On Challenging the Empire’s Narrative

An Iraqi prisoner of war comforts his 4-year-old son at a regroupment center for POWs of the 101st Airborne Division near An Najaf, March 31, 2003. The man was seized in An Najaf with his son. (AP Photo/Jean-Marc Bouju)

As a student and ex-teacher, I used to (and sometimes still do) find myself helpless before the constant influx of ‘academic’ and ‘political’ analyses emanating from the West concerning the Middle East, Asia and Islamic world – the East. The dichotomy mentioned by me here is deliberate due to the fact that it is highly obvious and perpetuated in Western ‘studies’ regarding 9/11 and post-9/11 dynamics in the world. The ideology of Us VS Them is endorsed directly and indirectly by the ones favored by the Empire – i.e. the United States of America. It becomes obvious when you read op-eds by Thomas Friedman, Seth Jones and Co simply because you can witness their views take practical form in the instances of drones, intervention, ‘necessary’ surveillance against a particular community, etc. When I spoke to Seth Jones on BBC WHYS after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, I was very taken aback by the tone and assertion made – after being interrupted – by Mr. Jones that he “knew Osama more than anyone” and that his “regional knowledge of Pakistan” told him enough to understand the “militant ideology of its public.” He was, basically, claiming that the views of a native Pakistani were inadequate compared to his evaluation of the country – a land that is extremely diverse and subsequently complicated. This is a microcosmic example of how the Empire or the Super Power shuns the native voice and claims that its knowledge of a certain land, a certain people is all that should be heard and goes on to force others to accept it.

But it’s not completely bleak; There is hope. And that hope stems from those who choose to question the Empire and its modus operandi. I’ve learned from several people the powerful significance of reading between the lines and knowing that although imperialist powers would love to have matters committed in black and white, things are actually suspended in grey. A thick, murky and often bloody grey space that has to be delved into and sorted out by natives and those who openly oppose imperialism and rhetorical colonialism in, ironically enough, a post-colonial era.

But what is this narrative? What is the Empire? How does it function and how does it destroy the weak and hapless by simply using words? It is important to know the answers to these questions before you stand up and challenge the Empire. The narrative, as I would explain to my students and class fellows, is the description for a certain demographic/region/people established by the Empire. e.g. The narrative concerning Muslim populations has been a bigoted, racist and overly generalized set of theories, ideas and approaches.

To answer some of these questions, I’ve found gold in the words of the witty and wise Manan Ahmed as well as my friend and the humanoid library Salman Hussain. They write for Chapati Mystery, a website dedicated to South Asian literature, world politics, reviews and essays as well as critical slam-downs on racism, Islamophobia, violations of civil liberties and more. In one of the best essays I’ve read on the topic, Salman explains how the Empire controls the narrative and projects a certain image of a land that is called the “frontier” which is the target. Another important aspect of this imperialist manner of dealing with the “backward, Muslim world” is how the Empire uses a traditionalist way of constantly stating that so-and-so is “on the verge of a collapse” or that <insert Muslim majority country> is a “failed state” (by the Empire’s standards). By reinforcing the idea the Country A on that side of the world is ‘unstable’ and thus requires ‘correction’ is how the Empire maintains a control on its brutal and inhumane foreign policies. i.e. All that is done – bombing, drones, torture methods, spying – is justified in the name of patriotism and security. Usually the Empire uses “experts” on the region, something explained by Manan Ahmed:

Such an “expert” is usually one who has not studied the region, and especially not in any academic capacity. As a result, they do not possess any significant knowledge of its languages, histories or cultures. They are often vetted by the market, having produced a bestselling book or secured a job as a journalist with a major newspaper. They are not necessarily tied to the “official” narratives or understandings, and can even be portrayed as being “a critic” of the official policy. In other words, this profile fits one who doesn’t know enough.

Furthermore Mr. Hussains explains:

[…] Globetrotters like Robert Kaplan “who claim expertise by staying in hotels and who produce nothing but banal observations;” unabashed apologists for empire such as historian Niall Ferguson; peddlers of racist tripe such as Thomas Friedman, reportedly a pundit President Obama reads “to get a local flavor for events;”and “authentic voices,” like that of Ahmed Rashid and Daniel Mueenuddin, that serve to confirm the caricature of violent brown masses.

