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American Innocence and Its Victims (Part 1)

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[See Part 2 here]  We should be somewhat grateful, I suppose, that the New York Times Book Review dedicated its back-page essay to a review of the current edition of the literary journal Granta, a special issue devoted to Pakistan. After all, literature from Pakistan deserves a wider audience in the U.S., and in addition to publishing work by Anglophone writers such as Mohsin Hamid and Fatima Bhutto, who have already gotten some attention, the Granta special issue also includes translations from the Urdu of poems by Yasmeen Hameed and Hasina Gul. In a larger sense, any consideration of Pakistan in any light other than that usually shone by the U.S. mainstream media—that is, anything that could complicate or even shift the relentless focus on Pakistan as an object of U.S. foreign policy in the context of the “War on Terror”—is to be welcomed.

The bad (but hardly surprising) news is that the Times entrusted the job to Isaac Chotiner, executive editor of the online book review of The New Republic. In his essay, “Midnight’s Other Children,” Chotiner promises us that the Granta special issue provides readers with “glimpses of a less visible Pakistan.” But his overall conclusion is the exact same message that the media has been churning out for the past few years: “Granta’s Pakistan is a country of jihadists, anti-Americanism and increasingly misogynistic and brutal forms of Islam.” So much for the transformative power of literature, at least upon our friends at The New Republic.

In reaching this conclusion, Chotiner reveals himself to be a remarkably obtuse reader. If it were only as simple as this, his article could be easily dismissed. But more important, his reading of “Granta’s Pakistan” reveals the continuing power wielded by the ideology of liberal imperialism when it comes to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia.

Chotiner’s point of comparison for his reading of the special issue on Pakistan is another special edition produced by Granta in 1997, this one focusing on India and intended to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence. While Chotiner astutely notes that both issues feature brightly-colored covers, he points to a marked difference in tone: namely, the contributions to the special edition on Pakistan lack “whimsy.”

In fairness to Chotiner, he does take some pains to suggest that identifying India with whimsy is a simplification, one that he attributes to “Americans” in general. However, his own treatment of literature published by Indian writers over the past several decades, and of India itself, is hardly more complex. He focuses upon the best-selling novels, upon the prizes and accolades, and upon the “folkloric,” “redemptive,” and “romantic” undertones of this literature, and adds that thanks to the work of Indian diasporic writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Indian experience, however foreign, has become part of the American experience.”  

All this can be chalked up to the simplifications of a bad literary critic. More significant, however, is Chotiner’s assertion that the vibrancy and power of the Granta special edition on India “was a testament both to the country’s extraordinary intellectual and artistic richness, and to one of the few legacies of British colonialism that could be unequivocally celebrated by readers in South Asia and the West: a common language.”

It is the last part of that sentence that should cause us to freeze. As in most accounts of Indian writing, Chotiner sees Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as the inaugurator of this new wave of Indian writing in English. But anyone who has actually read all the way to the end of Midnight’s Children, with its bleak vision of a nation literally torn to pieces by the lingering effects of British colonialism (especially the colonial policies that led to the traumatic partition of India and Pakistan), would be shocked to hear that the book constitutes a “celebration” of any aspect of the British colonial legacy, including the imposition of a “common language,” something that is directly critiqued in the novel.

The fact that Chotiner begins his reading of the special issue on Pakistan with this assertion regarding the supposed upside of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent is significant, for this has been a key component in the construction of our contemporary form of liberal imperialism. Unlike “old-fashioned” imperialism, there is a tacit willingness here to concede the “unfortunate” aspects of European colonialism (like slavery and genocide). More than that, there is an eagerness to celebrate cultural otherness, at least in its colorful, whimsical forms; indeed, the liberal imperialist is generally a multiculturalist, perhaps even a fan of South Asian literature. But at bottom, there is the certainty that colonialism has left a legacy—even if it is only a cultural one—that can, indeed must, “be unequivocally celebrated.”

Having established the “unequivocal” good of cultural imperialism in India, Chotiner moves to his reading of writings from and about Pakistan; in doing so, he is guided by the question of why the tone here is so much less celebratory than in the special issue on India. In a sense, his article is simply the millionth version of the questions asked obsessively by the U.S. media since 2001: But why don’t they like us? How can we understand the “anti-Americanism” represented in these writings? “Even the sympathetic characters here are full of rage at America,” he writes, using the key word (“rage”) deployed by those who wish to dismiss “irrational” anger aimed at U.S. foreign policy ever since Bernard Lewis set the template with “The Roots of Muslim Rage.”

