Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

All Muslims Are Terrorists And We All Know It’s True Because The TV Says So

In Essays Related To Pakistan, Journalism, The Daily Discussion on September 24, 2010 at 5:02 am

Nikolas D. Kristof is upset. The New York Times columnist is dismayed at ‘… how venomous and debased the discourse about Islam has become…’ More recently he even went so far as to offer a ‘collective’ apology on behalf of ‘us’ i.e. Americans to the ‘Islamic’ collective, saying that

I’m sickened when I hear such gentle souls lumped in with Qaeda terrorists, and when I hear the faith they hold sacred excoriated and mocked. To them and to others smeared, I apologize.

As always, Mr. Kristof has no sense of irony. Had he any he would have realized he is a columnist for a publication that has been consistently responsible for a shallow, narrow, derogatory, clichéd, sensationalist, reductive, and yes racist representation of Muslims and the broader Muslim world.

In fact, I find it odd that people are surprised that there is such vituperation, suspicion and hatred of things ‘Islamic’, Muslim and even Arabic in the United States of America. After all the simplistic representation of ‘Islam’, and its depiction as a violent, irrational, dangerous, terroristic, violent and deranged has a long and glorious history in our popular culture, media and mainstream press.

If we believe that ‘Islam’ is deranged, dangerous and a threat to ‘our way of life’, then we do so with good reason i.e. that is what we are told each and every day in most any newspaper we read, any television program we see and any movie we watch.

For example; some many months ago I did a quick review of The New York Times Sunday Magazine and its coverage of stories from the Muslim world. What I found was that every story that had anything to do with any Muslim nation was written from the perspective of ‘the war against terror’ or ‘Islamic terrorism. Every story. I wrote about this in a blog post called Only Interesting If Its Madness where even a quick and casual review of the magazine’s archive revealed a list of stories where the writer single-minded focused on the Muslim country from the point-of-view of ‘the war against terror’. Otherwise the country was simply not covered. For example, these were the stories I linked to:

“Next Gen Taliban”, January 2008

“The African Front”, December 2007

“Where Boys Grow Up To Be Jihadis”, November 2007

“A Dishonorable Affair”, September 2007

“Policing Terrorism”, July 2007

“Whose Iran?”, January 2007

“In The Land Of The Taliban”, October 2006

“Islam, Terror And The Second Nuclear Age”, October 2006

“Hizbollah’s Other War”, August 2006

“Iraq’s Jordanian Jihadis”, February 2006

“Islam On The Outskirts Of The Welfare State”, February 2006

“The Next Islamist Revolution”, January 2005

And this is a partial list, and I am working to bring it up to date. But you get the idea.

The newspaper, along with others like The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe or any number of major dailies, have obsessively, and narrowly covered and written about the Muslim world, about ‘Islam, and about matters Middle East nearly exclusively from the perspective of ‘terror’, ‘conflict’ and ‘violence’. Even magazines such as National Geographic have reverted to such narrow and sensationalist perspectives when reporting on countries like Pakistan, Yemen and others. We all know this, and we all experience it every day while sipping our overpriced lattes.

The New York Times is also one of a number of mainstream newspapers that has exclusively used the word ‘terrorist’ and ‘terror attack’ only in the instance that the perpetrators or accused have been of Muslim origin. Other attackers, other acts of ‘terror’ have been labeled differently by the New York Times, including when it covered the story of the overt terrorism intents of the Michigan militia where its writers was constantly referred to this terrorist organization as ‘right-wing militants’. In an another story about a disgruntled man who flew his private plane into an IRS offices, the same New York Times constantly refered to him as an amateur musician, a husband, a software engineer. Never as a ‘terrorist’.  My friend Elizabeth Herman touched on this very question in a post she wrote called the words we use: terrorist.

When Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist of Palestinian origin, opened fire on fellow soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and wounding 29, he is was immediately labelled a terrorist. In fact, not just him, but ‘respected’ columnists in otherwise ‘respected’ mainstream publications were able to come out and simply insist that ‘Muslims’ had a special penchant for irrational violence and that there should be a name for this ‘disease’. Tunku Varadarajan, writing in Forbes Magazine – yes, The Forbes Magazine (can you get more mainstream), penned a piece called Going Muslim where he explained that:

“Going postal” is a piquant American phrase that describes the phenomenon of violent rage in which a worker–archetypically a postal worker–”snaps” and guns down his colleagues.

As the enormity of the actions of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan sinks in, we must ask whether we are confronting a new phenomenon of violent rage, one we might dub–disconcertingly–”Going Muslim.” This phrase would describe the turn of events where a seemingly integrated Muslim-American–a friendly donut vendor in New York, say, or an officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood–discards his apparent integration into American society and elects to vindicate his religion in an act of messianic violence against his fellow Americans. This would appear to be what happened in the case of Maj. Hasan.

My personal views on this piece were expressed in a piece I wrote called ‘Going Muslim’ At Fort Hood Or How Rabid Simplicities Masquerading As Insight Just Sell More Magazines

And this is not unusual – a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal – that other publication of acceptable, respected opinion, written by Sadanand Dhume, titled India’s Groupthink On Islam extolled and celebrated the fact that the fantastically comic and supremely ahistorical Ayaan Hirsi Ali was present at the Jaipur Literary Festival, which meant that:

… Jaipur marked a small step toward the slow but inexorable knitting of India into the mainstream of global discourse on a sensitive subject. A clutch of books by Indian authors that take a critical look at Islam and Islamism are also contributing to this trend. It’s easier to start using a cell phone than to change a mindset, but over time Indian audiences are likely to begin demanding the same sophistication from their intellectuals that they do from their phone service providers.

That is, the presence of comic book intellectuals like Hirsi Ali, Tunku Varadarajan (of ‘Going Muslim’ fame), Max Rodenbeck, and Lawrence Wright (of The Looming Tower fame), India was coming around to the ‘modern’ understanding of the pathology that is ‘Islam’. Oh, he did lament that the Hindu right, the very same responsible for massive violence against India’s minorities Muslim, Christian or any other, only mistake was…

..its inability to distinguish between Islam as a religion and Islamism as an ideology, and its championing of causes important to the most orthodox Hindu believers shades into bigotry and religious chauvinism.

Notice that the brutally violent, murderous Hindutva movement, known for its orchestrated Gujarat pogroms and recently embroiled in a series of terrorism cases is spoken about in words like ‘shades’ and ‘religious chauvinism’.

We just speak about anything Muslim, anything ‘Islam’, with completely different words and phrases.

Hollywood, the most influential of American opinion makers, has a long and fabulous history of depicting Arabs, Muslims and ‘Islam’ in a purely violent, irrational and deranged light. Dr. Shaheen’s sadly funny Reel Bad Arabs chronicles this history well and is worth a read.  Or you can just see the video:

Every day, on every television screen across the nation – from our TV news channels to our entertainment channels, we are offered a view of anything ‘Islamic’ or Muslim from the perspective of ‘terrorism’, violence, paranoia, derangement. All Muslims are stereotypes – simple creatures with simple, binary responses to the world. In fact, even as Mr. Kristof of the New York Times attempts to paint himself into a ‘moral’ and ‘sensitive’ corner by offering pointless and useless apologies, he continues to indulge in this binary depiction when for example he states in his piece Is This America:

That kind of extremism undermines our democracy, risks violence and empowers jihadis.

Newsweek quoted a Taliban operative, Zabihullah, about opposition to the mosque near ground zero: “By preventing this mosque from being built, America is doing us a big favor. It’s providing us with more recruits, donations and popular support.” Mr. Zabihullah added, “The more mosques you stop, the more jihadis we will get.”

