The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘Mainstream Media

BREAKING: Pakistanis may offer you tea and biscuits while hating on your freedoms

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The man brandishing a gun is probably dangerous, but he may also offer you biscuits. Credit: GETTY Images

It seems like every day there’s a new steaming pile of nonsense published in the mainstream media about the Muslim world. For a geographically disparate grouping of countries that’s so incredibly important geo-politically it certainly isn’t easy to find informed comment and analysis, certainly not in the papers that constitute regular reading for many people in the West. If people are still beating the ‘clash of civilisations’ drum and decrying that ‘they hate our feedom’ then we know we have a problem.

Take National Geographic, a magazine that claims to have been “inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888.” If the feature about Pakistan it’s running this month, written by John Lancaster, is anything to go by then the inspiration is going to lead to more misinformed pity, orientalist ‘Other’-ism and fear-mongering. This might help people to ‘care’ but it does nothing to improve the greater scheme of things.

Lancaster was the Washington Post’s South Asia correspondent from 2000-2006 and was based in Delhi. I find it difficult to fathom how a man who spent so long embedded in one of South Asia’s greatest cities could so spectacularly fail to understand the situation on the ground in any kind of complex cultural context. I haven’t even been to Pakistan but his latest piece for National Geographic is so obviously horrible that it makes my nostrils bleed with the stench of it.

I was unable to get past the opening page’s introductory abstract before vomiting in my mouth a little bit:

The Taliban would not be amused. On a sunny winter afternoon in Lahore, the local culturati have turned out in force for the annual show at the National College of Arts. In the main courtyard young men and women mingle easily, smoking and sipping from cans of Red Bull. Some of the men sport ponytails, and one has a pierced eyebrow. [NatGeo Page 1]

“The Taliban would not be amused.” We have a new winner ladies & gentlemen! If I could get a piece published in National Geographic simply on the basis of things that go on in Pakistan that would not amuse the Taliban I would surely have multiple book deals by now. I challenge you all to preface the next four things you write, no matter what topic, with “the Taliban would not be amused.” Since the Taliban are generally not amused by much it seems, it’s the perfect blanket opener for any piece.

And it doesn’t get any better from there. Lancaster leads us into a web of juxtapositions all reliant on one single premise: that Pakistan is a weird conservative Muslim country that’s really poor and has lots of terrorism but OMG they also like normal Western-type stuff sometimes! Some of their men wear ponytails! One dude even had a pierced eyebrow! Maybe later they’ll all get together and have an early 90s party, wear flannel and watch Home Alone!

Even when Lancaster gets investigative, actually talks to people and describes specifics it fails to get any better. For example, to illustrate the sore thumb nature of Aitchison college, Lancaster chooses to provide us with the following:

The Aitchisonians, thoroughly versed in Amer­ican pop culture, chatter at dinner about the relative hotness of J-Lo and Salma Hayek. Both they and their teachers are infused with a strong sense of Muslim identity and, at times, grievance, especially toward the United States. “We all thought you were a spy,” one of the teachers told me after I spent time teaching at the school in 2009. “We hate Americans.” [Page 4]

Wow, isn’t that a curious paradox! Those crazy natives can talk about American pop culture on one hand but hate on America on the other! Why is it, that in the age of the internet and global media, it’s still considered legitimate journalism to point out that people in other countries know about American pop idols? What is that meant to illustrate exactly? And why is their interest in American pop culture supposed to be mutually exclusive to their opposition to US foreign policy?

But it gets worse. Watch Lancaster clumsily segue from a paragraph about women who dance for men in dingy clubs to Sufis:

“The wildest dancing I saw in Lahore was not in a theater but in a place of worship.” [Page 4]

Or be amazed by how Muslims surprisingly respect Jesus. We’re supposed to have the prior expectation that Muslims all hate Christians and want to kill us, remember?

“A white-bearded man gripped my arm. “We like Jesus!” he declared in English. “Jesus is a prophet too!” [Page 5]

Laetr, Lancaster spends an entire page telling us about how dangerous madrassas are supposed to be and then surprising us with how hospitably he was received at the one that he visited:

I didn’t expect to get past the gate, so I was surprised when, after a phone call or two, we were invited to return later that day to meet the nazim, or chief administrator. “It is in the tradition of the Prophet to be hospitable,” said Mau­lana Imdad Ullah, greeting us in a small ante­room over tea and lemon biscuits. [Page 6]

You expect to be beheaded on videotape to the shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” and instead you’re served tea and lemon biscuits. Wonders must truly never cease for John Lancaster.

