Rwanda mesmerizes and confuses. To date I have avoided producing any work from here. The question of the genocide still hands heavy, and certainly, remains the main prism through which the country is examined by almost all photographers. But of course, now, nearly 20 years after that horror, the scars and sensitivities still remain. It is near impossible to step away from them. And for some it has become a means to connect to a powerful world of money and influence, to gain favor with those who have access to corridors of imperial power. And there is nothing like a group of American Jewish billionaires with a unquestining, and frequently immoral, support for all things Israeli, to cozy up to. And as much as I want this nation to emerge stronger, more beautiful and more complete in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, it is moments like these when I see its leader hanging around with vile, corrupt, and mindlessly inhumane people, when I become worried.
But of course, here, you cannot raise an alarm, or express any dissent. Rwanda is fragile, and its political leadership not prepared to countenance any voice that may disturb the experiment they are working on. So how do you operate in a world that is controlled, monitored and within arms reach of punishment?
I face these questions as I prepare to work in Rwanda on a new project. It is possible that the first phase will begin in the next two weeks, but much remains uncertain. No one can deny the trauma of the 1994 genocide, and the political, social and psychological fragility of the nation – what nation would recover from a concentrated horror that may have taken up to 800,000 lives in less than a month, and far more if we start to include the history that led up to that mass slaughter? In many ways there are many who want to treat Rwanda with kids gloves, and understandably so. There is an experiment in the works here, one that is attempting to build something better, something more sustainable, something more cohesive and doing so from a place of such unmitigated horror that it repels the mind and the soul.
Kagame’s hobnobbing with these hypercritical billionaires of course is perhaps part of the hard choice he has to make to ensure the support of one of his biggest allies – the United States. But there is nevertheless a disappointment to see him break bread with men who justify mass murder, mass displacement and the erasure of another people’s history. that is, Kagame is hobnobbing with genocidiares – men who provide financial, political, propagandistic and intellectual support to a genocidal erasure of the life and reality of the Palestinians in the way of the sickening israeli colonial project. Kagame should know better than this, but at the same time, one can’t help but wonder how his hands are tied. Conferences like these – festooned with literary whores like Elie Wiesel – a man who would sell his mother to contort his concept of the moral, the just, the humane – undermine one’s confidence in Kagame’s judgement about what is the best way to help Rwanda. Surrounding himself with men who believe that ‘the the weak are only those that imperialism and colonialism can exploit to serve its own financial and political needs, while of course dismissing the weak that they themselves oppress, murder, displace and devastate (shall we say the word P.A.L.E.S.T.I.N.E., and can we remind them of the occupation, repression, dispossession, murder, mass incarceration, discrimination, brutality and torture that they sit on top of!), is quite dismaying. It is actually quite disgusting.
There is a utopian vision at work here in Rwanda – investments in social programs, universal health care, effective and transparent governance and much other stuff worthy of other nations to emulate. but core fundamentals are missing. I have to proceed carefully. there is much to say about what is being attempted here. Rwanda is a fascinating experiment in central planning, people participation and modern economic development. where is it all going its impossible to say.
But I will try…carefully
Bob Black sent me a link to a review of Akbar Ahmed’s new book The Thistle And The Drone – I have yet to read the work – it sits #12 on my list of books, and I have to admit it is falling further down the list as I am discovering some amazing new texts to explore. Regardless, I have browsed through it, and feel that I can still say some things about it.
Something about this work worries me. I have not read it, so these worries may be allayed soon (the work is on my shelf and 12th in line for reading!). What I find problematic is:
– The neat categorization of something called ‘tribal’ vs. ‘state/modern’. each time i see such neat categories, such convenient labels, i become suspicious, and here again the labels are just too convenient to accept. quite often writers will find such a sellable arrangement of the world and of its history and then run with it, foisting facts and history into their neat little diagrams and theories.
– There is a strong whiff of ‘the noble savage‘ in all this talk about the so-called tribal people and their apparently rigid, unchanging, unthinking, unchallengeable, unmodifiable and frankly rather ahistorical and anti-human codes of ‘honor’, ‘revenge’ and what not. this is absolute nonsense and comes from a classic habit that so many neo-colonialists trying to make sense of a people who are different from them.
