The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘Orientalism

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

What does it mean to be a “Failed State”?

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People sleeping on a bus in Pakistan (10th most failed state in the world) | GETTY Images

The term “failed state” has been thrown around with wild abandon for quite a while now and has only grown in popularity and public prominence since Foreign Policy magazine, in partnership with the US think tank Fund for Peace, started publishing its annual Failed States Index in 2005.

But what does it mean to be a “failed state” and what is the real impact of this index?

The ranking is based on the total scores of 12 indicators. For each indicator, the ratings are placed on a scale of 0 to 10. The total score is the sum of the 12 indicators and is on a scale of 0-120. More information on the indicators used and further methodology can be found here.

My initial qualms are simple. How comprehensive can the tracking and monitoring of these indicators possibly be for each of the 177 states included in the 2010 index? How much access are researchers going to get to a country like North Korea, for example? How many hours of work would it take to be able to effectively establish a comprehensive rating of 12 indicators for 177 states within a reasonable time frame? Questionable, very questionable.

Putting that aside, even the structure itself is flawed. There are too many problematic examples for a single blog post but here’s one. All 12 indicators are weighted equally. One of those indicators is, say, “Progressive Deterioration of Public Services.” Ok, that’s pretty important. But what about the equally weighted “rise of factionalized elites,” described, in part, as “use of nationalistic political rhetoric by ruling elites”? I can see how that could be dangerous but it’s also pretty arbitrary and I can certainly think of worse things. That means a country with no nationalism but no public services whatsoever, and a country with sparkling public infrastructure and lots of flag-waving will be ranked equal in terms of being “failed.”

Also, how these indicators are squeezed into a rating out of 10 is beyond me. How do you assign an entire country a rating for “legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance or group paranoia”? What gives Pakistan a rating of 9.4 in this category vs. Iraq’s 9.3?

Ultimately, the index is obviously flawed, but ok, it’s impossible to create a perfect index that will sum up how 177 countries ‘failed’ to live up to a contrived ideal of perfect statehood. Which begs the question, should we even be trying? I understand that this is full of political bombast. A magazine that can tell its readers which states are ‘the worst’ and which states are ‘the best’ is surely useful. But also surely harmful.

Much of the danger arises when what the index is actually saying is compared to what people perceive it to be saying. The words ‘failed state’ set off massive psychological alarm bells, they tell potential tourists to avoid the country at all costs, they tell potential investors to put their money elsewhere and they inform the general language and framework of public debate about these countries, something that can be very damaging in the long run. When your average FP-reading punter reads the words “failed state” they don’t immediately question the methodology, they just hear massive alarm bells ringing in their head screaming “DANGER DANGER OMG!!!111.” These crushingly important perceptions can swiftly become prejudices when one considers how little thought your average reader puts into critically analysing the index itself.

These problems are exacerbated further by the articles FP prints to go along with its index. Check out, “Postcards from Hell,” a series of wonderfully cliched images of starving African people, shifty-looking ethnics with AK-47s, ominous burqas and random fire. These images have all the intellectual depth of a Michael Bay movie and do little but promote flawed pigeon-holing of entire nations into neat boxes marked “poverty” & “danger”. Things are made worse by charmingly worded accompanying captions, the writer of which seems to have trawled the thesaurus for every possible synonym of ‘bad’ but provide very little by way of explanation. For example, the caption under 32nd most failed state, Iran reads: “Clashes broke out in Tehran after a disputed June 2009 election saw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claiming victory over his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi,” which doesn’t tell me much about why Iran is any more ‘failed’ than number 33, Liberia.

Then there’s the ‘analysis’. Robert Kaplan’s piece, quaintly titled “Actually, it’s mountains“, a stinker that was seemingly faxed-in after a 45 minute session with the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, stands out for me. Kaplan spends most of the article harping on about the problematic geographies of the countries on the list and then rounds it off with a hopeful-sounding “None of these places is doomed. Human agency can triumph over determinism.” Thanks, Rob, I feel a lot better. I suggest a new title: “Actually, it’s lazy.”

Or what about George Ayittey’s “The Worst of the Worst“, a list of a bunch of terrible dictators and all their evil transgressions. Once again liberally applying the thesaurus, Ayittey goes through his list with wild abandon, brutally deriding the “bad dude dictators” and “coconut-heads,” and mercilessly cutting them down with the sword of Western Reason while riding past on his high horse.

But what is the use of all this sensationalism? We are told that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a bad man but there is no analysis of the complex Iranian political system where most power (including foreign policy and control of the armed forces) actually rests with Ayatollah Khamenei. We are told that Hosni Mubarak is a bad man but nowhere is it mentioned that his regime is propped up entirely by the US government. And that’s just the basics, there’s no in-depth analysis anywhere suggesting that maybe Iran is seeking a nuclear deterrent to Israel, or that Uzbekistan was used by Bush as a staging post for the War on Terror, thus giving Karimov legitimacy, or that Mubarak’s torture was not only approved but taken advantage of by America’s use of extraordinary rendition. Nope. Nada. Just lots of bad men and ‘failed states’.

