The recent attacks on Buddhist monasteries in Ramu and the earlier torching of Hindu temples in Hathazari leave us devastated. The rage worldwide surrounding the production of the film “Innocence of Muslims” and the indisputable fact that Islamophobia is on the rise is no less a matter of concern. Salma had insisted that I peep into the exhibition ‘1001 Inventions’ while in Washington D.C. for the “All Roads” board meeting at the National Geographic Society. It was sobering to look at the role Islam has played in what was otherwise known as the ‘Dark Ages’. Since youtube is still blocked by our far-from-able gatekeepers, I’ve uploaded the video on vimeo. If only a fraction of our investment in technology, and in particular on war machines, was spent in teaching our children to become better human beings…
Selective Outrage Media Lens, London, 18 January 2012
News that a fourth scientist in two years, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, had been assassinated in Iran by an unknown agency generated minimal outrage in the press.
Patrick Cockburn notedin the Independent:
?While the identity of those carrying out the assassinations remains a mystery, it is most likely to be Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad??
The Sunday Times published a meticulous account of the planning and execution of the attack provided by ?a source who released details? on the actions of ?small groups of Israeli agents? operating inside Iran. (Marie Colvin and Uzi Mahnaimi, ?Israel’s secret war,? Sunday Times, January 15, 2012)
Julian Borger?s article in the Guardian warnedagainst ‘Goading a regime on the brink.’
We wonder if the Guardian would have described the Iranian assassination of scientists on US or Israeli streets as ?goading?. We also wonder if Borger would have described these as terrorist attacks. Continue reading “”
My column last week on drone attacks so clearly struck a nerve that I intended to write a follow-up this week, addressing some of the many comments and responses. I did publish an interim statement on my own website, where I invite you to continue that conversation. And the subject is not going away, so I?m sure I?ll be writing about it here again all too soon.
In the meantime, the terrorist attack in Norway brings home once again a very, very important question of our time: Who gets to define terrorism? I?m not sure whether the pen really is mightier than the sword, although I hope it is. What I do know is that a big part of every struggle for power or primacy in human society hinges on the issue of who defines the terms, and that all writing is an attempt to define terms. This means that writing is inherently a political act, and an ability to deploy or control language is essential to human freedom, because language is the repository of meaning.
I don?t want power or primacy, but like anyone I do need to be respected, and I refuse to be bullied. Political bullies use language as a blunt weapon, and the word ?terrorism? is an instance of this. I daresay that over the past decade we?ve all been bludgeoned by the word even more than by the fact of terrorism. And the bullies of the American right wing ? who control the American conversation, thanks to the fecklessness of our spineless president ? would allow the word to be used only in conjunction with the words ?Muslim? or ?Islamic? or (that pernicious neologism) ?Islamist.? If, for example, anyone dares to ask, as I asked in January after the attacks on Salmaan Taseer in Islamabad and Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, ?Is America Any Different from Pakistan??, he or she will be dismissed thus:
?Yawn yet another typical leftie more than willing to jump on the bandwagon of blaming the right, America, and any other group he/she opposes for the actions of a mentally insane person. Jared Loughner [the would-be assassin of Giffords] appears to have been a psychotic, I suspect a schizophrenic. Please wait for the facts instead [of] falling into your own biases.?
This is a very representative presumption among the bullies of the American right wing: that American extremists like Loughner and Timothy McVeigh are lone crazies, whereas Muslim or Pakistani extremists somehow represent their entire society or religion. And it reinforces my belief that how we speak and write is extremely important, and that not only must we resist letting the bullies define the terms, we must seize the initiative by defining them ourselves. Hence I made a point of referring above to the terrorist attack in Norway, because that?s what it was. The terrorist in this case is a right-wing Christian fundamentalist who apparently wants to ignite a holy war against Muslims, and a terrorist is absolutely what he is. If anyone deserves to languish for years without trial at Guantanamo Bay, he does. (Nobody does, but that?s another column.) Continue reading “Who gets to define terrorism?”
