Getting It Wrong

I worked as a freelance photojournalist for nearly twelve years. I was a defender of the line (see Prologue), travelling to the other side from New York or Stockholm to bring back stories of violence, suffering, chaos, anarchy, or helpless victimhood for editors and readers on the “civilised” side of the line. Seduced by the myth of the war photographer, the conflict correspondent, and the journalistic ideal of pursuing the truth, I rarely questioned the motivations, agendas, intentions, perspectives, and arguments my work was informing and illustrating.

In the hysteria that followed the attacks of 9/11, few asked reasonable questions, and most, including myself, were caught up in the media melee that ensued as the world’s journalists and photographers scrambled to get to Afghanistan and Pakistan and cover the thousands of stories. I was an inexperienced photographer in 2001, having just quit my previous career and taken up a camera. After 9/11, everything changed, and even an amateur like myself suddenly found himself and his work taken seriously.

Within weeks, I went from working in largely forgotten refugee camps on the Pakistan–Afghanistan border to working directly with editors at Time, Newsweek, Stern, and other publications. A few double-page spreads, cover stories, editorial assignments, and exhibitions at photo festivals convinced me that I had talent. It was an easy mistake to make. Editors told me I was talented, seemed interested in my ideas, published my photos, and even nominated me for photo awards and grants.

But after a few years of working with editors, other photographers, agency managers, sales representatives, gallery curators, photojournalist festival organisers, and grant committee members, I began to see the broader picture and my place within it. I was always only assigned to Pakistan and a few times to Afghanistan and asked to send back the images and stories my editors in New York, Hamburg, and Paris wanted to see. And what they wanted to see was “terrorism.” I remember showing an editor at a weekly US magazine a story I had shot about land feuds between Pathan tribesmen from the Mohmand region of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier. After glancing at the images, she turned to me and said, ”I will run these photos if you can tell me these men are Taliban or involved in supporting them.”

Pakistan was only interesting if it was “madness.” My work was only relevant for as long as it could feed the hunger of the Western press to “discover” and publish stories of “madness.” In the wake of 9/11, publishing stories of fanaticism, irrationality, violence, and extremism of Islam and Muslims had become a profitable industry. But this not new.

Muslims and Arabs have long been depicted by US media, academia, and pop culture as culturally, ideologically, and religiously prone to violence and fanaticism [Jack Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Olive Branch Press, 2014; Arun Kundnani, The Muslims Are Coming: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, Verso Books, 2015; Sindre Bangstad, Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia, Zed Books, 2014; Deepa Kumar, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, Haymarket Books, 2012; Daryl Li, The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity, Stanford University Press, 2019]. Even before the 9/11 attacks, it was common practice to represent the complex Muslim socio-political and cultural world, made up of dozens of countries, millions of people, numerous different cultural and historical spaces, and many different ethnicities, as a region and a people of a “timeless childhood, shielded from true development by an archaic set of superstitions, prevented by its strange priests and scribes from moving out of the Middle Ages into the modern world” [Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How The Media and the Experts Determine How We See The Rest of The World, Vintage Books, 1997:30].

Edward Said had critiqued Western media’s propensity to reduce the vast and varied Muslim world into a “series of crude, essentialised caricatures…presented in such a way as, among other things, to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.” This trend only worsened in the wake of 9/11 as Orientalist and essentialist clichés could once again be expressed openly and as a sign of the West’s progressive, liberal, and democratic credentials.

For many, including a vast number of artists, intellectuals, academics, celebrities, writers, and thinkers in the global south, expressing reductive and racist generalisations and stereotypes about Muslims, Islam, something called “Islamism,” and Arabs became a way to signal their allegiance to and integration with West’s conception of liberal freedom and modernity. “Never perhaps in history,” Pankaj Mishra lamented, “has so much nonsense been so confidently peddled about a population as large and diverse as this planet’s billion-plus Muslims” [Pankaj Mishra, “A paranoid, abhorrent obsession,” The Guardian, December 8, 2007].

Award-winning writers, power-hungry politicians, respected academics at US and European universities, and celebrity human rights activists found large audiences for their reductive generalisations and sweeping condemnations of “Islam.” It was also a period when journalists and photojournalists, defying all common sense, trekked around the world to find stories of the “fanaticism” of Islam. “I am reading the Koran,” an award-winning US photojournalist earnestly told me after returning from the death zone of Gaza, “to understand better what it says about violence.” For her, Palestinian armed resistance to Israeli theft of their lands and violent displacement from their homes was not a right but a question of religious indoctrination.

The violence of Muslims was a religious doctrine, not rational nor justified.