Mr Zabilluah is an illiterate and a propagandist. But he is not stupid. His infantile statement exploits an underlying bigotry that he knows pervades most Western thought: that anyone of a Muslim background can only choose life either as a flower child or a jihadi terrorist! And Mr. Kristol repeats this statement to offer the same argument; hey, be nice here because they will ‘turn’!

I find it incredible that reasonable people continue to speak as if anyone of Muslim background is nothing but a complete idiot who cannot make his/her own choices, weigh complex facts, arrive at judgements, evaluate his/her life’s conditions, and preserve her/her autonomy and ability to define and structure the nature of his/her life and make complex and multi-facet choices about life and living. These imagined Muslims  seem only be able to confront a bipolar reality, seem to be completely intellectually and emotionally maleable to jihadi groups and can only choose between ‘peace’ or ‘violence’.

In fact, it was precisely such simplistic, bigoted thinking that had almost every single newspaper and magazine running stories about how the catastrophic floods in Pakistan were not a human catastrophe as much as they were an opportunity for the Taliban to exploit the suffering of the people and orchestrate a return. This pathetic simplicity is so well accepted that even Pakistan’s mindless and retarded leaders were running around Western capitals with their begging bowls mouthing the same inanities – they knew it would elicit a lot of money from deep Western pockets!

In fact, the New York Times once again was at the forefront of this depiction in a piece called Hardline Islam Fills Void In Flooded Pakistan. Even The Lede had a number of stories on this very perspective. In fact, a whole host of publications followed up with the same story and it was the constant focus of most any and all foreign reporters I met in Pakistan while working there to cover the floods.

The way Muslims are spoken about today has a long history in our society and it dates back to our involvement and engagement with the Middle East – an engagement whose intellectual prejudices and perspectives we inherited from the British as they left the region, and her intellectuals, academics and political advisors joined our academic, political and polemical communities. A complicated story that I will not go into here. Edward Said discussed some of this in his work Covering Islam: How The Media And The Experts Determine How We See The Rest Of The World - the book was written well before 9/11.

But suffice it to say that we should not at all be surprised at how Muslims are depicted and considered in America today. Given all the sources from which we receive our information and our ‘truths’ it should come as no surprise.

These apologies, these ‘we are better than this’ righteousness is hypocritical and misleading. When Mr. Kristof says:

I hereby apologize to Muslims for the wave of bigotry and simple nuttiness that has lately been directed at you. The venom on the airwaves, equating Muslims with terrorists, should embarrass us more than you.

But there is dishonesty in this statement. His own newspaper has been at the forefront of perpetuating these equations and its journalists continue to do so from all across the globe. Perhaps a more serious apology would be in the form of a resignation from the paper, and a distancing from a publication that is very much involved in the creation of the ‘image’ of ‘Islam’ and Muslims that is now on display at Palin/Beck gatherings and other ‘nuttiness’ collectives.

They are not as ‘nutty’ or as ‘extreme’ as we would like to think.

Now where are my DVDs of ’24’?

UPDATE: A few days after writing this post I came a far more intelligent and interesting one that complemented the arguments that I made here. Garrett Baer of the Killing The Buddha penned a piece called Yes, Mr. Kristof, This Is America which argues, using a different but interesting set of historical and sociological arguments, that American bigotry has a history and it is our own. I quote:

We have to stop treating American bigotry as a series of exceptions—like silly season—and finally deal with it as a chronic condition. America, I have a diagnosis, and you do not look good. If it looks like racism, feels like racism, and sounds like racism, then I’m pretty sure that’s what it is. Let’s stop reacting with disbelief, as if someone pulled the multiculturalist rug out from beneath our feet, only for us to land on our surprised asses in an America we’d never seen before.

Its worth a read, and Killing The Buddha worth putting into your RSS readers.

My Home Is Under Threat By Hoards Of Burqa Clad Barbarians…Oh Wait, I Am That Burqa Clad Barbarian!

In Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on September 19, 2010 at 3:44 pm

The fast decline of European society towards the easy and seductive comforts of bigotry is truly a sight to behold. Rarely has a region with such a rich, and diverse intellectual, philosophical and cultural history demonstrated such a speedy reversion to infantile thoughtlessness and recklessly paranoid, and frankly, moronic thinking. And I use the word ‘moron’ not as a word of abuse, but as the original medical term that referred to adults with a mental age of about 5 – 12 years.

The derailement of so fine a tradition as a result of the September 11th attacks are just fabulously mind boggling to contemplate. There is an interesting book for someone to write just on this topic i.e. the ease with which some of Europe’s finest minds collapsed into inanities and bigotry when confronted by this one event.

And the benefits are being reaped by Europe’s extreme right. Usually a group with not even an idea between them, they have jumped onto the ‘hate’ bandwagon with a gusto not seen since the early 20th century! From Italy to France, from Denmark to the UK. And now Sweden

The Swedes are voting. The Swedish Democrats (Sweden’s far right party – their official TV commercial is below) are vying for power. They will probably not get it, but they will enter Parliament and begin a process of influencing the language, policies, priorities and rhetoric of a nation that I call home.

Is it possible that I may have to leave this nation, complete with my wardrobe of variously colored, tastefully filigree-ed, burqas?

The horror of the thought!

I Wonder If We Can’t Do Something Similar For Photojournalism…

In Musings On Confusions, Photography, The Daily Discussion on September 19, 2010 at 9:21 am

This was simply a brilliant idea…

Check out more at Tom Scott

Going Back To Go Forward Or Why A Book May Hold The Secret To A New Photographic Adventure

In Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Photography, The Daily Discussion, Writers on September 15, 2010 at 9:27 am

It was once quite fashionable amongst photojournalists to argue that ‘too much information’ about a situation, conflict, region, culture, society, subject or story could confuse and damage a photographic work. I remember at least a handful of interviews with ‘major’ photographers where they each claimed that they went into situations and stories such that they were not ‘influenced’ by readings and open to the experiences and inspirations from actual experience. I always felt that this was yet another weak attempt to veil what can only be described as intellectual laziness behind the obfuscating language of ‘the creative process’. It was quite obvious that the works being produced from complex socio-economic environments were riddled with simplicities, banal clichés and a frankly egregious and irresponsible disconnect from the broader social, political, economic and cultural factors that defined the nature of the ‘social pathology’ the photographers were focusing on.

All this is perhaps much too obvious to many. Yet photographers rarely quote books and research papers as the key source of influence of their work. And yet we are, as photographers, primarily if not exclusively, engaged in the process of expressing ideas, and depicting ideas through photographs. So I do find it odd that rarely do photojournalists or documentary photographers discuss the literary, non-fiction or poetic works that not only gave birth to a major photographic project, but that also defined the scope and nature of the work itself.

Just a random though this morning as I saw the latest issue of Grant Magazine which focuses on the nation of Pakistan.

Grant Magazine Issue 112

Grant Magazine Issue 112

I have written frequently enough about the rather shoddy and limited engagement most photographers and photojournalists have had with this nation. Here in the pages of this magazine a few of Pakistan’s young writers, artists and poets offer a vision of the country, its people and their lives that are determinedly missing from the world of photography and photojournalism. The contrast cannot be sharper and I can’t think of many other nations where the divide between how it is represented by ‘the outsider’ and how it is expressed the ‘the locals’ is greater. I have yet to meet a major photographer or photojournalists who can actually name an important Pakistani writer.

But ideas come from readings, and from an intellectual curiosity about a people and a culture. Perhaps part of the reason why so much of mainstream photography is so derivative and repetitive is because photographers prefer to mimic rather than explore. Perhaps there is a fear that a new idea, a new thought may have to be transformed into a new approach and a new eye. All this is not easy to do. But certainly there are regions which after so many decades of shallow and repetitive coverage could do well with a new approach and some new stories. In fact I have been quite pleased to see a photographer like Alixandra Fazzina attempting to do just this and immersing herself into Pakistani families and communities to try to return with a different angle on the lives and concerns of the people of this country. But I can’t think of any others.