To wrap up the piece, Lancaster provides further shocking news, that Pakistan suffers from income disparity where some people are, like, really rich… in a poor country! [Page 7] Never mind that this occurs in practically every single developing nation the world over, the sheer injustice of it all is still supposed to surprise us.

And just when you think that maybe it’s over, maybe Lancaster has gone through every single possible cliche in the book and has finally run out, maybe he will be forced to contribute something new to the broad field of writing about Pakistan, the piece ends with the most common traveller’s cliche of all:

I hadn’t been there long when an elderly woman walked up to me and extended a cardboard box. “You must have a sweet,” she insisted. “It is being offered in the saint’s name.” I was touched by this gesture to a stranger, which reassured me that somehow Bulleh Shah’s teachings had not been forgotten—and might yet prove more enduring than the Taliban’s. The taste of the woman’s offer­ing lingered for a long time. [Page 8]

Excuse me while I dry retch some more. I forgot that in order to write a successful travel piece about a developing country you need to mention that the locals are surprisingly friendly and hospitable and will even offer you things, in spite of their despotic government/conservative religion/terorrism/poverty/crime.  You need to illustrate this with an example of a local, preferably someone old and very poor who doesn’t speak good English, who offers you a small meaningless token despite being a stranger. Cue the collective: “awwwwww!”

So Lancaster lived in Egypt and Delhi for years, was a bureau chief for one of the biggest papers in the US, and the best he can come up with for his National Geographic feature (!) is that Sufis dance, Jesus is a Prophet in Islam and that poor people in a “failed state” know about American pop culture while simultaneously hating on its foreign policy and offering him sweets. This could’ve been written by a student backpacker.

But the most dangerous thing about this sort of reporting is not the lazy nature of it, not the sad state of affairs that many of the world’s top publications still find themselves in and not the insult to our intelligence that it delivers. The danger lies in what it says about the reading public. We, as the loosely termed West, the educated elite that read National Geographic and The Washington Post, are supposed to see Pakistan as a country of poverty-stricken, ignorant and illiterate terrorists who ‘hate our freedoms’ with a vengeance and will nuke us at the very first opportunity. We are then supposed to be surprised by how friendly people in Pakistan actually are, how much they know about our way of life and in how much danger these relatively friendly, sort of liberal people are from some bogeyman (in this case the Taliban). Cue audience bemusement when US pop culture and foreign policy are erroneously conflated and we discover that people can simultaneously love J-Lo but hate US support for Israel. We are meant to be overcome with pity, curiosity and bemusement for the next 23 minutes, then we go to Starbucks, forget all about it and read an identical piece a week later and think exactly the same things.

The fact that the sheer orientalism, paternalism and outright ignorance embedded in this piece represent the status quo for Western readers everywhere scares me. It scares me a lot. These readers will go on to vote for governments that can go nuts with foreign policy towards countries like Pakistan as long as it’s positioned in a way that plays into their constituents’ ignorance. If we don’t have good quality reporting about places like Pakistan, how can people become informed about a place they might never be able to visit? Clearly, National Geographic ‘inspires’ with little more than the same token surface reporting that’s been written for decades and hasn’t changed much since the days of Kipling and Flaubert.

Written by alexlobov

July 1, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Updates: Aftermath of flotilla attack during the second day

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Israeli forces approach one of six ships bound for Gaza yesterday. Photograph: Pool/Reuters Hat-tip: Guardian

For anyone not yet up to speed, a flotilla of vessels carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza with the aim of lifting the blockade imposed by Israel was intercepted and attacked by Israeli commandos yesterday which resulted in 9-19 deaths (depending on which reports you believe, Israel still has not released an official list of names of those killed). To get up to speed on developments yesterday check out my first and second posts.

More news has come today, kicking off with a marathon UN Security Council meeting called by Turkey with the aim of eliciting an official response from the Council. The bulk of the meeting went on behind closed doors but reportedly it constituted mostly a back-and-forth between the Turkish and American representatives, the latter refusing to allow the Security Council to officially single out Israel for condemnation.

