Heads or Timbuktu Taliban Tall Tales? Who Knows?

on the muslim question politics of the veil

The graphic and well-written New York Times story about Timbuktu in Mali is heart-wrenching.  It’s very disturbing, to be sure.  Let me jump up and down a few more times on top of my sentence so no one accuses me of not having compassion, or in any way not being a feminist with a capital F (for pride and emphasis).

But this piece, like last fall’s front-page piece about Malala Yousufzai’s shooting when the Taliban tried to assassinate her in Swat Valley, Pakistan, is foreign and exotic and pushes all the right buttons about neotribalism (anti-feminist or patriarchal, in a word), so much so that I realize I can’t read just one newspaper — I need to read at least six, in as many time zones, to be sure about the atmosphere this story conveys.  But how can I check all my facts when I don’t have the time to travel to Timbuktu, let alone Kabul, or read five more newspapers before preparing for next week’s Mellon Sawyer Seminar on these types of questions by my esteemed colleagues Joan Wallach Scott and Anne Norton?

As editor of my high-school newspaper decades ago, in the heart of current Tea Party land, I was taught that the right column of the paper’s front page was reserved for breaking news.  If there was no breaking news (as was usually the case at my high school), it was at least supposed to be significant news.  But human interest?  Or, as it would be more accurate to say in this case, anti-human interest, or textbook “othering” of the enemy of our allies?

As a high-school reporter, I was also forbidden to use adjectives.  Now, my journalism advisor went on to teach at Bob Jones University, so he was apparently quite good, but aren’t journalists, like academics, supposed to avoid using subjective terms (“there are no illusions that they have ceased to be a threat,” “the city remains dangerously isolated,” “forbidding scrubland territory”)?

And then the journalist throws in a few alliterations to boot (ambulances at sun-baked squares by sand dunes?).  What is “sun-baked” to you could be rather chilly to me, after all.  And how can you have a square in dunes?  Do they sweep it all the time?  This defies logic.  This reads more like rhetoric than news.

Perhaps I lack imagination, but this piece, like many pieces about the Taliban, is so overwritten, has so much atmosphere, that it gets my suspicions up, and again rest assured, I’m a Feminist.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not contesting what is happening there. I’m politely asking: Could we have a more dispassionate account filled with numbers (e.g. “center of learning for centuries” isn’t a number)?  And it’s clever to quote quotes, but isn’t this a bit too slippery?  Am I really to believe: “They said, ‘We are Muslims. We came here to impose Shariah.’”

The professor in me thinks I’d better do all the fact-checking on this piece myself before I can even gain enough perspective to render a proper judgment.  It’s not about left or right brain, but accessing that “critical” side of my brain, the side we should all call upon more often when reading the news.

Published by *Ruth Frick O'Brien

Professor Ruth Frick O'Brien, City University of New York, Graduate Center, 1st "professorette" nicknamed by Rush Limbaugh nickname. Ruth Frick* O'Brien & Frederic Halper* O'Brien, Dep.M.E. @ National Review *(honoring our mothers)

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