Finding The Jihadis He Needs

The writer had found his jihadis. Or rather, he had seen the kind of men he could pass off to his editors as jihadis. They were from Pakistan’s “demonic” tribal areas: male, young, bearded, and students at a madrassa. The perfect match. When he arrived to speak to them, his excitement was palpable. Now, our assignment could begin. It was 2007. We were in Peshawar on assignment for a German weekly news magazine to work on a story about the impact of the “War on Terror” on Pakistani politics, economics, and society. However, a “terrorism” angle was paramount, for there could not be a Pakistan story without it. It had not been easy to find people willing to speak to us, particularly those from communities living in Waziristan and under the shadow of the American drone war.

As luck would have it, I met a group of young men from North Waziristan at a madrassa I was photographing. After speaking to some of them, I asked if they would be willing to meet with a foreign reporter, and they all eagerly agreed. And so it was that later that evening, the writer and I entered one of the classrooms, where about 25 young Waziri men had gathered to speak to us.

It was late in the evening, and there was a power outage. I remember crowded around a single candle burning on a low table. Everybody was in an excited mood, looking forward to the discussions that lay ahead. The students–polite, attentive, and eager to meet and speak to a Western journalist–began to tell him about their history, their family’s struggles, regional politics, America’s entanglements in the region, Pakistan’s obsequies collaborations, their fear of the drones and how life had been made unlivable under bombardments. The journalist–grave, aloof, and respectful–responded with questions about “Islamic” violence, what role the Koran played in their desire for militancy, why they were unwilling to make “peace,” why they hated the West and what the Americans could do to end the “insurgency.”

After about 30 minutes of this I could see some of the boys in the audience were getting restless, realising their words and arguments were falling on deaf ears. I could see the journalist getting irritated as the boys failed to give him the answers he expected and needed. He wanted to hear more about their “radicalism” and their “Islamic” theological and ideological drive. He wanted to hear more sensational statements about a jihad against the West, or their commitment to fighting for Allah or other some such. Instead, they only gave him human, historical, and material explanations. I feared that this was not going to end well. And it did not.

An hour into the discussions, a man spoke out from somewhere in the back of the room–his voice laced with bitterness and anger–“Why must you insist,” he spat out, “that we fight because the Koran says so?” The others fell into a tense silence. “Why don’t you listen to what we are telling you?” A murmur of agreement spread through the room. I watched the candlelight flicker across the bemused look on the writer’s face. “We fight because they have killed our families,” the voice sneered. “We fight because we are humans who feel pain and anger at being killed!”

There was silence in the room as all eyes turned towards the writer. He must have felt the weight of their gaze because he sat back and looked defeated. These were not the snarling, spitting, screaming, crazed, fanatical jihadis he had expected to meet. These were not the responses he had come to hear. He had sat through this discussion, listening but hardly taking any notes. Their politics, rationales, and historically situated arguments were inappropriate for his article.

I remember the weight of silence that night in that classroom. I remember the sense of two worlds that were never to meet, one confident of its privilege to write the world, the other facing its inability to be heard. A chasm of beliefs, ideologies and discourses that seems insurmountable.

When the story finally ran some months later, the students had disappeared, and their challenge to Western discourses of imperial privilege erased. What remained was a story of an intransigent Other, inhuman and alien, reactionary and unfathomable.