Turkey proposed a statement that would condemn Israel for violating international law, demand a United Nations investigation and demand that Israel prosecute those responsible for the raid and pay compensation to the victims. It also called for the end of the blockade.

The Obama administration refused to endorse a statement that singled out Israel, and proposed a broader condemnation of the violence that would include the assault of the Israeli commandos as they landed on the deck of the ship. [NYT]

Reportedly the Israeli army will be transferring the humanitarian aid found on the boat to Gaza.

Here’s a very interesting piece of news from the excellently-run Al Jazeera English liveblog:

11:37am: His wording is far from conclusive, but the Jerusalem Post seems to think Israel’s deputy defence minister, Manan Vilna’i, hinted that Israel sabotaged some of the ships in the Gaza flotilla.

When asked during an Israel Radio interview whether it might not have been possible to stop the ships in a more sophisticated manner, Vilna’i responded, “Every possibility was considered. The fact is that there were ten less ships in the flotilla than were originally planned.”

Hosni Mubarak has opened the Rafah border and, according to this Arabic source, there are no restrictions on who is allowed to enter and exit. Would be interesting to see some reports on traffic there. Also, the EU and Russia have released a joint statement condemning Israel’s use of force and calling for the Gaza blockade to be lifted. (Hat-tip: AJE liveblog again on both).

The MV Rachel Corrie, another ship that was supposed to be part of the original flotilla but the  departure of which was delayed due to mechanical malfunction has reportedly set off for Gaza and is due to arrive within 48 hours. In a response that can now only be viewed as ominous, the Israeli Navy has stated that it is ‘ready’ to receive her. The ship is a joint Irish/Malaysian vessel.

As far as the mainstream media’s reporting has been, I would like to direct you to WashPo’s fairly extreme piece by Scott Wilson on the Free Gaza Movement. What the hell kind of lead paragraph is this:

Once viewed only as a political nuisance by Israel’s government, the group behind the Gaza aid flotilla has grown since its inception four years ago into a broad international movement that now includes Islamist organizations that Israeli intelligence agencies say pose a security threat to the Jewish state.

Clearly WashPo has missed the memo. Most of the mainstream media is treating this event with a lot more caution. I normally consider the FP a fairly reliable weathervane. I certainly wouldn’t consider it a liberal newspaper and yet it has included condemnation of the attack from Stephen Walt, Mark Lynch and its own editor-in-chief Blake Hounsell, all essentially calling for the blockade to be lifted.

So if the mainstream is not exactly lining up behind Israel, what does that mean for the defenders of this monstrosity. I direct you to the following tweet by Middle East expert (though she can’t see it from her house) Sarah Palin:

Assume u WON’T get straight scoop on Israeli flotilla incident via mainstream media;PLEASE read Krauthammer,Horowitz,et al 2learn other side

Palin has long been a shrill critic of her perceived unfair treatment at the hands of the supposedly pro-liberal mainstream, but what this shows is the increasing radicalisation of the pro-Israel-at-all-costs lobby and the increasingly ridiculous sounding hasbara that is being thrown up to defend the atrocities committed by the State. Witness this tweet from Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon:

Participants on the armada of hate had ties with global Jihad and Al Qaeda and used live weapons against our troops

Apparently tying any Muslim you don’t like to al Qaeda and ‘global Jihad’ hasn’t really worked since the whole thing about how Saddam Hussein didn’t quite have anything to do with 9/11, but clearly Mr. Ayalon and his Islamophobic friends missed that memo. I also like how the activists on the Turkish-flagged vessel used “live weapons” (as opposed to, presumably, dead weapons) against “our troops” (ie. elite commandos who stormed their boat in international waters). Wow? It doesn’t take an undergraduate degree to sort the BS out of that one.

Speaking of the legality of the raid, I’m going to paste this in its entirety, thanks to Mondoweiss and Craig Murray, ex UK Ambassador and one time Foreign Office specialist on maritime law:

“A word on the legal position, which is very plain. To attack a foreign flagged vessel in international waters is illegal. It is not piracy, as the Israeli vessels carried a military commission. It is rather an act of illegal warfare.