New readings. New ideas. I think its time to get rid of this assumption that knowing more results in producing less.

A new project idea emerged after even a brief reading of Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying In The Crook Of His Arm A Tiny Bomb. You go figure how that happened!

But ideas can come from many sources and if there is a dearth of new ideas and interesting works being produced today then perhaps it is because we are just not reading enough. This is of course not some highbrow arrogance at work here, but it would seem quite obvious to me that to explore issues in a new way we as photographers would turn to works, research, insights and creativity that can inspire our own. And it would allow us to stop repeating meaningless and ahistorical statements when confronted with the world we live in today and offer genuine insights and information about their reasons and possible solutions.

I think it was photographer  Jonas Bendikson who recently argued that with the advent of sophisticated digital cameras most anyone can make nice photographers and that the challenge now was to see who could come up with the best ideas. It seems to me that the ideas are all out there, but that the difference is going to be determined by who reads more.

The Flood: Pakistan 2010

In Photography on September 7, 2010 at 6:56 pm

A new set of images from recently completed work on the aftermath of Pakistan’s floods.

The Flood: Pakistan 2010 Copyright Asim Rafiqui

The Flood: Pakistan 2010 Copyright Asim Rafiqui/Stern Magazine

And a second set of images made over the course of a couple of days by walking along a 6 km stretch of the Grand Trunk Road which has become home to thousands who have lost most all, including their dignity and privacy.

The Flood: The Magnificent Grand Trunk Road Copyright Asim Rafiqui (Click on image for larger set)

The Flood: The Magnificent Grand Trunk Road Copyright Asim Rafiqui (Click on image for larger set)

They Set A Koran On Fire…And Nothing Happened

In Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on September 7, 2010 at 11:53 am

Ironically, tradition suggests that burning is one of the best ways of disposing pages of holy texts. As this video attempts to demonstrate an apparent act of ‘Christian’ faith, I can’t help but be amused by the sheer anti-climactic end of the video.

Nothing happens.

Much bluster, doom-and-gloom, the devil-is-amongst-us, talk ends with a guy desperately pouring petrol on a copy of the Koran and watching it burn with a rather lame flame. And yet nothing happens. The video ends. That is it. The world remains unchanged.

There are thousands preparing to demonstrate against the burning of the Koran on September 11th, 2010. I ask, why bother?

The faith, for those who truly believe, exists not merely in the printed pages, but as a divinely offered gift, in word and poetry that transcends its physical manifestation. It was for this reason the Koran was not even printed in the earliest years of the faith. It is why millions memorize it. It is meant to be spoken, sung and expressed. Like texts of all faiths, it lives in the heart and the soul, above the physical, and written into the existential.

Much as burning the flag does not dismantle the republic, burning a copy of a book will not affect the religion, nor the belief of those committed to it. So let them burn the Koran I say. These impotent acts of ignorance, these overt gestures of hate, these carefully crafted theatrics, have little or nothing to do with the religions they attack, the objects they desecrate or the faiths they in fact claim to be defending and acting on behalf of.

Watch the video again.

Notice that when the Koran is set on fire, nothing happens.

Nothing changes.

Nothing is lost.

Nothing is revealed.

Nothing is desecrated.

The world, the faiths, the believers, the committed, the message, the text remain unchanged.

We dishonor ourselves with these petty protests, while remaining silent in the face of genuine crimes. As the United States of America, my home and adopted nation, continues its brutalities  in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, retains its torture centers around the globe, hides behind false legalisms to maintain Guantanamo and a regime of torture, abducts and assassinates even its own citizens at will and at the behest of powerful individuals, surrounds itself with costumes of ‘christian charity’, we would do well to remember the things that we should be protesting against.

There are genuine crimes being committed in our names, and thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives being torn apart. There are genuine issues we should march out against, raise our voices against, stand against. Cheap and impotent acts of desecration are unworthy of our attention for they mean nothing, and affect nothing.