fact, the welcome that the Arab Christians receive in Syria could change in the future if the political dynamics change. So whether a minority has a hope of being part of the fabric of an Arab state requires us to look at the politics and power plays of that state, and the value placed on religious groups to grab and maintain power.

For example, Lebanon is a deeply divided sectarian country, but its wars began of the arrogance and bigotry of its Christian minority! In Lebanon they are not a persecuted minority, but in fact the instigators of tremendous horrors against fellow citizens. This is history though I have of course generalized here to make a point. But it would be wrong to run around stating that there is something inherently ‘Christan’ about their behavior or arrogance or violence in acts like the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. It would be in fact idiotic. I would be a fool to go searching into Lebanon’s 1400 year Christian heritage to understand their behavior, or trawl the bible to find some passages on rape! It can’t be understood merely from the prism of religion. We have to look at the real world, at specific political, secular events and actions, and more importantly that desperate quest for power and control that drives all men.

And this is no different than what is happening all over Europe for example, where a weird Islamophobia has taken over nations such as Denmark, Italy and France, where political leaders repeatedly refer to Europe’s imagined exclusively Judeo-Christian heritage and insist on separating themselves from the ‘Muslim disease’ etc. etc. Pankaj Mishra wrote a wonderfully clear piece about this recently called ‘A paranoid, abhorrent obsession’.

Creating such stark divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ of course helps us avoid the more complex questions; Europe’s tremendous economic problems in the last decade and related unemployment, the emergence of the EU and the associated sense of a loss of local identity (national identities being extremely important and entrenched here in Europe).  These are the unspoken realities that are avoided by turning our wrath against poor, marginalized, and weak immigrant communities.

Europe is not just a Judeo-Christian civilization even if we go back to the Greeks whose main centers of culture and learning were always on the other side of the Bosphoros! But of course, Goytisolo’s life was spent arguing this, but a more recent book speaks about it rather clearly and well.  You must read David Levering Lewis’ ‘God’s Crucible’.

I agree, I think we are best to discuss the modern history of Iraq, post WW II, post colonialism.

The weight of 1400 years of Islamic history in my opinion is not as relevant in shaping this country as the weight of a 100 years of colonial control and power politics of post-colonial influence. The Baath party is not an Islamic heritage left over, neither were the kings foisted on Iraq upon its creation during the demise of the Ottoman empire. And to not speak about the discovery of oil and its contorting effects on Iraqi politics would be criminal. Islam, Muslims, 1400 year heritage – this actually has little meaning and will not help us understand where we are today or why we are where we are today.  I would deem it intellectually irresponsible, if not morally irresponsible, to seek the sourcs of Iraq’s trauma in ‘Islam’ or the ‘Koran’, when in fact the 12 year sanctions regime, the Oil For Food program, the repeated invasions and the current occupation seem to be more pertinent.

The dismemberment of Iraq has political and power drivers based squarely in the USA, driven less by issues of religion, and more by issues of oil, strategic depth, fear of Iran etc. We would be all naive and irresponsible to speak as if this was a necessary war, that lies were not told, that the nation was not forced into this mess because of the need and greed of a few in the neo-conservative movement. I would prefer that neo-conservatives were more honest about their intentions – the petty lies and childish language to hide
their real intents are so amateurish that it only makes them look silly.

So cutting through all the nonsense, Iraq is just an occupation, its political structure conveniently created to serve American economic and military interests, and created I believe to ensure continued instability and weakness in the nation so that the US and continue to maintain an involvement and control, and in particular, control the important assets; oil, bases, police and borders. There are no nation building intents, not in Iraq nor in Afghanistan. There are merely control and own intents, and those too short term. The sectarian structure of politics is less due to any ‘heritage’ or ‘history’ or Iraq, but more based on a continuity of belief that occupied countries are best governed by divisions not unity. This is the oldest colonial model in the book i.e. find all the ethnic and sectarian dividing lines and exaggerate them through ethnically determined largesse. This is nothing new. Its boringly old in fact.

There are many models of governments in Muslim countries that are not sectarian, so there is nothing ‘natural’ about such a structure. It is always created, and historically we can see that occupying powers love to deal with divided communities because it makes it easier to control them. Its just simple politics and pragmatic administration.

I  hope that this is not just proving to be a huge annoyance. The interview seems to have all but disappeared. But really, I appreciate your patience and tolerance of my long responses and digressions.

Dialogue Between Bigots: Part II of VI

In Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars on December 21, 2008 at 10:35 am

This is Part II of the interview ‘Dialogue Between Bigots’

EDITOR: In your opinion, is it possible for Islamic states to adopt secular systems of government, and to allow non-Muslim minorities to integrate in Muslim dominated political structures? Put another way, given the history and tradition of these areas, Iraq in particular, did the Americans have any choice other than to work with sectarian structures?