– It is bizarre that people keep speaking about ‘tribal law’ as if it is something incomprehensible, and alien to our ‘modern’ sensibilities. all law is ‘tribal’ law, where the tribe today is the nation as represented by the state. the state exacts revenge, metes out punishment and protects the ‘honor’ of its citizens through its laws, law courts, lawyers and the police. that our urban elite seem to think that somehow our urban laws are more civilized or advanced from something they denigrate as ‘tribal’ is sheer hubris. the state in Pakistan puts people to death for over 27 crimes, and people defend the death penalty on arguments that are no more than a desire for ‘revenge’ for the original crime. all societies have laws, and rules for enforcing them. the battle is often between interpretations and enforcement of laws, and who is responsible for each. tribal law is no different from state law, except that it lacks the veneer of ‘sophistication’ that a state is able to presume.
– Akbar Ahmed is a Pakistani bureaucratic, steeped in the prejudice, bigotry and colonial presumptions of a Pakistan elite that has always seen the ‘tribes’ as a bunch of barbarians. their world view remains largely tied to a british era racism and incomprehension. they tend to confuse this with insight and intelligence. the fact that Jinnah negotiated a détente with the tribes had more to do with his desperate need to have the FATA regions be a part of a pakistan that even after independence was fragmenting. if we remember Baluchistan and its people who wanted to leave pakistan, and that FATA territories never wanted to be a part of Pakistan in the first place, we see a Jinnah willing to give hell and high water just to get their willingness to tolerate a pakistan to which this glued together nation could claim as one contiguous territory. Jinnah was no ideal to aim for and showed no great insight into dealing with pakistan’s lived diversity and social complexity. after all, Jinnah was also the man who arrogantly and with no respect for the diversity of pakistan, demanded that Urdu be the one and only state language. Here was a man who elected himself ‘Governer General’ of Pakistan – a British Raj position that gave the individual absolute, undemocratic, draconian power over the population, and refused to push through a constitution, and had little tolerance for the actuality of the nation he was forced to lead.
– The centralizing tendencies of the modern state are the main cause of so much of resistance and violence at its so-called peripheries. what needs to be examined here are not the ‘tribes’ and their ‘noble savage’ ways, but the policies and practices of the post-colonial state – policies and practices that have flung violence and death to any and all who may have asked for a more plural, and diverse idea of the political-economy of the state. this remains true for Pakistan, Yemen, India, and the Soviet Union for example. there are no ‘tribal wars’, but state control and centralizing wars that have refused to accommodate and understand the diversity of life within their borders and refused to develop and pursue genuinely democratic, accommodating and equitable policies with those it considers as ‘barbarians’.
– Akbar Ahmed’s thesis reeks of colonial hubris and bigotry. It is the old story again. in the early 19th century the British were air bombing the ‘tribes’ or Iraq, Afghanistan, Waziristan, Syria and mandate Palestine because they believed that these people understood nothing but violence and the stick. they were beyond reason, beyond communication, beyond political accommodation. racism played a huge role in this attitude. Akbar Ahmed does not advocate the same, but his desire to find legacies of political engagement in our colonial past, and then project forward the false anthropological / ethnographic simplicities to create something called ‘tribal’ Islam is ridiculous.
– Akbar Ahmed forgets that the leadership of groups like al Qaeda and others comes from urban, middle class, educated backgrounds. the 9/11 bombers were not ‘tribal’, but western educated engineers who had worked and lived abroad. tribal allegiances are a convenient way to avoid giving agency and history to people – they are simply another form of racism masquerading as insight. we reduce these young men to ‘tribal’ essences, and ‘loyalties’ – a reductive approach that is definitely a carry over from colonial racist thought.
– There are histories here that are erased – from Yemen to pakistan to Chechnya, Akbar Ahmed is enamoured with his thesis, and erases the heavy hand of imperialist states in removing and erasing entire societies. the caucuses are not tribal, but regions that faced – from Stalin to Putin, decades of mass deportations, all out war, and brutalities that we cannot even fathom. one only has to read the history of what transpired in places like Chechnya to understand the seeds of resistance and this war. the scale of state violence simply overshadows anything that reactionary ‘tribal’ violence unleashed in return. the same is true today in Afghanistan and Waziristan where the USA and Pakistan, respectively, have unleashed massive amounts of state violence on the people of the region. it’s not tribalism, it’s simply human resistance and refusal to bow to the jackboots of tyranny.
There is more to be said here, but this review carries so many of the confusions and obfuscations that i suspect lie in the book. but certainly its neat thesis is a nice gift to those sitting in the comforts of their homes in Islamabad – an idea that there are essences that compel a certain kind of people to ‘refuse’ modernity, and that we should ‘speak nicely’ and bring them onboard. patronizing attitudes like this, and heavy-handed erasures of the violence and wars we have unleashed on the regions for decades, are a classic colonial practice. Akbar Ahmed seems to be keeping that tradition alive!
The journalist / film-maker Madiha Tahir gave an interesting interview on CounterPunch about the American drone campaign in Pakistan’s Waziristan region. She raised an important point that Akbar Ahmed – the man whose book I discussed above, fails to mention. She pointed out that:
The line the Pakistani state uses to justify governing the region like this is that they want to preserve Pashtuns by not interfering into their life. However, this is nonsense because since the time of the British the area has been governed quite heavily.
There are draconian laws, and the state intervenes in every aspect of people’s life. The people of the area have no way to ask for redress: the courts don’t function. So when the Pakistani military conducts operations and kills people, there is no ability to seek justice. Traditions like the jirga (a traditional system where elders gather and make decisions) have been thoroughly appropriated by the state for a long time. One example of this would be a tribe’s malik (their elder or tribal leader). A malik usually receives payment by the government for his services of keeping the tribe in check. He then doles out this money to people in his tribe. The control the malik has over money has a large affect on the societal structures of the tribe. This whole process has been taking place since the time of the British.
The continuity of colonial prejudice in the post-colonial world is an important area of study. Too many people believe that just because nations became ‘independent’ that all the pathologies of the colonial world simply disappeared. In fact, most if not all of them have continued. Not the least of which is a deep racial prejudice, and racist ideas about tribes, people’s, essences, natures and identities. It is not uncommon to hear Pakistanis continuing to refer to themselves through categories that were concocted to serve British colonial interest e.g. the idea of ‘martial races’ – a completely fictitious idea manufactured by the British after the rebellion of 1857 to divide the Indian’s into groups that were ‘trusted’ and those that were not. This nonsensical idea, complete with fake lineages and histories, stains the minds of our world even today. The entire makeup of the Pakistan Army for example, has remained largely unchanged since independence, complete with a culture of military hubris, aloofness, denigration of the civilian, and racist divisions of units and battalions. Their clown-like uniforms a sad reminder of the mindlessness of a new generation that can’t see its own intellectual and physical chains.
Malala has become a useful tool for a Pakistani middle and elite class that is desperate to wear the garb of ‘liberalism’ and ‘peace’, and equally desperate not use its mind to think about where the real problems lie. The fact is that it is not the Taliban who are the greatest threat to women’s education in Pakistan, but in fact the Pakistani state itself. Pakistan ranks 113 out of 120 in literacy. It allocates less than 2.5% of its budget for education. Women’s literacy numbers are a bigger farce – less than 18% of Pakistan women receive 10 years of education. What we are dealing with here is a systemic, state failure of attention to education. In the last years the situation has been made worse by a push to ‘privatize’ education and have to state once again remove itself from the concerns of the citizenry and society. This retreat of the state from education has left the door open to not only profit-seeking schools but also the large number of privately run religion centric schools that have cropped up. And with a literacy definition that is rather pathetic – being literate in Pakistan means: One who can read a newspaper and write a simple letter, in any language – these numbers are even more shameful! Anyone looking at the history of education, education reform, education budgets, and women’s education practices in Pakistan will see a state that frankly does not give a damn! To see its members now shedding ‘crocodile’ tears as they stand around this poor girl, using her sufferings as a way to hide their own crimes, I am seriously sickened!
So when I see so many of our ‘elite’ pundits, journalists and citizens, celebrating Malala – a poor girl who has lost control of her narrative and has frankly been kidnapped by larger state, neo-liberal and imperial war making agendas – I can’t help but feel sorry for her. She has carefully chosen not to criticize the state that eviscerate tens of millions of women in Pakistan and has done so for decades where education has never been an important priority. And in the rush towards neoliberalism, something that most Pakistanis still do not understand even took place, this situation has only become worse. To see Malala being celebrated by Pakistanis corrupt, greedy, criminal and venal political class – the same class that each budget session commits more millions of Pakistanis to the trash heap of society with its policies that erase any hope for broad health programs, education programs, welfare protection, labor rights etc. – is to see a process by which those who believe in nothing are able to exploit even those who believe in a few things. Malala has fallen victim to a narrative that she herself as yet cannot understand.
I can only hope that she opens her eyes, that she realizes that she is being used by a state to white wash its crimes not just against Pakistani society, but also against those in Swat it sold to the American story of ‘The War Against Terror’ and the thousands who suffered and died at the hands of its military and its violence. A state that has flirted, and continues to do so, with the most violent and venal of terrorist groups masquerading as ‘holy warriors’ – men who are basically trained murderers, and that it is now using Malala to cleanse its hands.
On a completely different note…
From Stefen Jonnson’s striking book Subject Without Nation…I came across this chapter on the construction of the idea of women at the dawn of the modern, industrial age…
One striking feature of the expressivist paradigm (as propsed by Hegel, Ficht, Rousseau, Heidigger, Lukaks and even Goethe that there is an ‘inner’, a ‘soul’ to each individual, which reflect his / her ‘true’ ‘essence’ and collectively, the true ‘essence’ of the people / volk etc.) is the pseudo-concept of femininity. Before the modern era, gender identities were commonly derived from the social and economic hierarchy, which defined the woman as her master’s servant. With the emergence of the expressivist paradigm, these identities were redefined in terms of natural, quasi-biological essences, which, significantly, were deposited in the interior of each individual. Just as peoples, races, and nations were taken to be expressions of intrinsic essences, so were the ideas of masculinity and femininity seen as innate and inescapable. This transformation run parallel to the diversification of labor in bourgeois society and the redrawing of the limit between private and public space…For instance, when Rousseau posited the state of nature as a norm, this nature was embodied not only by le bon suavage but also by the natural woman. Rousseau feared the exposure of women to public life, and politics would spoil their inborn capacity to nourish and comfort, thus disturbing the delicate balance of private and public, home and market, which was the basis of a healthy society. As Elshtain explains: “Without women to guard, nurture, and renew the private sphere, Rousseau’s public world cannot exist”
Its a fascinating book to read and to see how as industrialization, bourgeois society emerge in Europe, there is an attempt to associate the woman with home, with the interior, with possessing the essence of ‘the nation’ and all that is good, and natural and beyond the dehumanizing influence of the industrial machineries of the public. There is an idealization of the idea of the woman, and an attempt to keep her ‘in the home’ and away from the influences of the public. The famous German thinker Tönnies arguing that “…woman’s activity is more inward than outward”, or as Bovenschen explains “There, where the man dreams, fantasizes, imagines, poetizes, the feminine becomes the medium for his idea of a happier world set against his coercive everyday bourgeois routines….” (Jonsson, Subject Without Nation, Page 38 – 48)
This middle 18th / early 19th century reaction to modernity is uncannily like what Partha Chatterjee attributes to the India reformists of the 19th century – the modern Ashraf Muslim class and the Brahmin Hindu upper class, cringing and struggling against the humiliations and marginalization of British colonial rule. There is an amazing parallel here that I had not seen before. The same debates are at the center of the nationalism debate, and the issue women and nationalism is core to the ideas being propagated and developed by the Indian nationalists at that time.
Chatterjee argues in (this is from one essay, but his arguments appear in a few of how works including The Nation & Its Fragment: Colonial & Post-Colonial Histories and others)
The discourse of nationalism shows the material/spiritual distinction was condensed into an analogous, but ideologically far more powerful dichotomy: that between the outer and the inner…Apply the inner/outer distinction to the matter of concrete day-to-day living separates the social space into the…home and the world…The home in its essence must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the material world – and woman is its representation. And so one gets an identification of social roles by gender to correspond with the separation of social spaces in to ghar (home) and bihar (world)”
(Chatterjee, P Colonialism, Nationalism and Colonized Women: The Contest In India see: http://www.jacksonhu.tcu.edu.tw/myweb7/c004.pdf)
This is quite fascinating actually – i am not sure if anyone has really studied this particular ‘derivative’ discourse in Indian nationalism i.e the influence that the emerging idea of femininity in Europe had on the creation of the role of the woman in Indian nationalist discourse!!