Because the incident took place on the high seas does not mean however that international law is the only applicable law. The Law of the Sea is quite plain that, when an incident takes place on a ship on the high seas (outside anybody’s territorial waters) the applicable law is that of the flag state of the ship on which the incident occurred. In legal terms, the Turkish ship was Turkish territory.

There are therefore two clear legal possibilities.

Possibility one is that the Israeli commandos were acting on behalf of the government of Israel in killing the activists on the ships. In that case Israel is in a position of war with Turkey, and the act falls under international jurisdiction as a war crime.

Possibility two is that, if the killings were not authorised Israeli military action, they were acts of murder under Turkish jurisdiction. If Israel does not consider itself in a position of war with Turkey, then it must hand over the commandos involved for trial in Turkey under Turkish law.

In brief, if Israel and Turkey are not at war, then it is Turkish law which is applicable to what happened on the ship. It is for Turkey, not Israel, to carry out any inquiry or investigation into events and to initiate any prosecutions. Israel is obliged to hand over indicted personnel for prosecution.

Meanwhile, Blake Hounsell for FP:

It already has the makings of a huge international fracas that will make the Goldstone Report look like small potatoes by comparison.

and

There’s a huge unwillingness on the Israeli right to face reality — that Israel is fast losing friends and allies in the world, and that this government in Jerusalem has only accelerated the shift. It’s not hard to imagine boycott campaigns gaining momentum, damaging the Israeli economy and isolating the country diplomatically, especially in Europe.

While I’m still skeptical of how much damage exactly boycott campaigns will actually have and whether the ‘friends and allies’ are actually going to be lost (all I’m seeing so far are spirited statements, as usual), I think that Hounsell makes a good general point: the tide does appear to be turning, as evidenced by how increasingly shrill and crazy Israel’s defenders currently sound.

I’m going link some great pieces by Stephen Walt and Arabist at the bottom of this post to save me having to essentially paste them in its entirety (especially Arabist, his post was that good) but here are my thoughts.

If we are to accept the Israeli narrative of events – that the activists on the Flotilla attacked Israeli troops with sticks, knives and deckchairs, thus provoking them to respond and unfortunately kill some of them – as the truth, the argument still has massive, gaping holes.

First of all, the boat was in international waters and Israel had no legal right to storm the boat with commandos, some of the best soldiers in an army considered already to be one of the best in the world. Since the boat was raided by soldiers, the occupants of the boat surely had the right to defend their vessel. The fact that they supposedly did so with a ragtag assortment of improvised weapons and were shot at with automatic weapons as a means of self-defense makes about as much sense as napalming a mosquito. This is pretty much the antithesis of proportionality and anyone who buys this is clearly deluded. Moreover, “the most moral army in the world” and certainly one of its best would surely have been able to manage a situation involving sticks and knives a little better than in such a way that resulted in at least 9 fatalities. Oh yeah, shal I remid you again? Commandos vs. Civilians. Proportional? No. This. Does. Not. Hold. Water.

Also, to those pundits that suggest that Israel’s main mistake was to board the boat in international waters and not in “Israeli territorial waters” appear to be missing the point. The boat was headed for Gaza, not Israel. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 (and still claims political kudos for doing so). Yes, Gaza is not recognised a state but that doesn’t make Israel’s siege of Gaza legal, nor does it just hand jurisdiction over Gaza’s territorial waters to Israel as a sort of parting gift. It is obviously not that clear cut.

Oh yeah, and the blockade. Need I remind you people how cruel and barbaric it is? No I don’t, because Stephen Walt will (if Glenn Greenwald didn’t in the post I linked last time). One final note to those supposedly hyper-realist defenders of Israel’s rights as a state: stop glorifying the State. There is no good reason why I, as an Australian (or any self-respecting national of any other country), should take Israel’s security any more seriously than the security of the people of Gaza. Right now, the biggest threat to their ‘security’ is not Hamas (as is often claimed by the Zionist lobby) but an Israeli blockade that is causing death by starvation and lack of medical attention, that is robbing the Gazans of the right to rebuild their shattered economy destroyed by air raids and Operation Cast Lead, and that is conducting a crude campaign of national humiliation and collective punishment. Oh, but the activists on the boat constituted a ‘threat to Israeli security’.  Time to wake up.

And here’s that piece of gold by Arabist, read it.

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