Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Aafia Siddiqui Trial Exposes American Media Bias

Ibrahim Sajid Malick

“Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (West, “us”) and the strange (the East, “them”),” wrote one of the finest scholars of our time, Edward Said.

Covering Dr. Aafia Siddiqui’s trial for past two weeks I realized there is a problem with this statement.

It was abundantly clear that the “us” and “them” categories were not structures of the past but realities of my surroundings. And, I can’t believe I say this: for Muslims these categories are much clearer and sharper than they have ever been.

Two aspects of America that I have always admired are the justice system and the abundance of ‘trust’ in the marketplace. I continue to admire the justice system- the fact that 12 ordinary men and women from New York City could hold the power to ajudicate is something to be respected. I may disagree with the verdict – as we often do, but the jury system is absolutely the best mechanism to dispense justice.

The fact that these twelve men and women – a black woman, a dark color Hispanic woman, a fair color Hispanic woman and nine Caucasian men and women handed down this verdict in New York City speaks volume to the Orientalist categories Edward Said taught us about. My point of departure, however, is that Prof. Said considered this to be part of history and I experience it today in the worlds most cosmopolitan city – the most diverse city, and my favorite, New York City.

No physical evidence whatsoever – but how can they not trust American soldiers – even when there were glaring inconsistencies in what they said. Even when there was no proof that an M4 rifle was ever fired a Pakistani woman was convicted because she was the crazy “other.”

“Us” and “them” was also abundantly clear in the press gallery where white journalists failed to restrain their glee. With their faces beaming with happiness – as if a spirited game of Yankees vs Red Sox had just finished they were bumbling around in front of the Federal Court of Southern District of New York.

The New York Post and Daily News reporters sat through the entire proceedings but only reported her outbursts. Despite categorical statements by the government that Dr. Aafia Siddiqui was not on trial for allegations of terrorism, the New York Post regularly referred to her as “Terror Ma”; and Daily News in every story called her “al-Qaeda lady”.

These are both tabloids of New York from which I expect a certain level of sensationalism and yellow journalism.

But, I was surprised how a Boston Globe reporter who had spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan had come with her story already written. “I have my story already typed,” she told other women (a writer who had traveled from Cape Cod to cover this trial) saying if the jury doesn’t return a verdict she may need a stringer.

The Boston Globe goes to cover a trial with stories already typed? This is not surprising. Because the subject of this narrative is a woman from a subjugated part of the world (other) and the American media had already presumed her guilt.

Dr. Aafia Siddiqui comes from a part of the world that is “despotic and clannish.” The subtext of these conversations does not need much digging. When I talked about democracy in Pakistan, I was reminded of corruption and when I mentioned how Pakistan has been aligned with American policy for past 60 years I was told how ISI played a double game.

In simple words: Pakistanis are despotic when placed in positions of power, and sly and obsequious when in subservient positions.

These American reporters who acted like cheerleaders for the government when reporting WMDs in Iraq still blindly trust their establishment.

But not always – when reporting on issues that impact their own lives, healthcare, the financial debacle, stimulus packages, gay marriages these reporters leave no stone un-turned and they don’t take the establishment’s word as a gospel.

When a Pakistani is on trial – her statements to FBI when she was tied to a gurney, drugged and had bullet wounds in her belly – they believe those statements should be sufficient to impeach her.

Talking to the media one of he defense attorneys – someone Dr. Aafia Siddiqui seems to trust and has had most candid conversations with – Ms. Elaine Sharp pleaded to the American reporters “what crimes have her children committed.”

She was of course talking about abduction of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and her three kids from the streets of Karachi in 2003. They were kidnapped by the ‘sly and obsequious’ Pakistani ISI under the leadership of a dictator General Pervez Musharaff. I was shocked to see the expressions on the faces of American reporters as if these kids have no ‘value’ whatsoever.

As Pramilla Srivastava has written in her piece: “Shortly after the trial began as a government eyewitness described the documents that were allegedly found in her possession, including hand written notes on how to make a dirty bomb, she shouted out “it’s a lie…I was told to copy from a magazine…if you were held in a secret prison and your children were tortured”; at which point she was whisked away by U.S. Marshalls.”

But American journalists who roam around the world teaching the subjugated how to report- how they must not be emotionally attached to the story – how they must remain unbiased can’t follow what they preach. When it comes to reporting events that surround lives of weird looking men with prayer beads, and women covered in veils our good old white reporters can’t keep emotions behind their poker faces.

And, of course this column – part one of many to come may sound like a rant to my good American friends – and they may be thinking these people even after living in this country for such a long time are “impossible to trust.”

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