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Empire’s Ways of Knowing

by SALMAN ADIL HUSSAIN

During the run up to the invasion of Afghanistan, three burly American classmates jeered at me. They said, “We’re gonna kill Osama.” Presumably, I would be especially aggrieved at Osama’s death, since I am a Muslim, and therefore, an Osama sympathizer if not also a bomb-carrying terrorist. My classmates were full of assurance and triumphalist pride. They said: “We can hit even a coffee mug in a cave.” The cave stood for where I am from, the enemy territory, the blank space on the map, the primitive place. I couldn’t stop myself from asking how they would know which cave to hit. They said: “If you can bring down the whole mountain, you don’t have to know which cave to hit.” This is how the empire reveals its darkness: behind the fantasy of technological dominance lies a world of berserk violence.

The capacity to do violence allows the powerful to exercise the privilege of what Gayatri Spivak has called “sanctioned ignorance.” To put it more crudely, if you have enormous power you have the right to be stupid. Since the powerful can command and punish, they do not need to do the interpretive work of understanding. Moreover, power is incapable of recognizing its own violence. It maintains a self-image of a benign, civilizing force. This violence is seen as delivering justice, a burdensome necessity to counter the perils and terrors of places far away, places imagined as lying at the fault line between civilization and barbarism. It is this willed ignorance that historian Manan Ahmed brings into focus in his book, Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination, a curated collection of his blogposts and published essays.

Ahmed writes, “We have programmed forgetfulness in our civic and political lives.” Narratives are the pills we swallow for our collective forgetting. Narratives obscure and obfuscate. In the aftermath of 9/11, the authors of the 9/11 Commission Report and pundits in general, went through a crash course in fourteen centuries of Islamic history to answer one question: why 9/11? The authors of the report declared that Americans had suffered a failure of imagination. The report called for “routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination,” and for thinking globally: “the American homeland is the planet.” And yet, for understanding the threat of terrorism to America historically, it focused on the internal failures of the Muslim world in isolation from American involvement. It completely ignored the history of America’s militarized engagement with the rest of the planet, and specifically America’s role in violent transnational Jihad during the Cold War. Little wonder that no significant insight was to be had from such an inquiry and clichés to the tune of “They hate us for our freedoms” were the result. This failure of imagination, Ahmed writes, was at display in the then Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s explication of America’s foe to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2007. Indistinguishable from that of President Bush, it conformed to the scholar-combatant Bernard Lewis’ Orientalist pabulum, “the template of The Old Man of The Mountain,” for understanding terrorism and militancy. And that is because there was, and is, no alternative narrative available. “The myopia we extend out to the caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” writes Ahmed, “exists in North Carolina, Alabama and Oklahoma.”

Geography, a sense of the place, its people, local histories, and memory, is from where Ahmed’s critique of power emerges and where it is located. Noting that the “clash of civilization operates not on differences but on sameness—whether in Us or Them,” Ahmed posits that “unless we decide to get local, to pay attention to local narratives, facts, histories, realities, languages, religions, ethnicities, cultures, and so forth, we will remain in this deeply flawed discourse.” And this is not merely a matter of intellectual nicety. Oblivious of local realities, war-mongers like Seth Jones call for drone strikes on “Baluchi cities like Quetta,” as the US has done “so effectively in the tribal areas.” Quetta is a major city of Pakistan, the provincial capital of Baluchistan, and a populous city with more than a million people. There is already a war raging on in Baluchistan. But none of this merits a consideration. The drone’s eye view collapses histories, geographies, cultures, and lives into one dangerous whole: the target.

Empires impart the belief that there is “a dominant ‘core’ that rule[s] over a conquered ‘periphery’” and that it is the “right of the Emperor to create and execute laws universally, i.e. absolute sovereignty.” To extend imperial diktat over the “periphery,” it must be deemed lawless— or in today’s idiom, a failed state. Pakistan (and Afghanistan), routinely visualized and coded as “lawless,” comprises the American empire’s internal frontier with which the center deliberately maintains distance and refuses to see the social reality of its people. Ahmed lays out the history of the America’s violent entanglements with Pakistan through the years; the antidemocratic agenda it pushed (in Pakistan and many other Muslim-majority countries) by supporting military rule, presumably so that its people, stuck in the “not yet time,” can be taught democracy by despotic satraps.