Unlike many commentators, Chotiner at least flirts with the obvious answer to the question when he notes that “this issue of Granta forces an uncomfortably close confrontation with American foreign policy and the resentment it rightly or wrongly engenders” (we’ll return to that “rightly or wrongly” in a moment). Chotiner is smart enough not to totally ignore the damage that U.S. foreign policy has done in the region. But he is intentionally vague about the actual details of this policy. Some of this has to do with a selective reading of the Granta issue he is meant to be reviewing. He mentions “the harm done to Pakistan in the 1980s, when the American-backed dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq financed the Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Sovi”ets in Afghanistan.” But he doesn’t even begin to hint at the active role of the U.S. government in fostering “Islamist” movements as part of its anti-Soviet Cold War strategy in the region during this period, even though this is addressed by several of the Granta contributors, in particular Declan Walsh, whose long essay on the situation on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border includes a mention of a “U.S.-funded textbook [that] taught children that ‘J is for jihad’ and ‘K is for Kalashnikov.’” Similarly, Chotiner mentions the widely-reported “corruption” of the army, without any mention of the U.S. government’s current policy of blind support for the army, another point mentioned by several Granta contributors.

Chotiner is equally vague on the domestic front. Reading the two issues of Granta together, he suggests that “the starkest difference between this collection and the Indian diaspora literature of recent decades is the depiction of immigrant life.” Chotiner makes the fairly obvious observation that “Pakistani immigrants, especially in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, face challenges completely different from those of their Hindu counterparts from India.” But he again leaves the details of these “challenges” intentionally vague, since considering them would require addressing, just for a start, the subjection of Pakistanis living in the U.S., together with nationals from twenty-four other mainly Muslim nations (plus North Korea), to the so-called “Special Registration Program”; between September 2001 and April 2003, nearly 1,000 Pakistanis were deported, and an unknown number detained.

Rather than go into these sorts of details, Chotiner references the person he calls “the most famous Pakistani immigrant in America,” Faisal Shahzad, who is being tried for attempting to plant a bomb in Times Square in New York City. (“Famous” is a relative term in such a case: how many Americans, if asked, would be able to say who “Faisal Shahzad” is if they were simply given his name, if he were not identified as “The Times Square Bomber”?). The Granta issue includes a long piece on Shahzad by Lorraine Adams and Ayesha Nasir. Chotiner accuses Adams and Nasir of “glibness” in connecting the case to U.S. foreign policy, but concedes that their article “does highlight some of the harsher realities confronting Pakistani-Americans.”

Again, Chotiner simply leaves it at that, rather than describing the actual “harsh realities” documented by Adams and Nasir, in particular the infiltration of the immigrant community by the FBI and other law enforcement agents. Adams and Nasir’s article gives voice to those who have accused the FBI of actively entrapping members of the immigrant community (as, for example, in the case of twenty-four-year-old Pakistani immigrant Shahawar Matin Siraj, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for plotting to bomb the Herald Square subway station in New York City), and of actually instigating “terror plots”: “Most of these cases, the inducement part is pretty straightforward, there is inducement,” as Columbia University Law Professor Daniel C. Richman put it recently. All this seems a bit too intense for Chotiner, who simply focuses on “Shahzad’s inability to fit in.” In his preferred “whimsical” mode, this is “a theme treated with delicate melancholy in the immigrant tales of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri”; it becomes, in the Pakistani immigrant context, “less melancholy than terrifying” (terrifying for whom is not specified, but the reader wins no prizes for guessing who is meant to fear whom here).

For a literary editor, Chotiner is quite selective in his application of interpretative skills. When the Granta contributors touch on what we are already programmed to understand as the ills of Pakistani society—misogyny, for example, or religious fundamentalism—he is fully prepared to accept this as a transparent rendering of “the crueler, more vicious aspects of Pakistani society.” When the same writers represent the widespread discontent with the role played by U.S. foreign policy in fostering and maintaining this situation, however, this suddenly becomes their subjective “critique of American foreign policy.” He never actually dismisses this critique, but he wonders, as noted, whether the “resentment” is felt “rightly or wrongly.” Seizing on a piece by the Pakistani diasporic writer Kamila Shamsie, which examines a certain strand of victim mentality in a certain segment of Pakistani society, Chotiner piously asserts, in a voice of feigned innocent objectivity, “Many characters in these stories have chosen blame.”

It is this—precisely this—that marks Chotiner’s piece as a prime example of the new liberal imperialism, and that makes this larger discourse such a dangerous ideological force. Writers like Chotiner come at these issues wearing the mask of wounded American innocence, wondering why in the world these Pakistani writers “have chosen blame” instead of celebrating, like their happy Indian counterparts, the unequivocal gifts bestowed on the region by the West.

[to be continued here]



Since I wrote this piece, Graeme Smith has published an article in the Globe and Mail which provides first-hand accounts of the trauma being caused by U.S. drone attacks in northern Pakistan []

Also, on October 6, Democracy Now! aired a documentary by Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen that provides an in-depth look at FBI infiltration and, many would argue, entrapment, aimed at the Pakistani community, among other Muslim communities in the U.S.



3 comments for "American Innocence and Its Victims (Part 1)"


Glad I spotted it Anthony.excellent

John Ruggeri wrote on October 16, 2010 at 06:25 PM


test wrote on November 08, 2010 at 11:46 PM

I thought Isaac wrote an excellent review. This is such rot.

Meera wrote on January 04, 2011 at 11:37 AM

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