I realized that many of you – curious and critical – asked me what I meant when I’d urge my students and readers to challenge the narrative. As someone from a land that was colonized during the days of the subcontinent and then, post-partition, waged a covert war upon – that was never and probably will never be officially declared - I believe it is important to understand that the legitimacy with which governments – local or foreign – silence and misrepresent people through literature, media and politics has to be aggressively questioned. Like Mr. Hussain says:

The time to contest the hegemonic narratives and systems of dominance is now. “The effort to be ethical in the world we inhabit,” writes Ahmed “cannot wait for better times and milder risks.” For while the tenured illuminati console themselves with doses of virtuous patience and cautious knowledges, drones continue to colonize the skies and rain death from afar like gods. And they are headed home to roost.

I grew up thinking what Frantz Fanon described aptly in his quote: “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.” Because it was what I was fed through TV, newspapers, comics, ad infinitum until I realized: There is a lot more to the story and it is purposefully hidden from my sight. The Empire will do everything to justify its violence. If anything, I had to question it and for that I had to use my mind and my voice.

And before I end this haphazard but important post, I’ll leave you guys with some recommended reads of the week:

Brain food.

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32 comments

  1. I wish we could do more than just write or read and share and comment …. I wish we could do some action which would give a solid result …. but may we are too weak, or selfish, or may be we have just become so accustomed all this ‘zulm’ that we have just accepted it and living our lives on daily basis or we have simply just given up .. I dont know what it is .. may be all above

    after writing this comment .. in few minutes i would forget all this .. go on to work at my job .. go home .. have dinner … spend some time reading or twittering or watching movies .. and sleep .. the cycle continues next day .. and so on

    A she’r comes to mind

    Subah hoti hai , shaam hoti hai
    Zindagi yunhi tamaam hoti hai

    I will end my rant here :)
    May Allah bless us all

    P.S thanks for introducing me to chapatimystery.com :)

  2. At least in the case of OBL, it turned out that the empire did know more about Osama and the region than the native Pakistani :)

    1. Undoubtedly so but my point wasn’t on how to take pride in our collective unacknowledged state but that even views from a native aren’t appreciated or aired enough. That’s all.

  3. Partially it is us, who have turned a blind eye. For one, tell me, why doesn’t Pakistan goverment come down on terrorism itselves. Why isnt there proper law and order in FATA and waziristan. Why was Osama found in Pakistan in the first place. Its time we stop living in our delusions and do something about it.

    1. Obviously, agreed. The blame lies on both sides but you’re making an academic criticism base itself on political negligence. Both, while intertwined, are separate fronts to be tackled. My concern lies with the overtly generalized, violent representation of a community, a distinct world, if you may. That’s all. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Here’s a derivative of Frantz Fanon’s “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.”
    ‘The ignorants will always turn a blind eyes towards their mistakes and blame it on the rest of the world.’
    The problem is perhaps that we ourselves do not adequately identify and address the issues, a space that is then exploited by what you are trying to portray as the ‘evil imperialists.’ The only thing I fear is that somewhere along this narrative of addressing the ‘imperialists’ onslaught’, we may become apologists for our own mistakes, such as the militants we proudly breed.

    1. I disagree. Comprehending the reasons behind a particular incident in history is not being an ‘apologist.’ If you read the article and/or similar critiques, the idea is to analyze both sides of the story instead of sticking to the narration provided. I’m no apologist for any militia or insurgency but I’m not openly harsh and critical about invasions and ‘democratic’ FP tactics. My point is to critically engage with both sides of the narrative before (which already has happened) a singular tone is taken to represent a terribly complicated issue. P.S. Props for the Fanon quote.

  5. I googled your face. you’re ugly as hell, fat ass. go run on a treadmill

    1. Oh hi. Your IPA was successfully located. Looks like someone’s very, very angry in Peshawar. It says you logged out of your WordPress account (yes, the name also showed up, sadly) to leave this comment as well. The effort was appreciated. If you’re done obsessing about me – which may be difficult to get over for some odd reason – you can get back to complaining about me to your boyfriend who incidentally sent messages to me on Facebook to “confirm” if someone was “abusing” you. Here’s a log of what he said: “She’s been bullied over a number of years, and for whatever series of reasons, she believes that it’s by someone close to you… yes it would save time, but i am doing this against her express wishes and in some silly way this makes me feel like less of a jerk, anyway, do any of your cyber savvy friends have a mean streak a mile wide?” After informing him that nothing involved me or anyone I knew (now I wish it did considering your sad disposition), he politely replied: “Not restricted to social networking anymore. E-mails, texts, phone calls, all emanating from lahore. Hence the, well never mind. Thanks for the response. And you’re right, it’s not your problem, so thanks for responding again.” No problem. I think you’re terribly obsessed with me and while it is amusing to an extent, it’s a little childish given your age and supposed profession. Consider decency and a new person as a topic for a change. Or you could continue spending hours thinking about more online-trolling to alleviate that hurt ego of yours. Going pseudonymous is what children do, little girl. Make sure you use a proxy next time. Be well.

