Horror and moral terror are your friends. The genius, the will, and the strength. The total revulsion, the total repulsion, the ability to sacrifice one’s own flesh and blood. These are not monsters. They fight with their hearts. They are filled with love. Moral. Primordial. Without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.
No noble savage, no exoticism, no civilizational superiority, no modernity, no backwardness. No emic, no etic, no “being there,” no words. Impossible to describe in words, as Col. Kurtz says. Not the kind of “teachable moment” most academic anthropologists would look for, or choose. We don’t have the words for this: this goes beyond mere cultural relativism, it is going beyond going native, it is even deeper than an inconceivable emic detachment. It goes beyond the boundary. It’s not “constructive academic engagement,” because it’s better. It is truth beneath the truths.
There may be lessons for anthropology, but there are also some very wise words for coming to an understanding of resistance groups that are routinely demonized, turned into monsters, judged to be irredeemable by the international, “civilized community of nations” (i.e., usually the white ones), whose sole fate is to be extirpated by those who would judge them. For those who see it as their mission to be in Afghanistan, to remove the Taliban from this world, they have already lost.
[material originally appearing here was removed and saved for a different post]
11 thoughts on “Like a Diamond Bullet to the Forehead (2.0)”
This piece intrigues me because of some of my own interests. My own academic focus has been on a comparison of Medieval and contemporary Islam and the seminal ideologues of both eras. My work is far from over. However, certain fascinating notes have riveted my attention and I am still fleshing out my understanding. I am versed in the narratives of colonialism, I have studied the works or response by those such as Jamal al-Afghani and Ali Shari’ati in Iran, Sayyid Qutb and al-Banna in the Arab world, and my own sympathies are 100% with those struggling to slough off all imperial incursions, traditional and post-colonial (so called.)
I also have worked closely with the Van gennep model of religion. Most notably I used this model in a paper discussing Shari’ati and the ritual use of suicide in Shi’ite mystical theory and its capacity to produce a collective liminal state which can then be used for political agendas. And I have looked at the consistency of prolonged periods of torture in the movement of the writings of people like Qutb who started out less violently reactionary than they were prior to torture.
All of this pot pourri by way of posing a question to you about the Taliban specifically, as distinct from any other such Islamicst factions. What prportion of the ground level Taliban guys and perhaps their commanders, were the direct product of the horrors of Soviet occupation? What proportion of them have grown up since childhood immersed in virtually a culture-wide ritual torture? And what role has this unique experience played in creating a very, very unique sort of creature? I have read as diverse a mix of reports about them as I can. And I must admit, they sound, to put it mildly, very strange. And I am not referring to the now typical extremes of repression etc blah, blah. But other things that keep cropping up in the writings of people like Jason Eliot, a travel writer, Saira Shah, a journalist of Afghan descent who has travelled deeply off the beaten track and encountered them. My curiosity about them is piqued now well beyond their position in Islam, in the current conflicts, and their political impact. Just as the Nazis were, strange, aside from everything else they were, so are the Taliban a unique and peculiar bubble on the sea of humanity. And I just can’t seem to get past all the Hoo-ha and knee jerk media crap. Any thoughts?
(Sorry Aaron, almost all comments are now being redirected to my spam queue, and there seems to be nothing that I can do to fix that. I will contact WordPress about it.)
Those are the same questions that I have been asking, only to be frustrated by (a) a lack of background in the necessary languages, and likely related to that, (b) an inability to find anything beyond a few scraps, the odd interview with a journalist (structured by the journalist’s questions) that presents something like the “worldview” of the Taliban.
Even when allowed in to the madrassas, Western media outlets tend to talk over the footage, just showing the children swaying back and forth, sometimes in slow motion to make them look scary, sometimes placing them in a diagonal tilt for added “crazy” effect, and sometimes all of that with added special effects (ghost motion, panning and zooming, fading to grey, morphing into negative, etc.). It is incredibly frustrating and pointless to watch/read/listen. Even during the Cold War we had voluminous access to Soviet speeches, radio, newspapers, Communist party publications, etc. In this conflict, we are largely being kept blind, and everyone who dominates the air waves — often the howling “freedom fries” crowd — uses the vast blank space as a canvass for their own fantasies about the Taliban.
Yes, I know what you’re saying. It’s a very strange phenomenon. For all my news, I have virtually abandoned public media and am trying to put together my own little cabal of interesting folks with “grownup” ideas about the world. I have followed the Iran fiasco very closely virtually from blogs and tweets inside and a few friends and writers. That’s another spin fest that’s coming up completely assinine in the US media. The de-education of the American mass public allows them to succumb to the Disneyesque presentation of world events. Of course they are being conditioned to respond like Pavlov’s dog. The only difference is the dogs are smarter. Years ago when The Matrix came out I started telling people the public was already living in it. And of course they agreed and pointed to everybody ELSE who this applied to. And I loved your reference to Apocalypse
Now. I have made something of a meditation of that film for many a year now, and it’s one of my two favorite films. Kurtsian academic! Brilliant.
