Tag Archives: Long post is long.

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.