Hey Buddy, Hold That Execution While My Memory Card Reformats Or What Does It Take Before Something Can Be Called A Story

Photographer Marco Vernaschi has gotten himself into quicksand, and taken the otherwise respectable Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting with him. And all I can think about are the forces, commercial and personal, that compel individuals to transgress boundaries of common decency, and institutions that celebrate these by publishing them.

Marco Vernaschi recently published a piece on the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting’s Untold Stories site about child sacrifice rituals in Uganda. When I first saw the piece I was left unmoved and frankly uninterested. The writing itself was uninteresting, and the photography – black and white pictures stylized, manipulated and otherwise manufactured to suggest ‘menace’, ‘evil darkness’, and ‘nightmares’, seemed only to be the latest in a long heritage of photographers trawling Africa for their piece of the continent’s apparently rich buffet table of the ‘demonic’, ‘diabolical’, ‘devilish’, ‘maniacal’ and otherwise deranged and deviant.

What in fact did surprise me about the work was that the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting was supporting and funding it. The work, and the photographer, just seemed a bit too over-the-top, too sensationalist and titillating and hence incongruent with so much of the rest of what the Pulitzer Center typically sponsored and supported. But I just dismissed my response as uninformed and moved on. Details »

‘Going Muslim’ At Fort Hood Or How Rabid Simplicities Masquerading As Insight Just Sell More Magazines

It did not take long for overtly racist explanations to be offered. Before facts come fantasy, and before truth comes tabloid opinions masquerading as insight. And it arrived not in some radical, fringe magazine but in the pages of the international magazine Forbes by one of their regular contributors. (I of course ignore the determined Islamophobia of outlets like Fox News.) Details »

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. Details »

No Pharaohs In The Modern World: The Liberal Muslim & Indian Democracy

The stranglehold of the orthodoxy, especially in its political and religious form, has to be loosened and slackened. The answer lies in more and more Muslim communities moving towards democracy. There is no short cut to democracy. . . . There is no place for pharaohs in the modern world. (Mushirul Hasan)

Martha Nussbaum has had a deep and committed engagement with India – a land she calls ‘her second home’, for many years now.  This American philosopher with an interest in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, political philosophy and ethics, has found a deep interest in modern India’s struggles with democracy and ethics.

Nussbaum is currently Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, a chair that includes appointments in the Philosophy Department, the Law School, and the Divinity School. She also holds Associate appointments in Classics and Political Science, is a member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and a Board Member of the Human Rights Program. She previously taught at Harvard and Brown where she held the rank of university professor.

Her latest missive on the situation in India comes as a bit of a surprise because it addresses a subject few have had the will to address; liberal Muslims confronting violence, discrimination and injustice, and yet choosing the path of the law, non-violence and intellectualism to confront it.

A new essay Land of My Dreams: Islamic liberalism under fire in India Martha Nussbaum offers a fascinating history of one of Delhi’s great liberal educational institutions, the Jamia Millia Islamia.  As Nussbaum describes it in her piece:

Jamia was born radical. Its curriculum emphasized the study of nationalism as well as the study of Islamic history and the Qu’ran; its admissions policy welcomed male and female, Hindu and Muslim; its pedagogy emphasized debate and contestation in the teaching of all subjects, including religion, denouncing the mere “passive awareness of dead facts.” The school had strong links with theorists of progressive education such as Bertrand Russell and Rabindranath Tagore and thus gave substantial weight to the arts and vocational education.

The piece is as much about the Vice-Chancellor of the institution, Mushirul Hasan, whose story, as Nussbaum points out, reminds us of 3 things:

First, the values we associate with classical liberalism-such as the defense of the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, and procedural due process-are not exclusively Western values. During the independence movement in India, they were reinvented by a colonized people who had seen just how little their Western masters honored such norms.

Second, these values are not tepid and centrist, as we sometimes hear, but rather, truly radical in a world of nations increasingly under pressure both from external violence and from internal quasi-fascist forces.

And finally, Hasan’s story shows that there is a distinctive and genuinely Islamic form of liberalism, long-lived and drawing inspiration from religious texts and their central concepts.