And therein lies the problem with their entire concept. There is far too much weight behind the two words “failed state,” and too many conflicted definitions, to entrust the definitive explanations of entire nations to a few scantily-analysed annual magazine articles. Readers, do yourselves a favour: next time you read somewhere that a state is ‘failed’ or a head of state is ‘bad’, or a ‘dictator’ or a ‘coconut-head’, ask why. Because until we start asking why and actually analysing the global situation in a broader manner we will never find real solutions, just constant fear and further entrenchment of damagingly simplistic binary assessments of entire peoples that many already perceive as ‘the Other’.

Written by alexlobov

June 24, 2010 at 8:11 pm

Just who, exactly, is a terrorist worthy of outrage over?

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Alleged members of the Hutaree militia from Michigan. Photos released by the US Marshals Service/AP

Complaining about the fact that terrorism perpetuated by white people isn’t considered terrorism is nothing new but always worth pursuing. This is not a straw man, this is a serious gaping hole in our society’s fabric of reason and consciousness. The fact that right wing crazies, teabaggers, birthers and the like go nuts over possible connections between falafel vendors and Hamas but fail to mention non-Muslim terrorists should not be surprising. They are, after all, crazies. They are not the voice of reason and while their mere existence and relative prominence in our society scares me, it is not as scary as the wanton lack of reason displayed not only by our own mainstream media but even alternative media that are more broad-based and even supposedly carry a liberal bias.

Exhibit A (February 2010):

Leaving behind a rant against the government, big business and particularly the tax system, a computer engineer smashed a small aircraft into an office building where nearly 200 employees of the Internal Revenue Service were starting their workday Thursday morning. [NYT]

Let’s see… flying a plane into a government building on a weekday morning because you’re angry at the government. Sounds like terrorism to me.

Exhibit B (March 2010):

Nine people federal prosecutors say belong to a “Christian warrior” militia were accused Monday of plotting to kill a Michigan law enforcement officer and then attack other police at the funeral.

The five-count indictment unsealed Monday charges that between August 2008 and the present, the defendants, acting as a Lenawee County, Michigan, militia group, conspired to use force to oppose the authority of the U.S. government. [CNN]

Let’s see… I wonder what would happen if a group of nine Muslims plotted to kill law enforcement officers?

Exhibit C (May 2010):

A pipe bomb exploded at a mosque in north Florida May 10 and is being investigated as a possible hate crime. The FBI says they have few leads, and have joined the mosque and a nearby church in offering a $20,000 reward for information.

The FBI, however, says it could have caused serious injuries and deaths had the bomb been placed inside the mosque instead of outside.

The bomb went off during evening prayers, when about 60 people were at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville. No one was injured. [TPM]

Let’s see… trying to bomb a place of worship. I wonder what would happen if the bomb was planted at a synagogue? The blame would be shifted onto ‘Muslim extremists’ in a heartbeat. But here… ‘no leads’.

Now compare these to the reactions to the ‘pantybomber’ and the foiled Times Square plot? I’m sure I didn’t see any of the above exhibits trend on Twitter like these two did and while I’m sure that an evacuation of Times Square is a major event and that the concept of a ‘panty bomber’ is possibly very amusing I don’t think these factors warrant the major scale shrug given to the above three exhibits. So how did the supposedly liberal interwebs do?

Florida mosque bombing = 211,000 results

Michigan militia = 221,000 results

Plane into IRS building = 986,000 results (hoorah)

as compared to:

Underwear bomb = 2,990,000 results

Times Square bomb = 13,000,000 results

OK, I don’t pretend to be some kind of SEO expert and I’m sure the above search terms or keywords or whatever aren’t precise and neither is my method but you’re getting my drift here, right? Why do we see constant articles written about Faisal Shahzad (9,650,000 results, incidentally) and related obscure facts, like that his handwriting “reveals hostility”, but nothing about the origins of the Michigan militia or the Texan IRS-bomber, Joe Stack?

All of this gives rise to the old paradox about the media: is it the chicken or the egg? Is the cause here a failing among the media to properly report on important events or is it the fault of the public for not being interested enough to demand such reporting, explaining the lack of supply? The Google and Twitter watch would suggest that the latter may well be the case. But then again, can the blame be shifted back to the media chicken for incubating, via years of selective reporting and broad-based orientalism, an egg that has hatched a desensitized and apathetic drone unquestioningly consuming panty-bomber lulz and Times Square oh noez?

How much do we really care about events that don’t fit our prejudiced race-based dichotomy, that white people are victims and Muslim people are terrorists? (Note: this is further complicated of course by white convert Muslim ‘terrorists’ like “Jihad Jack” and David Hicks treated like weird cross-cultural abominations that have given up “white person” status and are now the Other with added circus freak curiosity status).