One more thing, regarding your comment about “fantasies about the Taliban.” I don’t know about Canada, but in the US, it’s the era of broad brush cartoon figures, action heroes and evil villains. And it’s not just Sarah Palin and her ilk. I work in a publishing house in NYC and right after Obama was elected, there was a virtual orgy in the office with people talking for days about the wonderful new world that was just beginning, a whole new beginning for everybody, everything is “going to be different now” and on and on. I was stupefied. And believe me, I wanted him in there instead of the McCain and his accompanying circle of trogdolytes. But I couldn’t believe all the “kool-aid” that was being passed around, if ya know what I mean.
I should have added somewhere: my own interest in this took shape early on, when I began to realize how familiar all of this “war on terror,” “Muslim terrorist” stuff was, the common patterns and similar shapes, the many points of equivalence. I have spent many years reading colonial literature on the Caribbean, archival materials, and doing fieldwork, all focused on the Caribs — at one time, the worst of all possible “savages,” demonized, vilified, man-eaters. Indeed, the very term “cannibal” was once merely a different way of transcribing the name of the people, the “Carib” (as might be obvious morphologically, even in English — plain and transparent in Spanish: Caribal, Canibal).
The very language of civilization vs. barbarism from 500 years ago has been revived. Some have gone backwards, routinely describing the Taliban as “animals” thus denying them their very human-ness. Others are cheering for a replay of the Spanish reconquista — including, ironically, Jewish Zionist persons, who conveniently forget that the reconquista laid the basis for the persecution, torture and expulsion not just of Muslims, but also Jews. Maybe they pray that the next reconquista can be tweaked and made ever so slightly more selective. (They should pray harder: Jews and Muslims are hated and distrusted in almost equal measure in North America.)
One thing that I have become attuned to is the fact that labels are assigned as a matter of convenience, with real world political and economic consequences. The cultural “stuff” contained within the label can shift wildly however, and anyone could become a Carib, and then cease to be Carib. The second point is that we never get to hear the other speak: they are always spoken for, spoken about, spoken at. To figure out who the Taliban were, where they came from, how they emerged, developed, changed, will involve a massive work of reconstruction well past being too late to do anything with the knowledge, other than circulate it in journals and conferences, when most of the public will have moved on. It will also require the Taliban to speak to the wider world, and/or bring in guest researchers — and I sense little interest in their part for the first, and the second we can count as a near impossibility.
Not sure if you saw this little tid bit.
Exactly. The reemergence of the mythos that allows the other to be marginalized outside the cozy campfire of common humanity and entitled to its rights and dignities. And that which is so marginalized can easily be crushed without guilt. This is the very reason why there is so much sputtering indignity about the treatment and infringement of women in the Muslim world. Nobody seems to be too concerned about the treatment of Tibetans over the last how many decades. But the treatment of women, even just the headscarf thing, has been woven onto the battle standards of the new Crusade. Just for the sake of the conversation, I am also a nom-hojabi female convert to Islam, having come to that scene back in 1975. It was a veru different place back then.
But regarding the above link, the key phrase there is worrying about backing down to the “demands of terrorists” because Muslims will most likely resent a visual portrayal of Muhammad. So now, all 1.8 billion Muslims who may presumably resent this depiction are “terrorists.” Fascinating times, eh?
Thanks very much for the additional comments, and that news link as well. Until you posted it, I had not heard about it. Yes, the direct and immediate association there between “Muslim” and “terrorist” betrays far more about them than any overt concern about causing offense from re-publishing the cartoons, and can in fact cause even greater offense.
About the Obama kool-aid, yes, I know very much what you mean. I have been seriously disappointed by the kind of excessive enthusiasm and outright cheering for Obama that I see on some anthropology blogs, for precisely the same reasons you mentioned having. Virtually *nothing* of what they hoped for has come to pass, and in many instances, the exact opposite.
The real problem and what was so telling about the Obana kool-aid prior to the election was that what was hoped for was not possible outside of an opium dreamscape. And I predicted that if he got in there would be no change because the president of the US is no more than a figurehead against a backdrop of an aggregate of corporate “sponsors.” And I was called a cynic with no hope and faith.
(rereading what I wrote last night, nom-hojabi should be “non-hijabi. I don’t wear the scarf. One should always exercise caution posting late at night with a cat on their lap.)
sulemana abdul majeed
I AM ABDUL MAJEED A BOY OF 20 YEARS OF AGE I AM FROM GHANA IN WEST AFRICA AND I WILL BE VERY GRATEFUL IF YOU TAKE ME AS A FORCE IN YOUR AGENCY AND I BE ONE OF THE PROTECTERS OF THE WORLD.I AM A TALL BOY WITH VERY STRONG BONES WHO IS DYING FOR THIS.PLEASE LISTING TO MY ATTENTION.I WAIT TO HEAR FROM YOU.MAJEED
I believe you have the wrong agency. However, should I ever decide to create or join an “international force of protectors of the world,” you will be the first person I will think of contacting.
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