Unfortunately The Boston Review magazine allows people to comment on the essays they publish.  The reactions to Nussbaums’ piece stretch the realm of decency and coherency. I suspect that in the coming weeks the number of ‘comments’ consisting of slurs, abusive dismissals, sexist denigrations and outright insults against this scholar, philosopher, humanist and ethicist will only grow. These commentators do a disservice to not just Nussbaum, but to the very community that apparently think they are defending by abusing the writer and her works!

Martha Nussbaum is also the author of a book on the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and the threat to Indian democracy called The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future which was reviewed by Pankaj Mishra in the New York Review of Books

Play It Again Sam!

There are articles/essays that I find myself repeatedly returning to. They stand the test of time and in this age of throw-away journalism and me-too punditry, these masterpieces are reminders of why real writing and engaged journalism holds such an appeal and how it can cut past prejudices and indifference.  I will continue to link to others in this post as I think of them.

Ken Silverstein’s Parties of God is perhaps one of the clearest and most honest pieces written about the emergence of popular democracy in the Middle East and in particular within Islamic political institutions. Its appearance in a mainstream American magazine was surprising, and necessary. Favorite paragraph:

Talking about political Islam, or Islam at all, is difficult for Americans because our stereotypes are so strongly held. Islamists are imagined as poor, uneducated fanatics who, having turned to God for comfort and sustenance, are particularly prone to irrationality and violence. They do not allow their women to drive (when in fact women drive in every Muslim country except Saudi Arabia); indeed, every woman in a veil is seen as a victim of male oppression. When Islamists in Indonesia attack Playboy or Muslim Brothers in Egypt denounce racy Lebanese dancers, it is a sign not only of backwardness but of sexual repression, which is smugly asserted to be a root of Islamic terrorism. (It is doubtful that Osama bin Laden, who has at least three wives, turned to terrorism out of sexual frustration.) Fear of appearing sympathetic to movements that are frankly hostile to the U.S. government is, I suspect, another barrier to frank discussion of Islamic movements, as is the media’s clear bias in favor of Israel.

Pankaj Mishra’s 3 part essay on Kashmir – Death In Kashmir, The Birth Of A Nation & Kashmir: The Unending War, about the conflict there remains amongst the best primers on the situation ever put to the news/magazine page.  A must read for anyone trying to figure out what is going on in Kashmir, even though it was written in 2000 at the height of the militancy, it still remains relevant and honest and insightful.  There are too many favorite paragraphs but here is one that reminds us that life in this so-called ‘heaven on earth’ was very difficult and cruel even before partition:

The oldest among Kashmiris often claim that there is nothing new about their condition; that they have been slaves of foreign rulers since the sixteenth century when the Moghul emperor Akbar annexed Kashmir and appointed a local governor to rule the state. In the chaos of post-Moghul India, the old empire rapidly disintegrating, Afghani and Sikh invaders plundered Kashmir at will. The peasantry was taxed and taxed into utter wretchedness; the cultural and intellectual life under indigenous rulers that had produced some of the greatest poetry, music, and philosophy in the subcontinent dried up. Barbaric rules were imposed in the early nineteenth century: a Sikh who killed a Muslim native of Kashmir was fined nothing more than two rupees. Victor Jacquemont, a botanist and friend of Stendhal who came to the valley in 1831, thought that “nowhere else in India were the masses as poor and denuded as they were in Kashmir.”

Dude, Where Is My Anthrax?

Deadly chemical and biological weapons may be missing from the stockpile of one of the world’s largest producers of such weapons of mass destruction

These ‘agent’s’ may fall into the hands of dangerous lunatics who may decide to reek havoc on innocent civilians!

Why are we not scared?

Why has our media not inundated us with slogans, graphics and a symphony of melodies to draw our attention to this ‘sensational development’?

Because the nation in question is our own United States of America and the ‘agents’ are missing from the inventory of a U.S Army institution that has already been confirmed as a source of deadly biological weapons, and whose employees have already carried out attacks against civilians!

Why are we not scared?

Read on. Details »

Echoes of Guantanamo

It begins with the Haitians.

HIV/AIDS infected Haitians in fact.

It begins with George Bush, the senior.

It begins in 1991. Details »