Earlier this month as we drove along the 6th of October Bridge in Cairo, my friend Gamal reminded me that below the surface the cauldron was boiling. That things could flare any minute. That he was certain, the US and it’s puppet Mobarak could not keep the lid on the public any longer. With Egypt following Tunisia’s path, it is no longer impossible to dream that the end of the US supported tyrants is near.
Ken is a former U.S. Marine who served in the 1991 Gulf War and subsequently spoke out about the use of depleted uranium as a “crime against humanity” and the US military using soldiers as “human guinea pigs” with experimental drugs that were directly linked to Gulf War syndrome. He is also a social entrepreneur utilizing direct action marine conservation, he is more widely known for leading the human shield action to Iraq and as a survivor of the Israeli attack on the MV Mavi Marmara in which he participated in “defending the ship” and “disarming two Israeli Commandos”. On January 7, 2004, O’Keefe burned his US passport in protest of “American Imperialism” and called for US troops to immediately withdrawal from Iraq. He replaced his US passport with a “World Passport”, subsequently proclaiming himself a “Citizen of the World” with ?ultimate allegiance to my entire human family and to planet Earth.” His is also legal citizen of Ireland and Palestine citizenship.
Thousands of Pakistanis showered rose petals on the assassin of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab who sought clemency for a Christian woman sentenced to death. Here his eldest son, Aatish Taseer, who lives in Delhi, mourns his death – and the nihilism of a country that could not tolerate a patriot who was humanitarian to his core.
Supporters chant slogans in favor of Mumtaz Qadri, alleged killer of Punjab governor Salman Taseer?Photo: AP Photo/B.K.Bangash
By Aatish Taseer 7:30PM GMT 08 Jan 2011 The Telegraph UK
I have recently flown home from North America. In airport after international airport, the world’s papers carried front page images of my father’s assassin.
A 26-year-old boy, with a beard, a forehead calloused from prayer, and the serene expression of a man assured of some higher reward. Last Tuesday, this boy, hardly older than my youngest brother whose 25th birthday it was that day, shot to death my father, the governor of Punjab, in a market in Islamabad.
My father had always taken pleasure in eluding his security, sometimes appearing without any at all in open-air restaurants with his family, but in this last instance it would not have mattered, for the boy who killed him was a member of his security detail.
It appears now that the plan to kill my father had been in his assassin’s mind, even revealed to a few confidants, for many days before he carried the act to its fruition. And it is a great source of pain to me, among other things, that my father, always brazen and confident, had spent those last few hours in the company of men who kept a plan to kill him in their breasts.
But perhaps it could have been no other way, for my father would not only have not recognised his assassins, he would not have recognised the country that produced a boy like that. Pakistan was part of his faith, and one of the reasons for the differences that arose between us in the last years of his life?and there were many?was that this faith never allowed him to accept what had become of the country his forefathers had fought for. Continue reading “The killer of my father”
Of course, attacking Afghanistan is wrong and we should all condemn it but burkas are equally bad because they oppress women. Progressive writers should not support one in order to condemn the other. The burka is a symbol of growing religious fundamentalism and as no religion whether Islam, Christianity or Hinduism can ever liberate women, all religions must be opposed. It’s not a question of women’s choice or freedom. Surely by writing what you do, you don’t mean to say you support the burka? Shame on you!
How does one respond to such comments? Well, for starters, I’d like to state that European women who insist on wearing the burka, or their fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends or whoever force them to do so, will be facing legal consequences for their defiance. They are expected to abide by the `law’ of the land, regardless of whether it is just or unjust. But surely, their crime of wearing, or forcing someone else to wear, clothing `symbolic’ of oppression is not in any manner comparable to the actions of western world leaders, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Blair and Europe’s other leaders, who are guilty of breaching international law? Surely, the consequences of the actions of these world leaders?cluster bombs, depleted uranium, drone killings, fabricated WMDs, millions dead, thousands maimed, the birth of deformed babies, spread of cancer, greater numbers of women forced to turn to prostitution, lives ruined, homes wrecked, millions out of work?are more grave? Are oppressive actions which determine the conditions under which large numbers of people may be allowed to live, or die, to prosper, or perish.
