Fear The Pushtun Bogeyman Or Scaring Children As An Imperialist Habit

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Engaging the Muslim World. He has a regular column at Salon.com. and writes the Informed Comment blog.

He has now written what I think is the first piece that connects modern day American imperialist paranoia in Afghanistan to 19th century British imperialist paranoia in Afghanistan. In a piece called Armageddon On Top Of The World: Not! he reminds us that:

What most observers don’t realize is that the doomsday rhetoric about this region at the top of the world is hardly new. It’s at least 100 years old. During their campaigns in the northwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British officers, journalists and editorialists sounded much like American strategists, analysts, and pundits of the present moment. They construed the Pashtun tribesmen who inhabited Waziristan as the new Normans, a dire menace to London that threatened to overturn the British Empire.

He goes on to remind us that:

In fact, few intelligence predictions could have less chance of coming true. In the 2008 parliamentary election, the Pakistani public voted in centrist parties, some of them secular, virtually ignoring the Muslim fundamentalist parties. Today in Pakistan, there are about 24 million Pashtuns, a linguistic ethnic group that speaks Pashto. Another 13 million live across the British-drawn “Durand Line,” the border — mostly unacknowledged by Pashtuns — between Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. Most Taliban derive from this group, but the vast majority of Pashtuns are not Taliban and do not much care for the Muslim radicals.

Lets repeat that statement once again: Most Pushtuns are not ‘Taliban’ nor ‘Islamic Radicals’. That there are fringe lunatics with guns and an overbloated rhetoric of armegeddon that is given undue and unjustified attention by scabarous and weak minded journalists and photographers is a crucial issue we prefer not to discuss.

It would be the equivalent of an Al Jazeera reporter insisting on covering the USA only from the eyes and from the hot-air rhetoric of militia groups in montana and nebraska, or the lunatic-fringe christian evangelical congregations in Florida!

The fact remains that bandying about the bogeyman makes for easy journalism, easy photography and easy sales. Fear sells. We know this well. The unfortunately an entire people, the Pushtuns, have been demonized, humiliatated, murdered, displaced and criminalized.

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Mir Abbas Khan returns to his home destroyed by Pakistani Army bulldozers and helicopter gunfire. Near Kalooshah, South Waziristan

In 2004 I was in Waziristan, and spent a month there with the tribes that were being lassoed into Pakistan’s desperate attempts to appease the American war-gods. The story eventually appeared in print in Mother Jones magazine. Titled Frontier Justice its most prescient part was the conclusion that writer Malcolm Garcia wrote – based on an interview I had done inside Waziristan:

Consider … Mir Abbas Khan, in the photo on the opposite page. Look at his eyes, his ruined home, and back to his eyes—full of fear and hurt, but mostly rage.

Indeed, consider Mir Abbas Khan’s face and his eyes….and his rage. An innocent Waziri, Ahmedzai tribesman whose entire life was torn to shreds because he happened to be in the path of American and Pakistan military power games. This is in 2004 and Malcom and I argued back then – an argument that got me in trouble with Homeland Security the one time they picked me up at Miami Airport for a 3 hour intense questioning, that it is inhuman, immoral, illegal and a clear violation of their human rights and rights to justice to kill them with impunity and from thousands of feet in the air.

The Pushtuns are not ‘a tribe’, or ‘a mass’, they are individuals and these individuals, their lives, their families are what we are crushing and killing in the blood-laden fields of South Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. We have made animals out of them, reducing them to mere objects that we kills, see in the distance and attempt to blow away. Our embedded photographers continue this trend, showing the Pushtuns as alien to us, distant from our humanity, their passions, emotions, sufferings, and humiliations unknown and unfelt by us.

“Asim”, his eyes looked at me pleading, ‘”is it not possible for you to imagine that we too can act only because we are human?”, I was with Waziri madrassa students in Peshawar in 2008, as they were trying to explain to me how life for them and their families had become a living hell since 2003 as the Afghan conflict began to spill over.”Sometimes we too, knowing that it is against our laws, our beliefs and our Koran, act because we are just human beings!”. His face tightened as if about to implode “I want to kill because I may have seen my brothers body parts torn all over a room – I want to kill not because I am a fanatic, but becuase I am a brother” He looked at ‘Is that no possible for us?” I had no answer for him. We sat there in the silence, a dark madrassa dorm room, about 20 other students sitting around me, and just thought about what we had just heard.

We are precipitating a genocidal campaign against an entire people because we can’t be bothered to see them as human beings.

This war, which perhaps we once tolerated and remained quiet about, has lost its mooring, and we have lost our moral compass.  It, like Iraq, is a dishonorable war, that is being fought dishonorably and will bring nothing but dishonor to those who plan it and fight it.

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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah

 

We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali

 

We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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