[-empyre-] On Uncertainty

Naeem Mohaiemen naeem.mohaiemen at gmail.com
Thu Feb 7 04:01:41 EST 2008

On Feb 6, 2008 8:11 AM, John Haber <jhaber at haberarts.com> wrote:
> One was my uncertainty on what [Naeem] feels, other than amazement.  It could
> be read as condoning terrorism or not.  While I don't believe in Bush's
> global war on terror -- or even on the value of defining terror as an
> enemy rather than a tactic -- I'm not too keen on killing people,
> period, but especially civilians.

About defining terrorism we can talk another time, but I'll just zero
in on John'ssecond sentence. It's interesting that any discussion of
this topic has to first start by clarifying our positions. I.e., to
talk about terrorism, we first have to condemn it clearly, otherwise
it could be "read as condoning" it. This reminds me, via
digression/tangent about a (much more heated) debate we are having on
another mailing list. This is the <Bangladesh_1971> mailing list,
where we have been discussing the 1971 genocide against Bangladesh
(which was then fighting for independence against Pakistan) and the
parameters of possible war crimes trials.

I wrote an essay that was published this week by EPW magazine in
India. Unfortunately, my use of the phrase "civil war" at certain
points in the text angered some people on the Bengali side, who felt I
was trying to minimize the genocide by using that phrase.

At one place in the debate, one of my critics, Mashuqur who does a lot
of research on this, wrote:
Naeem Mohaiemen wrote: "Levin's images of refugee camps, starving
children and valiant Bengali freedom fighters were tailor-made for the
new television era. These images inspired Americans to carry out a
paternalistic "crusade" on behalf of the Bengali movement. It was also
necessary to have the victims be a pre-technology people. The Bengali
peasant, shirtless and starving to death, was a comforting image in
the west. The middle class, guerilla fighter, using Chinese bombs to
attack international hotels in occupied Dhaka was a less comforting
image. "

Mashuqur then added in his own words:
The TV cameras did not make the refugees shirtless. It was the fleeing
for their lives from a genocide that made them shirtless. Your prose
is flamboyant and maybe good for a giggle, but it is weak and lacks an
understanding of why the refugee, one amongst 10 million (not an
inflated number, methinks), is where is he is in the condition that he

To which I then replied:
I never said or meant that the TV camera MADE them shirtless. My point
was that the media focused on the shirtless refugee because that can
much more easily be explained/digested as "these poor people need your
help." The point with the Intercon bombers etc is that in there is a
nucleus of a people's army that was much more confrontational and
ready to blow things up but that was far too complicated for limited
media attention span—and also sometimes its scary specter (more today
of course than in 1971, freedom fighters vs terrorists, etc). Of
course we know the conditions of the refugees were horrific. That
actually goes without saying and everyone on this forum is, I believe,
on the same page with you on that. But saying that the media focused
on that because it is also what 'sells' in wartime does not denigrate
their condition. I hope we can discuss these familiar iconic moments
without having to constantly add well-rounded caveats such as "by the
way when I talk about the shirtless peasant, I am of course in total
sympathy with the shirtless peasant and do not mean to offend him in
any way."

I was reminded of this debate as now it feels that on empyre also I
may have to preface my writing with certain preambles+caveats...

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