Twentieth century’s religious wars?and by that I mean wars fought in the names of gods/deities/supreme beings?have killed far less people than have those which were waged for expressedly non-religious purposes (to maintain or overthrow colonial rule, ethnic cleansing, nationalism, imperial wars etc.) whether conducted by capitalist, communist or third world states. If you don’t believe me, just try and tally the figures. Of course, this doesn’t mean I am arguing that deaths caused by religious wars are preferable to those caused by non-religious ones.
Only some religious gods threaten to destroy humanity; their followers believe this threat to be real unlike non-believers who doubt the existence of god per se and hence have no reason to fear his malevolence. But some modern states?USA, Britain, France, China and the Soviet Union?have between them thousands of nuclear weapons, which are capable of destroying the planet a hundred times over; it would eliminate both believers and non-believers alike. The killing power of the military-industrial complex (re-named MISM, the military-industrial-security-media complex) which controls the US, reigns supreme; on its own, the US accounts for almost half the world’s military spending (46.5%).
Does not war stand in the way of women’s liberation since women have always borne the brunt of violence perpetrated by war? Are wars that are waged to save women, whether Muslim or not, cloaked as part of the west’s `civilising’ mission justified? Malalai Joya, like most Afghan women, doesn’t think so. Their problem is US-led occupation and the forces that it fosters; the US government and its allies, she says, consistently marginalise progressive and democratic movements because these are likely to mobilise Afghan people against occupation forces.
The West is secular?church and state are separate?and surely, this means that it stands for the elimination of coercion, death, destruction, torture, in other words, for progress? It is difficult for us, to find any shred of truth in this assumption as the US government, the West’s unchallenged leader, has consistently supported whichever government serves its interests, religious (Saudia Arabia) or non-religious (the Shah of Iran), regardless of how fascistic it is (for instance, Hosni Mubarak has been the president of Egypt for the last 29 years, ruling by means of a state of emergency). And, as Joya reminds us, it is the US, which installed the Taliban regime.
But, the comment above seems to say, why can’t you keep `religion’ and `imperialism’ separate, why can’t you stick to a simple story line which says Islam prevents girls from getting schooling, forces women to cover their faces, be confined to their homes, not earn a living or marry the men of their choice etc., etc. Why must you drag in all these other issues, geo-political strategies, divide-and-rule, imperial interests, oil, the new world order, US hegemony, war crimes…You mean, live in a fool’s paradise?
Many bloggers and commentators, including westerners, can see through official propaganda; they raise questions about eurocentricism, how “abstract” formulations of self and body, embedded in European political philosophy, have little bearing on Arab women’s own notions, how western ideas of freedom and liberation are equally cultural. I provide a smattering:
– But first, there are Muslim women who do choose to wear the burqa or niqab under their own volition. And second, and particularly given that fact, I do not see how an all-out ban on the burqa/niqab by a predominantly non-Muslim, male, white government will liberate Muslim women to make that choice for themselves.
– I live in a country where face veils are common; to the women who wear them, that’s not at all what they represent. If Westerners see some weird symbolism that isn’t inherent in it to the people who wear it, then whose fault is that? It’s not niqabi women’s problem that Westerners see some other message in them.
– Every culture has standards of which body parts are OK to show in public and which aren’t. In Western culture, the face is public. In the Arabic Peninsula culture, it’s not.
– So to us covering our faces seems weird and bad, and it’s hard to imagine that a woman would ever CHOOSE that for herself. But I would suggest that this is a failure in our imagination, not a failure in Arab culture. – Looks like the French learned too well from the Nazis they surrendered to. How can they even think of legislating what people may wear? – Finally, how does it affect us non-veil wearers? How many of those questioned about a ban are affected by someone wearing a burqa or niqab? We live in a multicultural society so what has their religious dress got to do with us? People are a bit ?creeped out?? The last time I checked, we didn?t have the right to not be ?creeped out? so there?s no need at all to ban one. – The argument that SEEMS most credible (or maybe is just the most fashionable, because it allows bigotry to hide behind feminism) is the argument that the burqa is a ?symbol of women?s oppression.? For some people it might be, but that doesn?t mean it should be banned. It?s ridiculous. It would be like banning crucifixes to prevent paedophilia.