I’m using the pronoun ‘we’ here because I believe I am equally guilty. Sure, I busted out this post and maybe a few tweets but I probably tweeted more about Faisal Shahzad too. I probably haven’t given this issue enough attention either. I mean the IRS bombing was in February and this post is coming out in May? I know many of my most respected Tweeple and fellow bloggers are equally guilty.

Note: I suspect that this is also the reason for the muted outrage over Barack Obama’s recent approval of the extrajudicial assassination of a US citizen who just happened to be… Muslim (Anwar al-Awlaki, 323,000 results). Would we be so quick to apply a prejudiced assumption that the person is probably a terrorist anyway, with or without trial, if the target was, say, a militantly aggressive white Christian member of an anti-Government tea party faction? I can only imagine the outrage. I can see what you’re thinking: “but, uh, I oppose that assassination!” Sure, but how much do we oppose it? If Obama plotted to assassinate a cheerleader from Ohio whilst on holiday in Amsterdam, I’m assuming y’all would blog about it a little more, eh?

Let’s face it, we’re no shrinking violets, we’re good at outrage, we love a spot of anger and a powerful target to rail against. Why then, is our outrage so selective and often so muted, particularly, when double standards are so undeniable? We need to take a good hard look at ourselves and our prejudices, and realise that, no matter how intellectually aware of it we are, orientalism pervades not only our key institutions and power structures but also the hope for the future – our own hearts.

The Run-Off in Afghanistan: Likely Outcomes

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I have purposely included this picture to rant about how much I hate it. Look at the women! In burkas! See how they vote! OMG. Such progress! The savages can haz vote! I loves the leader Obama & his Nobel deeds. Image credit: Turkish paper HurriyetDailyNews

I have purposely included this picture to rant about how much I hate it. Look at the women! In burkas! See how they vote! OMG. Such progress! The savages can haz vote! I loves the leader Obama & his Nobel deeds. Image credit: Turkish paper HurriyetDailyNews

Reportedly Afghanistan “might be” heading for a run off, between Abdullah Abdullah and Hamid Karzai, after the first round of its elections were considered pretty bloody fraudulent and reduced Mr. Karzai’s share of the ballots to 47%. The outcome of this run-off is not yet certain. Apart from the two obvious outcomes, ie. Abdullah winning or Karzai winning, there is also the possibility of a power-sharing arrangement. Afghan and American officials have said that the earliest that a runoff vote could be held is late this month or early next month, with results expected about two weeks later.

J. Alexander Thier of the US Institute of Peace says to WashPo:

“On the one hand, holding the runoff could clear away some of the problems and allegations of the first round that have tainted the process and rightly made the administration, if this is truly a work of partnership, want to hold off until they knew who the government was going to be.””But at the same time,” Thier said, “there is obviously no guarantee” that a legitimate election could be organized in a few weeks or could avoid another cascade of allegations of abuse.

“There are costs to it, no question,” he added, including the possibility that the Obama administration “would have to go ahead with a [strategy] decision without knowing” who the winner is.

If we consider the internal politics then we have to consider a few factors. It’s one of those chess-game-theory type things really where both candidates probably want to maximise their gains. Even with the considerable amount of fraud recorded, it’s unlikely that Abdullah can actually amass more votes than Karzai. This means, if the run-off does occur, vote-rigging and all to be considered, it’s unlikely that Abdullah has any chance. Karzai may offer him something meaty in his cabinet, Abdullah could accept this on the basis of cutting his losses, or he could continue to push the Karzai-cheated envelope and hope for a power-‘sharing’ deal which would give him a meatier chunk. I would bet on the latter. There has been enough bellowing about fraud to ensure that round 1 was sufficiently tainted, making it easier to similarly taint round 2, casting doubt on the process and destabilising things to the point where Karzai could be in real trouble.

The Majlis also points out that given enough ‘dithering’, if the run-off is not held in the fall, winter will be far too harsh and it’ll have to wait until spring next year, a damn long time and plenty more time for either internal negotiations, more campaigning, more finger-pointing, or a combination of all three.

I’m going to take an outside bet on this and ask you to consider the possibility of the US stepping in more assertively. While Karzai has grumbled about foreign interference, if things get bad enough and his credibility erodes further, he may continue to grumble but reluctantly upset something Western-brokered, as it will allow him to save sufficient face. This is possible because Obama’s team is getting edgy, they’ve had lots of closed-door meetings and no new policy forthcoming yet, probably because it’s hard to have a coherent strategy on a country when you don’t know who’s going to be running the bloody place.

So while we watch the machinations and wait, check out this scathing piece by Allison Kilkenny for True/Slant, and I quote:

When a child tries to mash a play square peg into a round hole, adults chuckle and think the behavior is adorable, but Obama’s Afghanistan “road to victory” is essentially a grown-up version of the square peg-round hole model.

Are we prepared to ring a death-knell on the square peg-round hole model? Or can King Obama and the Sultan of Kabul somehow cobble things together?

Written by alexlobov

October 16, 2009 at 10:40 pm