Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Rafia Zakaria middle-fingers the (complicit) West

As a keen observer of both the global South and North, Rafia Zakaria is well suited to comment on how narratives are being written in the world press. She bluntly accuses the West of white-washing away the western complicity in the rise of the Taliban and Boko Haram and other extremist groups, leaving poorly off third-world countries with the stigma of being "that country" which is full of monsters performing acts of evil. First it was Pakistan and now it is the turn of Nigeria to be a victim of western negligence (and often outright malfeasance) and now facing an international campaign of vilification.

 Well yes, and no. One can stretch the imagination and claim that India is being portrayed in the Western Press as "that country" where rapists are running wild, with even six month old babies not being spared from the clutches of monsters (yes, really). The insults are coming fast and furious on Twitter: what is wrong with Indian men? Not just any Indian men, but conservative Hindu vegetarian men. It was none other than an Alicia Muller May an american diplomat based in India who made this astute statement:

"It's the vegetarians that are doing the raping, not the meat eaters. This place is just so bizarre," Alicia Muller May wrote in 2012

We can throw statistics back and forth (gun crime in the USA is a nice, soft target) but at the end of the day this is the truth: Americans (westerners) think of the brown and black people as uncivilized barbarians (all of them). And Rafia Zakaria is certainly correct that the West is good in covering up its complicity.

But if there is ever going to be an opportunity to set the matters right the brown world must do better than sit around and complain that America is being mean and not helpful enough. There was after all a very good reason why Pakistan, for example, invited the USA to come to the village well and poison the drinking water (so to speak). The expectation was that with the help of USA, Pakistan can fend off India. When sufficient help did not materialize in 1965 (1971, 1998,..) there was a lot of pain and heart-break. Surely it is up to the browns to stop the sword-fighting and start investing in plough-shares?
There was a time in Pakistan when the doings of the Taliban were also just beginning. It was a time when Pakistanis never believed that the Taliban, a ragtag group of itinerant fighters, with their bonfires of CDs and their floggings of women, would be able to expand their sphere of operations to other parts of the country.

The story of how they did manage to do so is a sad and complex one, with chapters detailing a superpower invading Afghanistan and bombing a portion of Pakistan and littering the country with its intelligence agents and security contractors. Those chapters are omitted from the world’s imagination, in which the difference between a Taliban fighter and an ordinary Pakistan is next to none. The conflation is enshrined even in the American definition of drone targets: every man over the age of 16 in a strike zone is automatically and always a ‘combatant’. The truth of imperium is the truth the world accepts.

In the process of fighting both the local insurgency and American intervention, Pakistan became ‘that’ country, occupying a place in the world’s imagination alongside problems so complex that it does not belong to the normal moral order of things. Pakistan is the country where a schoolgirl can be shot by the Taliban for wanting to go to school, an act so ghastly that it functions to create the moral extreme that defines other nations as ‘good’, in relation to Pakistan’s ‘bad’.

Becoming ‘that’ country, Pakistan’s citizens can tell you, involves having the human rights violations of your present being dislodged from context, extricated from narratives of global inequity, so that others less unfortunate can count their blessings. They, after all, are not ‘that’ country, the one that stands at the darkest edge of misfortune, the most hapless case, at the fringe of the fellowship of nations.

Nigerians should take note and beware. Within the global imagination, the issue of abducted schoolgirls seems to be marching in just the same direction.

In the beginning, most global media outlets did not cover the issue at all, discarding it with the disdain that accompanies misfortunes in parts of the world used to misfortune. When the story was taken up by the CNN and other gods of the global media, its details and context were happily snipped away and moulded into the familiar form: an Islamist group, a ghastly act and an ineffective government.

The boring specifics of income inequality, Western complicity, ongoing insurgency, and military repression are all subtracted to leave the skeleton of a story: a group of abducted schoolgirls in a faraway place where people are callous enough to allow such things to happen.

When singular acts are used to construct the dynamics of complex problems, however, those agitating against groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Taliban in Pakistan are erased from the stories.

The consequence is a global context in which a grotesque act becomes the source of moral castigation of an entire nation, a step in the process of making it ‘that’ country, a place that exists in the global imagination only to mark the furthest boundary of badness, where anything can happen. As Pakistanis can tell Nigerians, it is a costly sentence; often, an undeserved one.
Link: http://www.dawn.com/news/1104659/becoming-that-country

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