‘How they are seen, how they are spoken of’ by Agri Ismaïl

Art: Alexandria Morgan, RSVLTS

“Oh Dear Lord, please don't let whoever did this look like us." 

(Contemporary Middle Eastern Immigrant Prayer)

i. image

The symbiosis that Friedrich Kittler wrote of in his seminal Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, where wars spur on technological innovations later used for civilian consumption and “real wars are fought not for people or fatherlands, but take place between different media, information technologies, data flows” is perhaps best exemplified by the news coverage of the Gulf War, the first 24-hour cable news conflict.

As CNN was granted access to the feeds from the US army’s weapons, which had been equipped with cameras, the channel was able to present viewers all over the world with the now familiar God-eye view of destruction: precise, clinical, bathed in an alien green removing Baghdad from planet earth entirely. Having learned from their mistakes during the Vietnam War when images of napalm-burned children eroded the state’s narrative, the Gulf War became a chance to impose new imagery that would blur the human cost of war, and instead present a sterile heroism, one that echoes to this day. To quote author and art critic Zoë Pilger in her review of the art exhibition Welcome to Iraq, the West do not see the Iraqi people “as individuals with lives as valuable as our own, but a homogenised mass with a single visage: Saddam’s. This process of dehumanization has been key to justifying the bombing.” This notion is echoed in art historian and media theorist W.J.T. Mitchell’s book Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present wherein Mitchell writes “Modern warfare is often portrayed as a de-realized spectacle, a mere simulacrum on the order of a video game. And indeed, that is the way the American media and its corporate and political minders would like to portray it: a war of faceless enemies marching in anonymous ranks to be vaporized by superior weapons from a safe distance.”

The imagery of Islamic terrorists, on the other hand, has been engineered to do just the opposite: to disturb the western viewer, to show the grotesque chiral image of the sanitised night-vision missiles, redolent of outdated video games. That Islamic terrorists are feared at all by the West, that they have become the bogeyman du jour, is entirely due to their ability to disseminate brutal imagery. Social media is today replete with the latest atrocities committed by ISIS, spread by well-meaning people who want to raise awareness, instinctually feeling what the terrorists know all too well: if the images do not exist, neither do the events.

But what this dichotomy of the sterile image and the grotesque image negates is a space for the Muslim to be seen, as they are either blurred out by the satellite image of an anonymising drone or drawn crudely in the image of a fundamentalist, there is no in-between. The individualism that all of advertising and most of contemporary western culture are built to promote is not something that the Muslim is allowed to aspire to, or to embody.

ii. language

A common riposte when Islamophobes are accused of racism is that the criticism is of a religion and not a race. But of course this is not the entire truth: we do not speak of Morocco, of Turkey, of Indonesia or Malaysia when we say “Muslims”. We only mean Arabs, and not all Arabs, but people from Saudi Arabia with their backward laws, or those in Iraq and Syria with their endless wars.

Similarly, when we speak of terrorism, we mean only terrorism of one variety: that perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists. When, on February 18th 2010, a man flew a plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas, after having written a manifesto criticising the US government and Western capitalism, leaving over a dozen people injured and one dead, an interview with the Austin Police Chief immediately aired to assuage viewers that this was, in fact, not an act of terrorism. To reiterate: a man flew a plane into a government building for political reasons and this was deemed to not be an act of terrorism. Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security echoed this sentiment in its statement: “At this time, we have no reason to believe there is a nexus to terrorist activity.” Do we genuinely believe this would still have been the case had the man’s name been Mohammad rather than Andrew?

If we define terrorism only as those acts perpetrated by Muslims, then evidently Muslims cause all terrorism. We have allowed language to shape our perception of actual events, where just over 1% of Europol’s 545 recorded acts of terror in the EU between 2011 and 2013 were “religiously motivated” and yet we still imagine the greatest threat to our safety comes in the form of Islamic fundamentalism. The narrative coalescing around the murder of three Muslim teenagers in Chapel Hill is that it was a spat over a parking spot, where the description of the events as an argument implicates the deceased, making it seem like a fight, where all parties are participants rather than an attack, which would require an aggressor and a victim. Here, again, the word terrorism tends not to be even though Muslim communities are terrorised.

Even the language of the Qur’an has been taken away from all but the most fervent fundamentalists: in their zealous attempt to show that Islam is in fact intrinsically a violent religion, commentators point to the many verses that ring false to contemporary ears, as though a verse about plundering in Surat Al-Anfal decodes the very moral fibre (or lack thereof) of every man woman and child in the Middle East. While a Christian is deemed able to be devout without having to follow every tenet of, say, the Book of Leviticus, while a Muslim is shown the language of his book both from the Imperialist and the Terrorist and is told that if they call themselves Muslims, they need to adhere to every single sentence, every single word. Their beliefs are read out on air on behalf of them, spread across websites. Four wives! Seventy two virgins!

When a Muslim is allowed to speak, paraded on news channels in the aftermath of some atrocity that involves the West, it is only to denounce terrorism. The only words that are allowed are words of repentance, apologies for that which has been done by other people. The aftermath of tragedies is never a time for nuance, and the time for nuance never comes, as the speaker is shuffled back into silence. The Muslim may be invisible or terrorist, silent or fundamentalist. Those are their only options.


Agri Ismaïl is an Iraq- and Sweden-based writer whose fiction has appeared in the White Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and the Bohemyth among other places. He has also published essays and criticism in Al Jazeera, 3:AM Magazine and Swedish magazines Glänta and FLM. He tweets at @a9ri.

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