Tue 11 Sep 2007
[On the sixth anniversary of the September 11 tragedy, it is worthwhile revisiting comments made soon after the event. The following is an excerpt from a commentary by Michael Sells, reflecting on events before Afghanistan was invaded and Iraq was occupied. His full reflections are available by clicking here.]
I’m been giving talks on the various components behind the current situation. Today’s rumination is sparked by an 8th grader question at a forum I was giving: “why can’t we find Bin Laden if he’s always on TV.” The question knocked me out. The 8th grader had hit upon a core problem.
Bin Laden is a guy living with the Taliban who have banned all images (except for identity card photos), blown up ancient Buddha’s, but who invite Western camera crews in to make videos of them themselves smashing TV’s, tearing up video and audio cassette film, and stomping on photographs. At the same time they encourage Bin Laden to make regular videos of himself to be shown throughout the world on a regular basis. And they invite Western media in to photography and image both Bin Laden and their ritual destruction of images and media.
They destroy images but exist everywhere in the virtual world (except for their leader in their own society, where Mulla Omar has allegedly never been photographed). One explanation for the Taliban’s ultra-iconoclasm has been the influence of Saudi-born Wahhabism, which abhors images as idols and has campaigned throughout the Islamic world against popular forms of Islam that are practiced everywhere (except in Saudi Arabia, where all local shrines and even the graves of the companions of Muhammad have been systemically annihilated as loci of idolatry). Another explanation has been the general anger in the traditional societies over the pervasive and powerful influence of Western advertising, films, and music.
The question by the 8th grader leads me to think that neither explanation really works on its own. Traditional cultures all over the world are being wrenchingly impacted by globalized Western culture, but none act with the fanaticism of the Taliban. And Wahhabism has spread throughout the Islamic world on the wings of Saudi oil and money, but few Wahhabis, even those who have attacked Sufi shrines, would go the extreme of the Taliban. The two elements have linked and compounded one another.
Here is a man, Bin Laden, in Afghanistan who understands symbols better than most. He set up the Trade Towers horror to outdo all Godzilla films and knew they would be repeated traumatically day by day on televisions through the society he considers his enemy. He has annihilated what he considers to be the poison of image in his own realm and turned in back — in the most ruthless manner — on its producer. The truism that fundamentalists are products of modernity rather than atavistic throwbacks to the past has never been so starkly revealed.
Here our defense department was talking about building a trillion dollar, literal, hardware Star Wars program, only to be surprised by a the image of this man in a sitting in a place bombed back to before the stone age, appearing to them everywhere they look, image repeated endlessly, courtesy of the nuke-defying weapon of the box-cutter–the U.S. military, financial, and technical empire invaded on all sides by the virtual presence of this fanatic–as if invaded by some superior alien culture out of the wildest dreams of Star Trek– sitting in his not-even-a-tent in a country bombed back beyond the stone age
When I think of the cultural pain I have in moving from Tunisian villages or even Damascus back to an image driven culture, in which each year the frames of movies and videos are speeded, as life becomes more a series of shorter interactions (I recently realized I depressed for almost 7 months after returning from the 7 months spent in Rabat, Tunis, and Damascus). . .. If that is the pain of culture shock after 7 months . . .
Or when I think of the billboards for Nordic-style bikinis and lingerie (pictures that might be banned in Cincinnati) hovering over a street of people who have lived a lifetime with different notions of modesty, or the lines of adolescent men outside U.S. produced movies, dubbed into Arabic, with names like “Lethal Weapon III: Extreme,” — films that are popular all over the non-industrialized world, I came to the conclusion that the reason Wahhabism has succeeded so well around the world is twofold: first, the pervasive Saudi influence (not only to create Taliban in Afghanistan but as close as they can come in other Islamic societies) made possible by Saudi financial empires and its growing control of Islamic self-representation; an second, ultra-iconoclastic backlash that is one way (in a world of not too many alternatives) of reflecting the sense of being invaded — (a sense that in the Middle East and Central Asia is combined with senses of other forms of invasion).
In the West, the world of advertising and image is defended as “free speech.” Thus, images of smoking (to take one example) use image associations (tough, sexy, social, sophisticated, thoughtful) to implant an association so powerful it becomes relatively impervious to any counter-information, even the obvious fact that the product consumed will make the person into the very opposite of all the above). Efforts to ban such images completely are met by claims that to ban them would be to provide citizens of free flow of “information,” though what information is communicated by a billboard, subliminally glimpsed on a commuter road twice a working day for years, is a very special kind of in-form-ation indeed.
It need be no surprise that the perpetrators were pious young men from respectable families who lived a double life of extremes between ultra-orthodoxy moralism and red-light indulgence; they are the two sides of the divide. And when that divide is aggravated by problems of oil politics and Middle East tragedy, there are those who fall into the abyss between.
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