AR: Sorry, i don’t mean to be rude but i do not understand your questions because 1) I can’t tell what ‘Islamic’ states you are talking about, 2) what is the time frame that you refer to as when you speak of the ‘history and traditions’, 3) what do mean when you say ‘these areas’ and 4) secular governments do exist so why would you want to know if they can?

Perhaps I can explain the reasons for confusion.

Most Arab states are not ‘Islamic’ but more closer to secular states, not ‘Islamic’ ones. They may not be democratic, but that is a different issue. Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and the non-Arab Turkey are secular/non-denominational governments, not ‘Islamic’ governments. Only Saudi Arabia and post-revolution Iran qualify as religious states and Islamic ones at that. But ‘the region’ including Saddam’s Iraq were not ‘Islamic’ by any definition, though i have no idea what an ‘Islamic’ government would be like. So we have to be very specific and very clear here.

Furthermore, what time frame are you talking about where you would want to examine issues related to minorities? Minorities have flourished in Arab lands since time immemorial.  For example, the modern history of the Middle East demonstrates that Arab Christians have been at the forefront of the Arab nationalism, that there is an indigenous Christian community that has had centuries of fertile exchange with Muslims in these regions. To say nothing about their artistic, intellectual, and political contributions. There is nothing inherently ‘foreign’ about Christians in the Middle East. If you go back even further in time, lets say to the time of the emergence of the Islamic empire as it meets up with the Byzantine and the Sasanian, we see a rich exchange of ideas and even common sharing of religious practices. e.g. see Fowden’s ‘The Barbarian Plain’.  To suggest that non-Muslim minorities cannot ‘integrate’ into Arab/Islamic societies would betray a terrible lack of knowledge of history. After all, for example, where did the Jews go after the inquisitions and their expulsion from Spain? Where did the Syrian orthodox church live and flourish for so many centuries? So this question about ‘integration’ is ahistorical.  The Sephardic Jews, the Copts, the Orthodox Christians, Armenians, Zoroastrians, Manichaen and many many more.  The Arab lands are not ‘pure’ or isolated.

There have indeed been periods of persecution, but there have also been periods of tremendous tolerance and acceptance. So this question makes no sense, unless you want to speak in specific circumstance e.g. the recent backlash against the Christians in the Middle East which indeed is taking place. But then we have to speak about each country specifically – the backlash against the Christians in Lebanon has a different set of political, historical, social reasons than say that against the Copts in Egypt. And we have to be specific about what time frame we are talking about.

On the whole there has been centuries of exchange and tolerance in the Middle East and that remains the norm, not the exception.  If there have been persecutions, they are in fact the execptions to the larger norm.  For example, if you ever go to Beit Sahour in the West Bank, OPT you will find Muslims and Christians sharing shrines, and praying at monasteries. Professor Glenn Bowman of the University of Kent at Canterbury has written extensively about this. In Syria too you will see practices that the two religions share. In Rusafa in Syria there stood a shrine to St. Sergius right next to which stood a mosque, with a large hall joining the two structures.

There were hundreds of such locations all over the Levant. Today there still are many that bear witness to the tremendous sharing between the two communities. Muslims even pray like the orthodox! The sounds of the Sufi saints come from those of the choirs. In Alleppo in the Casbah you can hear this music again and feel that the choirs of Seidnaya have entered the streets. I speak of today, not a millenia ago. William Dalrymple has written extensively about this in his work ‘From The Holy Mountain’

The middle east is vast, and a diverse region. Tunisia is not Lebanon is not Iraq is not Egypt. We can’t speak about ‘areas’ we have to be specific about what country we are speaking about. After WW II the post-colonial trajectories of each nation need to be very specifically known and kept in mind as we discuss developments. For example, why has Morocco managed to maintain a very open relationship with its Jewish community despite the majority of the Jews choosing to leave the country? And why is it different for example in Lebanon? The answers lie in specific histories and not through generalizations of ‘Islamic intolerance’, a sweeping simplicity that explains little but confirms many prejudices.

The Middle East has had many secular governments, some elected ones too. Turkey is a secular government, so is Syria, so too was Iraq, so is Egypt.  Besides the much spoken about fear of Islamic parties being elected and creating theocracies is a false one as even ostensibly Islamic parties have a real habit of behaving with politically savvy and democratic insight once they come to power. I recommend you read Harper magazine’s Ken Silverstein’s piece on the rise of Islamic democracy to better understand how and what these Islamic political movements are and how they behave.