These bans remind me of The Incubator Baby Hoax which sold the First Gulf War (1990-1991) to the American public. A Kuwaiti girl claiming to be a nurse wept and told world audiences how she saw Saddam Hussein’s soldiers take babies out of their incubators, left them to die on the cold floor. ?Only to be discovered later that she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington; the story was concocted by a PR firm, audience surveys were carried out to make the Kuwaiti ambassador more likeable (clothing, hairstyle). Research undertaken had revealed that American people would be convinced if Saddam Hussein was portrayed as “a madman who had committed atrocities even against his own people, and had tremendous power to do further damage, and he needed to be stopped.” Less than a decade later, videos of Taliban beheading of a woman to cheering crowds spread virally, it helped to garner support for the Afghan invasion.
As the burka ban gains momentum, I hear the beating of war drums. So, I wonder, whose next?
Is Orientalism over? Those who criticise my position, if at all bothered by this question, would seem to think so. But scholars argue that contemporary representations of Islam and Muslims across a wide range of social/political discourses including journalism, other mass-communicated media as well as academic research, is modern Orientalism. It impoverishes the rich diversity of Islam, it caricatures Islam. Orientalism is not a mere “mental phenomenon,” to view it thus sidelines its practical implications. It attempts to restore practices that ensure inequitable social systems of power, and behavioral manifestations such as discrimination, physical attack, extermination (John E. Richardson, MisRepresenting Islam, 2004). Stereotypes of Islam that exist in historic Orientalist writings of the 13th century by Christian polemicists recur in contemporary writings: sex, violence, cunning and the irrationality of Islam. But although the topics are constant, the argumentative position has shifted with changes in Western cultural values. When Western polite society found sex to be immoral, or at the very least something to be endured, Orientalists accused Islam of promoting and celebrating such licentious activity. But now that polite society valorises gender and sexual equality, neo-Orientalists argue that Islam promotes, at times, demands, the opposite.
I refuse to live in a fool’s paradise given current speculation (intelligent, well-researched) that several US nuclear bombs which went “missing” for 36 hours (2007) may be connected to US plans to nuke Iran. Given plans of setting up the regional counter-terrorism centre in Dhaka, second to the one in Indonesia (a US client state) . Who’s to guarantee that Bangladesh will not attract the attention of militants? What is happening? Are we deliberately being sucked into the US war on terror, about to become yet another battleground?
Let history not judge us as collaborators, or too stupid to look beyond their nose.
France bans full-face veils in public. Women wearing the niqab cannot enter government buildings, public transport, streets and markets. Burkas are not “welcome” on French soil, says Sarkozy. It is a sign of women’s “subservience,” it undermines France’s secular tradition.?The Spanish parliament is debating a proposal. Burkas are hardly compatible with “human dignity,” says the justice minister. Barcelona bans burkas and niqabs from government buildings. They hinder personal identification. Full-face veil banned in Belgium. Streets, gardens, all buildings accessed by members of the public are no-go areas for women wearing the niqab. It’s now or never, everything on hold till I finish my manuscript, no columns, no calls, no visitors, I thought as I furiously tapped away at the keyboard, barely scanned newspaper headlines, refused to download e-zines and newsletters, felt embarassed at repeatedly telling Zaman (deputy editor, New Age) as he nabbed me on g-chat, rahnuma’pa, how much longer? hmm, maybe a few more weeks?…but still, somehow, news of the burka ban gathering momentum in European countries seeped through, into my self-enforced confinement.