But Ahmed is no scribe of power. His is not a critique smitten with the omnipotence of power so as to have no hope in the agency and resilience of people, and no room for resistance. Ahmed chronicles Pakistanis’ struggle against General Musharraf, and gives readers a sense of Pakistani politics through carefully crafted profiles of some of its public figures. This, though, does not mean an uncritical romanticizing of “the people,” let alone that of the Pakistani nation and nationalism. Ahmed does not lose his sense of justice and writes with profound empathy for the violated –Ahmadis and Pakistan’s other religious minorities, women, the poor, Balochis, and Bengalis— and records the injustices meted out by the society and the state.

“[H]yperbolic invocations of local violence have played a substantive role in colonial imaginations of frontiers, in general,” writes Ahmed. “Now, it plays a rhetorical role in our present day imagination of Pakistan.” Violent, unstable, and chaotic are common themes in imperial narrative about the places it deems the frontier— a distant place, a place of danger, peopled by barbarians. The anxiety the frontier provokes; it “paradoxically internalizes a peculiar fascination with the frontier even as it pushes away more robust understandings – it simultaneously keeps the frontier a known object and an unknowable terrain,” writes Ahmed in a more theoretical essay, “Adam’s Mirror: The Frontier in the Imperial Imagination,” that regrettably is not part of the collection under review. This particular view of the frontier obscures all “historical contingencies, the particularities or the specifici­ties, and those instated there” and replaces it with “a caricature of the exotic, the unknown.”

To elucidate empire’s ways of knowing what it deems the frontier, Ahmed turns to imperial history, and brings to the fore the imaginative terrain –unknown, dangerous, and exotic –by which the frontier is routinely circumscribed. Ahmed says that for empire, the anxiety of the frontier “embeds itself in the frontier itself, waiting to be recalled, remembered and reproduced.” The task of recalling it for the prince is performed by the expert who either reproduces the frontier in the “image of the capital or reproduce[s] an image of it for the capital.” The expert, writes Amitava Kumar in the Foreword, “speaks from a distance; the expert sees like the State. … Or like a drone.”

Ahmed studies the profiles of those who are deemed experts and invited to the halls of power to ply their craft, to understand and arrive at an ideal type that the official point of view considers an “expert:”

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.

Rory Stewart and Greg Mortensen are examples of a particular type of expert – “the ‘non-expert’ insider who can traverse that unknown terrain and, hence, become an ‘expert.’”

Critical scrutiny of the nexus of knowledge and power in general and the American empire in particular, is an abiding concern of Ahmed’s writings.  The prince’s councils, the experts of many stripes, come in for a thorough examination (and stick): globetrotters like Robert Kaplan “who claim expertise by staying in hotels and who produce nothing but banal observations;” unabashed apologists of 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. Ahmed drives the congruity between drones and experts home with characteristic polemical verve:

The appeal of the drone’s eye is precisely that it does not see everything, because it carries no understanding of the things it records. The experts who are required to imagine Afghanistan or Pakistan traverse those spaces in a manner similar to the drones, on their own preprogrammed missions where every little thing becomes a target on which to pin their policies.

Such expert “knowledge” Ahmed juxtaposes with the constant surveillance that yields indecipherable mountains of data to conclude that “the American war effort prefers its human knowledge circumspect or circumscribed and its technical knowledge crudely totalized.” As the political theorist and psychoanalyst, Ashis Nandy writes, “knowledge without ethics is not so much bad ethics as inferior knowledge.” In this case, it is one with grave consequences for the world.

“The effort to be ethical in the world we inhabit,” writes Ahmed “cannot wait for better times and milder risks.” Ahmed belongs to the proud tradition of dissenting academic voices, and specifically one that utilized blogging to engage with the general public. As a student, he suggested to his faculty that they should write op-eds in papers of record to try and puncture the Fox News narrative of the Iraq War. All to no avail. A debilitating cynicism seemed to have set in whereby it was conceded that the public space had already been lost to the Fox News outlets of the world, and that the faculty should be focused solely on the academy and their scholarship. The advice given to Ahmed was that he should wait for tenure before engaging with the public opinion through blogging or opinion pieces. But Ahmed was convinced that “those who stay silent before tenure will remain silent after tenure.” For while such tenured illuminati console themselves with doses of virtuous patience and cautious knowledges, drones continue to colonize the skies and rain death from afar. And they are headed home to roost.

Salman Hussain is a writer, software programmer, and dog lover based in Wisconsin. His heart remains in the Land of Five Rivers. His book on Pakistan’s civil war in 1971 and the subsequent liberation of Bangladesh, Towards 1971: A Personal Journey, is forthcoming. His writings have appeared in Dawn Books & Authors, Pakistan. He blogs at Greased Cartridge.

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