Finally, as to your last point on whether the Americans had a choice – we can certainly discuss that endlessly though I will admit that i am not as well qualified to answer that one. I suspect that the Americans did have a choice. Furthermore, from a long term perspective, they should have insisted on it because a sectarian structure will not work and is the principal reason for the instability today. To say nothing about the illegality of the war, the carnage in the post-invasion period etc. Furthermore, we would be naive to ignore the history of the creation of Iraq particularly the role of the British in its creation, the deep influence of British intellectuals and orientalists on the minds and actions of the American administration (for example Bernard Lewis was not just an important encourager of the invasion but deeply entrenched in the think tanks advising on what needs to happen post-Saddam!) and the seeming seamless continuity in the assumptions about the ‘Arab mind’ between the British ideas and the current set of colonial administrators.  A book that I myself am going over again is Fromkin’s ‘A Peace to End All Peace’ and I highly recommend it to understand the history of the creation of the modern state of Iraq.

I will just conclude by saying that it is important for me that questions are carefully framed and in particular that they do not nudge responses into expected places. All that being said, I am not the best person to speak to about the future of the middle east or the politics of the region or the real-political actions.

Dialogue Between Bigots: Part I of VI

In Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars on December 21, 2008 at 9:54 am

A few months ago I was asked by an editor in Europe to speak about my work, in particular my work in the Arab world.  She had seen some of my photographs from Northern Iraq that focused on the struggle of Iraq’s Assyrian Christian community as it confronted a resurgent Kurdish nationalism and a raging Iraqi militant resistance.  The editor wanted to discuss not just the specific issues related to the Assyrian Christian community, but broader issues related to the ‘Muslim’ world.

The interview quickly fell apart.  In fact, it fell apart on the very first question.  I had been vary of giving an interview.  In fact, I generally don’t like to do interviews because I find that nothing but inconsistencies and confusions leave my mouth.  The opening question set of a series of short essays between me and the editor that spanned a range of issues and ended by no conclusive insights and/or understandings.

I wanted to share this interview with you.  Since it is a long series of issues, I have edited the original content and of course protected the identity of the Editor herself.  I hold myself completely responsible for the breakdown in what should have been a simple and basically benign dialogue.  That morning perhaps I was tired, perhaps I was overly sensitive. Perhaps I was perceptive to the dangers that come from not examining assumptions that lie behind a question.  Very often an interview will ask a loaded question, filled with assumptions that predetermine the nature of the answer, or necessarily place the interviewee on the defensive.  Or so I feel.  On re-reading some the responses I can’t help but think that I was rather pompous and self important in some of the responses.  However, I do feel that I touched on a number of issues that I feel are often ignored in discussions about matters in the Middle East and the Muslim world in general.  So if you can excuse the bombast, here is the interview as it transpired, edited for this blog of course.

EDITOR: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be interested in Iraq and Assyrians?

AR: My interest, as in most all the projects I do, is in confronting the reductive historical narratives created by political opportunists and religious fundamentalists. In particular, I am interested in documenting situations where the complex tapestry of life and history has been destroyed to serve some political or economic end. This interest is a reflection of my own personal life and experiences. As a Kashmiri i am heir to a complex and varied heritage that includes Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islamic beliefs, culture, philosophy, art, poetry and secular intellectual writing. This diversity has been lost in Kashmir because of a movement for liberation that has recently deteriorated into a sectarian conflicts. Such sectarian rewritings of history are of course a global problem.

We face them here in Europe today, a region suffering from a serious bout of xenophobia and Islamophobia as entire histories of the continent are revised to exclude the presence and influence of Islam and the Muslims on Europe’s development in the past and today. And i saw a similar situation in what took place in Iraq after the American invasion. I was appalled by the quick and convenient reliance on a sectarian politics by the Americans, a sorry reflection of the practices of British colonialists across the Middle East and in South Asia. The damage that British policies did in India during their reign can still be seen today as South Asian continues to struggle to overcome the divisions within their societies and build a sense of citizenship and belonging that extends beyond the clan and the religious group.

Documenting the plight of the Assyrians as a way to speak out against the marginalization and erasure of the presence of minorities, and the destruction of the complex fabric, multi-ethnic and multi-religious, of Iraqi society and life. Whether it had existed under Saddam or not remained irrelevant since it was being destroyed under the direction of an American occupation. I felt that there was a shocking ignorance of Iraqi society and history, and that it;s cleavage along sectarian lines could only signal further disintegration and oppressions. These are of course not unique insights for anyone who has read even a basic book on the history of the country and the broader region. In the rush to speak about the liberation of the Kurds the Assyrians appeared conveniently forgotten. Such tribal politics can only succeed by inflicting tremendous suffering and dispossession on another. We have see this repeatedly in the wake of 20th century nationalisms, with the horrors of the Armenian genocides, the destruction of the pluralist cultures of many cities in what was once the Ottoman Empire, in Israel etc. etc.

When Nuri Kino, to whom I was introduced to by a friend in the USA, spoke to me about this community, I  saw a situation that i wanted to say something about. Sadly most local and international media failed to see the significance of their struggle, and i believe still do not see it. A few voices if any have argued for the need of a secular political structure in Iraq.

CONTINUED: