The Purity Of The Secular Imagination Or The Fantastic Liberal Imagination

I am not sure how ‘gender equality’, ‘human rights’ and ‘civil liberties’ became associated with being ‘secular’. If we keep in mind the construction of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ – both entirely European constructions, we see how in the concept of secular has a long history of European gender inequality, racial segregation and slavery, colonial repression and genocide, all of which remained happy travelers with the Enlightened. That is, despite post-Enlightenment Europe’s real history of racism, colonialism, genocidal violence, slavery and more, the idea that ‘secularism’ or the separation of ‘state’ and ‘church’ is a necessary precondition for peace and tolerance, justice and liberty, is frankly, quite bizarre. In fact, so much so, given the scale of violence inflicted by European nations on the rest of the world, and the gifts of racial violence, the Holocaust, and other general intolerance towards ‘minorities’ and the blacker people, it seems entire one of the greatest propaganda feats in human history. So much has been written about ‘secularisms’ dark legacy, that I do still find it strange when these easy dichotomies are created. But then again, American media has been a bastion of the anachronistic, out-dated and classically colonial mindset for many decades now. And this is the same media that can cheer lead towards multiple wars, the deaths of millions, the displacement of millions more, and continue to speak as if its ‘secular’ credentials and these ‘secular’ nations are where peace and liberty are found, and that it is religion in fact, that is the cause of violence and fundamentalism. This myopia if of course what allows hacks like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or Alan Dershovitz, or so many of their fellow travelers to get away with the theoretical and rhetorical murder that they do. Yet, it is with amusement and bemusement to read articles such as this where a simple dichotomy is created.

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Clearly, for the writer, ‘secular’ means Western, and all else is the barbarism of the religious Islamic madmen. Furthermore, note how ‘violence’ is only associated with the religious. But hasn’t ‘secularism’ given us violence – 20th century of world wars, genocide, imperial wars alone should suggest a corrective. Do we not kill for our belief in the imaginary secular? Isn’t this very secular state in fact based on structured violence? Should we not investigate how a discourse of violence affects the ways in which differences are resolved?

But perhaps most strangely, it is the idea that human rights, civil rights and gender equality are anathema to religion or Islam, and hence its antithesis. When in fact, Western ideas of rights are really only derivative of Christian Protestant values, as anyone aware of European history can attest. These terms, so cavalierly bandied about by the West when it comes to the lesser East, are too poorly interrogated today. This is specially true among photo/journalists who continue to, with confident swagger, use terms and phrases that are otherwise an embarrassment the the read, educated and informed kind.

For example, a recent essay coincidentally, touched on these matters, where Roberts when speaking about a new book called “Scandalous Economics”, pointed out:

Critical feminists of various theoretical persuasions – many of whom are featured in “Scandalous Economics” – have pointed to the limitations of the way that gender equality has been mobilized by particular politicians and state actors, global institutions, corporations and business leaders, philanthropic foundations and others. A central concern of these scholars relates to the ways in which the ideas generated by a movement for women’s liberation have increasingly been articulated in terms of individual rights. As Nancy Fraser explains, ‘Where feminists once criticized a society that promoted careerism, they now advise women to “lean in”. A movement that once prioritized social solidarity now celebrates female entrepreneurs. A perspective that once varicolored “care” and interdependence now encourages individual advancement and meritocracy’. Feminism, it is argued, has become quite commensurate with neoliberal capitalism, and might even be implicated in helping to legitimize this politico-economic project.”

And if people can kill for values – as we in the West do all the time, should we not interrogate these values, see the alternative ideas of equality, rights that there exists? If these men are killing bloggers, are they really doing it for the reasons we are so simplistically offered? And if other forms of violence – State and mass violence against nations, including invasions and occupations, are justified by ‘values’ (free their women!), then should we not see what ‘values’ are being determined and defined here?

There are rather outdated modes for writing such pieces. This is a reactionary journalism, comfortable in its ignorant use of phrases and terms that have now come to take on meanings they do not have. And yet journalism remains immune to a revision, or a change – it seems to constantly consider complex societies to be worthy of little more than tired and exhausted clichés. The situation in Bangladesh demands a more intelligent discussion about where this violence is coming from, its political goals, and equally, who are these ‘secular bloggers’ – a question that is never asked, and what is it that they are after. For they too use terms and phrases that I am not sure they have themselves interrogated or examined.

We are now nearly thirty years into an era where ideas of ‘rights’ and ‘liberalism’ have been used to wage war all over the world. From Kosovo onwards, the caravan of ‘human rights’ have been the avant-garde of violence, invasion, killings and occupations. This is not some random event, nor a small blip. This language – of liberalism, of equality, of civil and human rights – is a language of war and destruction. The evidence is in front of us, and yet, we seem not to be able to connect these realities. Our language of emancipation has been usurped by the war-mongers, and yet we continue to throw this language around as if it has withstood the assault of the imperialists.

It cannot. It has not. Today, NGOs, international organizations and States, screaming these phrases and these beautiful words, produce strong fear and defensive reactions, and closing of a dialogue. They create resistance as people see the bodies, the dead, the destruction, the displaced – all in the name of democracy or liberalism or freedom – and run for cover! This discredited language, this abased discourse, provokes its own counter-violence. We are in a Fanon-ian moment of counter-revolution, where an entire edifice of liberty has collapsed, as the West has unashamedly revealed its violent and debased face. The collapse of the Soviet Empire of course creating an arrogance where the West no longer hides its complicity in war and theft, but gloats about it.

So this language – or human rights, civil rights, gender equality – all of which have been justifications for war and mass murder, occupations and repression, today has little credibility. Could the people reacting to the bloggers be the lucid ones, the ones that see not a benign quest for genuine social and economic equality, but a debased question for further neoliberal and imperial inequality, discrimination, expropriation and violence? The flaw of course is that the protagonists understand the struggle they are in. But It is obvious that media is the principal venue for the maintenance and development of an ‘othering’ narrative, holding onto to outmoded and outdated racial and essentialist ideas about Muslims / Islam. It is the best instigator of violence, and the best justifier of indifference when the barbarians are ‘secularly’ killed to defend these constructed but flawed ideas of equality and rights.

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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

The project is now complete. Although, we may never really complete the telling of this remarkable story. You can see the project by clicking on this link here, or on the image below.

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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