The Barbarian Frontier

But it was the reporting that US journalists and photojournalists produced from Pakistan and Afghanistan that made things even more apparent. After 9/11, Pakistan became a hot destination for journalism tourism, and anyone with a camera, a notepad and a pencil, and a desire to make a name for herself headed out to the region and brought back stories that fed a vast media and publishing industry that thrived on these cultural, religious and ethnic stereotypes.

[A comprehensive list is too large to include here, but the works that I had the displeasure of reading include: Thomas L. Friedman, From Beirut To Jerusalem, Picador, 2012; Carlotta Gall, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001–2014, Mariner Books, 2014; Michelle Shephard, Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism’s Grey Zone, Douglas & McIntyre, 2011; Jason Burke, The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy, The New Press, 2017; Joby Warrick, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, Anchor Books, 2016; Kim Ghattas, Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, Henry Holt and Co., 2020; Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Penguin Books, 2013; Lawrence Wright, The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, Knopf, 2016; Robert F. Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016; Akbar Ahmed, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Brookings Institute Press, 2013; Christine C. Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, Oxford University Press, 2018; V. S. Naipaul, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, Vintage, 1982 and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, Vintage, 1999.]

Not since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 had Pakistan received so much “attention” from the international press. Back then, the Pakistani, Afghan, and Pashtun men confronting the Soviet war machine were heroes and freedom fighters. However, this time Pakistan found itself in the cross-hairs of America’s latest war in the region–a war against “terrorism”–which had abruptly transformed the area and its people from “freedom-loving resistance fighters” to the possessor of a unique fanaticism and dangerous religious obscurantism [Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, Penguin Books, 2004; Masood Khalili, Whispers of War: An Afghan Freedom Fighter’s Account of the Soviet Invasion, Sage Publications, 2017].

Now, thousands of journalists and photographers from the West arrived to produce bloodcurdling and hair-raising stories from the country. They searched high and low for al-Qaeda sympathisers, Taliban fighters, sinister madrassas–a word that has become a euphemism for “terror training camp”–bearded mullahs, hijabi women, and jihadis. If they were covering Pakistan, it was through the prism of “terrorism.” It seemed not to bother anyone, not the least the journalists themselves, that none of them spoke any of the local languages, knew little about the country’s socio-political history, or even its socio-economic present. They rarely understood Pakistan’s historical military, economic and political entanglements with US geo-strategic interests or its long commitment to remaining within the American sphere of influence and Cold War exigencies [Saadia Toor, The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan, Pluto Press, 2011: Ayesha Jalal, Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 1995;].

Locked in by their linguistic and historical ignorance, restricted to working only on a narrow set of stories, and closely watched by the Pakistani intelligence services, journalism produced in Pakistan by foreign correspondents and photojournalists was a highly constrained, monitored, directed, and dubious practice. But this was precisely how most journalists preferred to work. Pakistan was an “ally” in the “War on Terror”, and its official State and military discourses–on the “war on terror”, “Islamic fundamentalism”, or “the threat of al-Qaeda”–parroted those of the Americans. There was no need to wander too far from the political and analytical map the Pakistani military, intelligence, and political community handed to foreign journalists to “get the story.”

In many ways, US journalists wrote their stories even before arriving in the country. Madiha Tahir, an independent journalist with extensive experience working in Pakistan, noted

If you looked at the stories in the morning newspaper and you knew something about this place, you could see that the stories weren’t about the country. They were just a trace map of the ten-mile circuit of Islamabad that the diplos, the journos, the officials, and the television analysts traveled, up and down, round and round, talking each other in and out of paranoia, one stupid, dangerous loop.

Madiha Tahir, “The Ground Was Always in Play,” Public Culture, 2016:29:1

The “terrorism” prism dehumanised an entire people, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. Few had anything to say about the tens of thousands of Afghan and Pakistani citizens displaced, tortured, disappeared, and killed as a result of the illegal American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan or during the military operations in Pakistan’s frontier regions [Ryan T. Williams, “Dangerous Precedent; America’s Illegal War in Afghanistan,” University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law,  Volume 33, Issue 2, 563, 2011].

If they were covering Pakistan, it was anathema to speak about anything other than “terrorism,” militancy, violence, and the fanaticism of “Islam.” The narrative of a “country on the brink,” or “home of terrorism” drowned out any genuine and nuanced engagement with its history, its entanglements in American Cold War politics and conflicts, its handcuffed economy beholden to the dictates of international finance and the IMF, and the ongoing struggle of its people to remove the heavy hand of the Pakistan military from its throats.

Journalists wrote thousands of articles, produced hundreds of photo essays, and published dozens of books about Islam and terror, Islam and violence, Islam and the oppression of women, Islam and the hijab, Islam and backwardness, Islam and hate, Islam and the threat to non-Muslim communities, Islam and “under-development.” It became a thriving business, a veritable “hysteria-industrial complex.” Many Pakistani writers, intellectuals, academics, journalists, and photographers also joined the party and made a comfortable living selling tales of the dangerous and demonic Pakistan the Westerners were looking for.

It was a lucrative affair that promised fame, fortune, and full-page spreads for those who were clever enough to participate in it. Artists, intellectuals, academics, filmmakers, and even historians soon joined the multi-million dollar “party,” adding their creative and intellectual skills to showing Pakistan as a land of mad mullahs and deranged jihadists. My career benefitted from this “party” and, honestly, only because of it. As I look back, I cannot help but see my own collusion and participation in this fad. It is not a coincidence that my telephone stopped ringing as Pakistan fell off the US media map and the “hot” war moved to new geographies.

But then I tripped over the line. And once you trip over it, it is impossible not to see it everywhere