      1. kasana just handed someone their ass in a dozen’a pieces! hot damn. i miss those times when you used to blog as a freshman and trolls would show up. then ya whooped butt and ya whooped butt good.

        anywho! got vinay lal’s essay? you shared it but i can’t find it no mo. :3

  6. In all honesty, this works both ways. Actually, it works all ways and most countries have people who do this type of thing. Thing thing with America is that despite it’s diverse population it’s been separated from the reset of the world for a long time. I think that’s changing slowly now, Still though, if person xyz writes an article from some country or goes on tours (even if he just stays in hotels) it builds up a type of legitimacy (which may or may not be totally undeserved).

    Ultimately, I feel like it’s a case elephants fighting and the people are the ants. Gotta blame both of the elephants.


    Man, wasn’t this blog on blogspot before?

  7. very well written, and we must understand there is something wrong on both sides rather than one (More often than not). Generally I feel we end up taking sides before even knowing the complete story and as you rightly point out, the Empire’s Narrative is probably either embossed into our minds that make it impossible to disagree with it or left etch marks which makes it impossible for us to agree with it from the outset.

    therefore whatever we might say that considering both sides of the story is something any intelligent human should do. Sadly, there are not many.

    like they say “Pardon my sanity in a world insane”
    Again, well done on the post.

  8. You, Lady of the Blog, are a creature of truthfulness. Your words are a glass containing the truth that only a blind eye cannot see. For achieving the desired outcome in audience attitudes, the Imperial Power applies shrewd methodologies of mind control and what could be far effective than influencing of a news medium for acquiring the same end. Any Western newspaper you pick, amongst too many other open biases, you will find “Islamist” as a term referred to a radical, concluding clearly you are a terrorist in contradistinction to your instinctive upholding of peace inspired by Islam. The shocking truth is that the Imperial Power itself is the creator of terror. The Imperial Power secretively and powerfully backs a particular Wahabbi sect of Muslims (unfortunately a tiny part of us) that Al-Qaeda and Taliban get doctrinal nourishment from, that gives rise to extremism and ultimately justification to the Imperial Power to invade, give a bad name to and mount pressure on Islamic countries.

    Classic instances have emerged lately from the Middle-East of the Imperial Power and NATO aiding, hailing via Western news media Wahabbi National Transitional Council of Libya and Wahabbi Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt as heroes of democracy for causing mass-bloodshed, bringing about coups in the respective Islamic countries and very desirably by the Imperial Power, now we have Wahabbi rulers in that state who are born to show ease on the Imperial Power’s spoiled son Israel, the Saudi leadership should be taken for instance. The change of regime in those two countries was eminent, with Qadhafi being too vocal against the West and Israel and Mubarak demanding huge bribes for torturing Israel, which lies adjacent to it on the map, much not.

    Deploying Wahabbi fighters in the battlefield of interest is not about recent times alone, in the Soviet era, the Imperial Power had much the same method of operation. Wahabbi fighters actually serve dual purpose for the Imperial Power, they don’t just fight on the ground for it, they are warrant enough to invade, give a bad name to any Islamic country for the attractive basis they give, “extremism”, the perfect examples of which is apparent in this region. American justification of invading Afghanistan was that it was a terrorist hideout, and let us not forget, American justification of using “Drone technology” against Pakistani nationals is to hunt terrorists, in other words, Wahabbi Al-Qaeda/Taliban militants, more truthfully our [the Imperial Power's] Al-Qaeda/Taliban militants that we created with the Saudis by building thousands of Wahabbi-influenced madarssahs in Pakistan in the 80′s. My question to the West is were not that fighters in Egypt and Libya and in the 80′s in Afghanistan, the militants too? I know the answer from Western “intellectuals” on the subject is a loud no, since saying yes here will be against the evil interests. The point of all of this is, never lay your worthy attention to the Western experts, they all sell lies for guarding off the evil interests.

    The Imperial Power by the way is in real trouble these days getting out of the mess it created in Afghanistan, thank the government/forces of this “Third World Country” you are from, this “backward Islamic country”.

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