Less than a week after Belgium passed its law, an Italian woman was fined $650 for wearing a burka under a 1975 law, which prohibits people from covering their faces in public. Amsterdam and Utrecht propose cutting social security benefits to unemployed women who wear the burka. A German lawmaker calls for a complete ban on full-face burkas all over Europe.?Veiled women irritate her, she says; she cannot judge them for who they are, what their intentions are. It’s a “massive attack on the rights of women. It is a mobile prison.” Eight out of 16 federal states in Germany have already banned female schoolteachers from wearing the headscarf. If the burka is not banned, threatens the Freedom Party of Netherlands, it’ll not join the minority coalition government. The burqa and the niqab have no place in our society, says the Danish prime minister. Denmark is an “open, democratic society where we look at the person to whom we are talking.”
There is talk of banning the burqa beyond Europe’s borders too, in what were once white-settler colonies, and now, sovereign states. Quebec’s immigration minister says, “If you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values. We want to see your face,” as its premier pushes a bill banning any sort of full-face veil. If passed, women will be denied receiving or applying for government services, including non-emergency medicine and day care. An Australian blogger, appreciative of senator Cory Bernardi’s recent call for an Aussie ban on full-face veiling writes, if the burqa and niqab are accepted, if they are normalised and legitimised, what do we teach Australian girls? That they shouldn’t be proud to show their face and have a voice in society? “That women?s rights are [not] inalienable and worth fighting for, except where gender oppression is religiously or culturally endorsed?”
The mind works in curious ways. For some reason I am reminded of Laura Bush and Cherie Blair. Of Mrs Bush’s unprecedented radio broadcast to rally support against the Taliban; she was the first wife of a US president to deliver the whole of the weekly address (November 1, 2001), expressing profound sorrow and deepest sympathies for the women of Afghanistan. “Life under the Taliban is so hard and repressive, even small displays of joy are outlawed?children aren’t allowed to fly kites; their mothers face beatings for laughing out loud. Women cannot work outside the home, or even leave their homes by themselves.” Two days later, the wife of the former British prime minister joined in the commiseration. The Taliban regime, Mrs Blair informed us, is repressive, cruel and joyless. The human rights of women and girls within Afghanistan “have been denied, people have been executed in football stadiums in front of cheering crowds, girls have had to be educated in secret.” Britain needs to “help them free that spirit and give them their voice back, so they can create the better Afghanistan we all want to see.”
Twenty-two months after the US-led invasion there were no signs of an Afghanistan that was less hard and less repressive for its women and children. Linda S Heard wrote, millions of Afghan women and children continue to face major health and nutrition problems with maternal and infant mortality among “the worst in the world.” Gunmen commit human rights abuses and warlords have been “propelled into power by the US and its coalition partners after the Taliban fell in 2001.”
But surely a decade on, the spirits of Afghan women are now free? Girls are now receiving education? A better Afghanistan is being created? Malalai Joya, the youngest Afghan to be elected member of parliament (2005-2007) says, the current situation is a disaster. People suffer from extreme insecurity, many have stopped sending their children to school, especially girls for fear that they might be raped or killed. The most pressing problems are cultivation and trafficking of drugs and narcotics (the opium industry is “solely designed by the US,” its annual production during the Taliban regime was 185 metric tons, it has now magnified to 8,500 tons annually), 50% unemployment and severe poverty which forces some parents to sell their children for $10 for a piece of bread, appalling corruption (the present Afghan government is “the most corrupt in our whole history”), and the installation of war criminals and terrorists into power through fraudulent elections (a “dirty game” played by the US and NATO). Needless to add, Joya is hardly sighted in the mainstream western media.
In some cities women’s conditions have slightly improved since the Taliban regime. But the situation was far better in the 1960s, says Joya, when Afghan women had more rights. Rapes, abductions, murders, violence, and forced marriages are increasing at an alarming rate. Women’s suicide rate is climbing in many provinces. “Afghanistan still faces a women’s rights catastrophe. Every aspect of life in Afghanistan today is tragic.” We are sandwiched between two enemies, the Taliban on one side and the US/NATO forces and their warlord friends on the other. The policy of the US government and its allies is to foster warlords and criminals, to marginalise and put pressure on progressive and democratic movements and individuals “out of fear that the latter will mobilise Afghan people against the occupation forces.”
