“Waziristan is made to seem a world away” : Orientalist lingerings in the Colonized Mind

I just watched an impeccable documentary on the drone attacks in Pakistan called “Wounds of Waziristan” by Madiha Tahir. You can watch the entire documentary here.

The British thought you were all savages and now the Americans think you’re all militants.

Tahir says. She also goes further to show how the government of Pakistan has had a type of colonial attitude towards the tribal regions, where “the constitution doesn’t apply” and the residents are not given the basic rights available to all other Pakistani citizens.

I applaud the work Madiha Tahir has done and highly recommend watching the documentary to get a look at real people who have been affected by the drone strikes.

However, the issue goes much, much deeper than downplaying the humanity of tribal people living in Pakistan by the United States and Pakistani  government. This attitude is seemingly alive and conscious in the very depths of many elite Pakistanis and, sadly, even the average Pakistani living in urban areas.

During May, I attended a talk given by Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University. The speech was primarily of Ahmed relaying his recent findings about drones and his take on the issue in his latest book, The Thistle and The Drone. The entire talk consisted of Ahmed creating a binary between the “periphery” (for him denoting the existence of tribal groups in Pakistan) and the “center” (inclusive of the government and rest of Pakistan). He continued on about how tribal codes emphasize honor, courage, and revenge, setting up the layout for a people who are on the brink of violence at any given moment. Ahmed also clarified that these groups exist in various regions, including Afghanistan and Yemen. It is these groups, he purported, that cling closely to traditional notions. The rest of Pakistan, unlike these tribal groups, does not have these cultural codes and stick more or less to the norms of other 21st century nations.

This binary opposition created by Ahmed clearly scapegoats tribal people as being the root cause of terrorism and hostility not only in Pakistan, but also in Afghanistan and Yemen. This othering of an entire group of people, using the same language as many colonizers used to legitimize their colonization, is the utmost internalization of orientalist thought. Binaries automatically create hierarchies, placing one on top of the other. There is absolutely no question here as to what group Ahmed deems to be inferior, and therefore the problem. It’s unbelievable to think that someone who is considered to be a scholar of his field and is a Pakistani can diminish the value of an entire group of people. However, that is not where it stops. This type of mentality can be found subtly leering in the minds of many Pakistanis.

A Pakistani friend of mine, who had also attended the talk ,seemed to disagree with Ahmed just as much as I did. However, he said something odd that stuck with me, “Now, all the people that went to the talk will look at me and think I’m from a tribe.” He then needed to go pray, so we weren’t able to continue the conversation. However, he seems to have missed something very important. The issue isn’t that Ahmed associated the practice of tradition (which includes Islamic traditions) with tribal culture, it’s that he  completely demonized tribal culture. So being associated with a tribal group shouldn’t be the issue. The issue is associating all tribal groups with extremist ideologies, undermining their existence as a group of people, and, hence, legitimizing the actions being taken against them with the use of excessive force like drones.

This wasn’t the first time I felt uncomfortable with a Pakistani making an outwardly insensitive remark about a subset of Pakistani culture. While standing around with a group of students after Urdu class at NYU, a small conversation was struck up.

“I think Punjabi sounds really harsh,” one student said. The rest of the students agreed.

Various forms of this remark have been regurgitated by many Pakistanis, primarily those from outside of Punjab or those whose families hail from urban cities in Punjab where Urdu has become the dominating language. Somehow, Punjabi is always deemed to be inferior to Urdu. The periphery and the center.

Another binary that is posed within Pakistan is that of coming from a rural area versus coming from a city. The derogatory term of “paindu” is used to describe people who are from a village. The periphery and the center.

Then there are some American-Pakistanis who consider themselves to be very different from those “ignorant brown people.” The uneducated, living in Pakistan or India or Bangladesh, obviously inferior and clearly misinformed people. The periphery, those people who are are born and bred in South Asian homelands, are no longer the legitimate representations of their own cultures and beliefs. The “center” of this binary has moved back to the West, controlled not by colonizers but by those whose minds have been thoroughly colonized that self-hate is no longer evident.

Each of these binaries are described (albeit, oftentimes subtly) in much of the same way that Ahmed described the differences between tribal groups living in Pakistan and the rest of Pakistan. One is seen as being inferior, harsh, and uneducated, while the other is the modern, civilized version that should serve as the true representation of Pakistan. Unfortunately, what many of them can’t see is that this is the same way the British colonizers viewed, and still view, South Asians in general. They were the uncivilized savages who needed the civilized white man to set their affairs straight. Not much has changed since then. And this recycling of binaries has been taking lives of innocent civilians since the so-called “War on Terror” began.

Waziristan is the periphery: they are not civilized, their main language is not urdu, they are not living in the West.

They are collateral damage.

Waziristan is not made to seem a world away, it is a world away. The periphery and the center.

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