And who were among America’s coalition partners in Operation Enduring Freedom, in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 2001? Among NATO countries, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Spain. Among non-NATO ones, Australia and Sweden. They are still there (NATO update Oct 2010).
Do the rulers of these European nations?visionaries of open-faced democracy?have the courage to face up to the facts, as enumerated by Malalai Joya? Hardly. They’d have to face up to other facts then: that the invasion was an obvious breach of international law, having not been authorised by the UN Security Council. That Afghanistan was not involved in the events of 9/11. That if the US government’s account is to be believed, 15 of the 19 alleged hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, so why invade Afghanistan? That the Afghan government did not refuse to extradite Osama bin Laden, their offer was subject to conditions, which was unacceptable to the US administration. That the latter had not only supported the “Islamic terror network,” it was instrumental in installing the Taliban government (1995-96). That the politicians who arranged it, supported it, are liable to be tried as war criminals. And that, is quite a lot of facing up to do.
President Obama has escalated the war in Afghanistan by sending 34,000 more troops; he has extended it to Pakistan by expanding the CIA-led killer drone campaign, because al-Qaeda?who had, according to Bush, committed “faceless” and “cowardly” acts?now operates in the border areas. But drone pilots do not `show’ their face. They are `hidden’ tens of thousands of miles away from the so-called battlefield, `concealed’ behind computer screens and remote audio-feed. There are no means of `identifying’ them personally.
But we too, would like to see their faces. We would like to see the face that’s doing the killing. Occupying forces are not `welcome’ either. Not on Afghan soil, nor on Iraq’s soil. For they bring with them a `massive attack’ on the rights of women, they make women and children prisoners in their own land. Their veil of rhetoric hides their `intentions.’
But may be `concealment’ is essential so that they can’t prosecuted for murder under the domestic law of the country in which they conduct targeted killings? May be they need to `hide’ their faces to avoid being prosecuted for violations of applicable US law??According to a news report, The Year of the Drone Strike, 2009, netted 5 actual militant leaders, killed 700 innocent civilians. What do these faceless killers teach us, the global public? That no face-saving gestures of European rulers can conceal their complicity in war crimes in Afghanistan (and Iraq)?
Ernest Hemingway had said, We must take away their planes, their automatic weapons, their tanks, their artillery and teach them dignity (For Whom the Bell Tolls). Dignity? Do those who are `subservient’ to America’s military and economic interests, have any? concluding instalment next week..
Other articles on burqa ban this one is funny serious detailed
Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife Bilquis having breakfast in their home in Karachi. Their bedroom that doubles as their dining room. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
‘The ambulance is more Muslim than you’.?That was the answer Abdul Sattar Edhi gave to a question when once asked ‘why must you pick up Christians and Hindus in your ambulance?’ By any stretch of imagination, Abdul Sattar Edhi is an enigma to most people. None of us truly understand him. I often think that Edhi walks a fine line between passion and lunacy. I am not able to comprehend why this man insists on doing what he does, in the capacity that he does it, for as long as he has done it for. The heart wants to register it, but the mind questions the motive.
Motive. What the hell is his motive? Please, someone tell me what this man?s motive is.
Through no easy deduction, I submit that I have discovered the answer to my question. It has taken every critical bone in my body to genuinely understand the answer, but folks, I can safely say that I have finally reached a verdict: there is no motive. There is. No. Motive. Edhi has destroyed my carefully built assessment of Man over the years. He has ruined my calculated analysis of the weaknesses of people. That he has negated all my years of hard earned views on Man single handedly almost leaves me infuriated with him. He has forced me to start over from scratch. For that, I cannot forgive him.
Abandoned family outside Edhi Tower in Karachi.
? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
This is a man that I cannot imagine my own life without. Mind you, I have never met him. I don’t want to. There isn’t a single day in my life that has collectively added up in honor to justify me being able to sit opposite Edhi. I have at best, been able to find the courage to go and drop off some extremely basic things at one of his many, many, charity centers the world over. While there, I stay for just long enough to try to fathom what all this man has done for my country. Being an impossible task, I soon give up trying to reach to the bottom of that barrel and leave very quietly. I imagine it is pretty much what anyone what do.
For those unaware of who this man is, let me put it in a very simple way: Hollywood has Batman, Superman, The Hulk, and Spiderman. Pakistan has Edhi.
A mother grieves for her son in an Edhi ambulance.
? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
What has inspired me to write about Edhi? He certainly doesn’t need any more press validating his incredible efforts or work done. He already has, safely locked away, the hearts of some 170 million people. But yesterday, I was brought to my knees by an action I witnessed that for lack of any other descriptive word, I can only describe as ‘Edhi’.
“To catch a death actually happening and embalm it for all time is something only cameras can do,” writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, “and pictures taken out in the field of the moment of (or just before) death are among the most celebrated and often reproduced of war photographs.”
Sontag goes on to describe the context in which Eddie Adams took what was arguably the most shocking image of the Vietnam war: the moment in which a South Vietnamese police officer executes a Vietcong suspect by shooting him point-blank in the head. She points out that the picture was both authentic and staged ? “by General Loan, who had led the prisoner, hands tied behind his back, out to the street where journalists had gathered. He would not have carried out the summary execution there had they not been available to witness it”. Wearily, Sontag concludes that “one can gaze at these faces for a long time and not come to the end of the mystery, and the indecency, of such co-spectatorship”.
I was reminded of that final quotation when, a few weeks ago, I navigated the winner’s gallery of the World Press Photo of the Year website. There, amidst the many dramatic images of conflict, death and destruction, was a series by an Associated Press photographer, Farah Abdl Warsameh, entitled Stoned to Death, Somalia, 13 December. The four images are shocking in a way that even the most graphic war reportage seldom is any more. The first shows the victim being buried up to his neck in earth. The second shows a group of men, their faces concealed by headscarves, raining rocks down on his head. The third shows his bloodied torso being dragged out of the soil. The last shows the men hurling large rocks at his prone and lifeless body to finish off their gruesome ritual. There are no captions; we are left to guess the context.
One’s immediate instinct on coming upon the photographs is to recoil in horror, which is what almost everyone I showed them to did. A colleague described them as “a kind of pornography of suffering”. (The Sunday Times ran the series last week in their Spectrum section devoted to the World Press awards. Many readers were outraged and appalled.)
Last week, in a blogpost for Foto8 magazine, the veteran picture editor, Colin Jacobson, wrote that “the rather disgusting pictures ? raised some interesting ethical matters”, which is one ? somewhat understated ? way of putting it. More problematically, Jacobson said that “obviously there was collaboration between the photographer and those carrying out this gruesome death sentence”. Perhaps. But what kind of collaboration? Unlike the shooting of the Vietcong suspect, the dreadful execution of the Somalian man would seemingly have gone ahead at that time had the photographer not been present. (Other images from the series, not included in the World Press selection, show an audience of villagers who had gathered to witness the execution.) On that level, the photographer did not collaborate with the killers, though he almost certainly gained permission from someone to shoot the stoning. He also shot every stage of the killing in all its protracted and torturous barbarity. What it takes to do that, and at what personal cost, only he can say.
Images as extreme as these beg so many questions about the morality of reportage. Did the photographer, one wonders, have any communication with the victim in the time leading up to the event? Would our reaction to the photographs be different if we knew that the condemned man granted the photographer permission to bear witness to his dreadful death? Would it be different if we knew that the photographer risked his own life to travel though strife-torn Somalia to bear witness, which, as one of the respondents to Jacobson’s blog points out, was probably the case. Does such extremity diminish us or enlighten us? Or simply shock us into a kind of impassioned helplessness?
Part of the complex power of these photographs comes from what Sontag calls the “provocation” inherent in all images of real suffering. The first of many questions they ask is: “Can you look at this?” Perhaps Sontag comes closest to articulating the moral dilemma at the heart of extreme images of suffering when she writes: “There is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it ? or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”