A few days ago, I was in Ankara having a
conversation with a senior adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdoğan. As we were talking, I heard a loud bang outside his
office window, as if someone had fired a gun nearby. Needless to say,
I was startled, but my friend and his assistant remained unmoved by
the noise. "[It was] just a sound bomb", he said. Apparently, things
like this often happened. We stood near the window and watched the
rushing police cars and listened to their sirens. I comforted my
disturbed heart by whispering, "Relax!, this is Ankara, not Kabul or
Explosions are a new normal in our world. Violence, indeed egregious
violence, has become such a big part of our lives that in some ways we
are even beginning to celebrate it.
Massoud Hossaini, an Afghan news photographer, was taking pictures at
a Kabul shrine on 6 December, 2011, when he too heard a loud
explosion. A few shocking moments later he was photographing a
10-year-old girl, Tarana Akbari, standing in the midst of dead men,
women and children. A suicide bomber had struck a Shia shrine in Kabul
that killed 70 people. Tarana's soul and Hossaini's camera were
eye-witnesses to this gory reality.
One of the pictures that Hossaini took of Tarana was awarded a
Pulitzer Prize. People like Hossaini deserve every reward that society
can bestow upon them for their service and bravery. The stories that
they tell today become our history tomorrow.
Yet despite its importance I do not feel that the photo deserves a
Pulitzer Prize at this moment. My feelings are not related to
Hossaini's own accomplishments but to the larger issues at play in
determining what we value.
There is a proverb that a picture is worth a thousand words. And
award-winning pictures are full-fledged narratives. Hossaini's picture
has now become another episode in the never-ending Western fascination
with the horrors of the Muslim world. I can understand that the
dramatic nature of the picture makes it a strong candidate for an
award, but the story behind the picture is unworthy of recognition at
Awards like the Oscars, Nobels and Pulitzers determine how we frame
history. These awards do recognise merit but they are also political
markers and reflect how the West wishes to understand and portray the
world. President Barack Obama's Nobel Prize for peace in 2009 is
one of those striking examples that remind us that these awards are
narratives and not just prizes. President Obama had until then done
little to earn the prize, but his victory in the 2008 elections was
seen by many as a promise that American discourse on world affairs
would change and promote peace internationally; a message reinforced
by this award.
However, in 2011, the most prominent narrative was not terrorism but
the quest for democracy. 2011 did not stand out because of Muslim
violence; indeed it was special for the collective Muslim cry for
freedom and liberation: the Arab Spring. Pictures of Tahrir Square,
full of fervour, promise and hope, deserve recognition more than
pictures of what is left behind after bombs have exploded, missiles
have landed and drones have struck.
In 2011, I think the Nobel Prize for Peace committee followed the
momentum of history by recognising the role women peace-makers were
playing, awarding the prize to Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and
Leymah Gbowee, and Yemen's Tawakkol Karman. Unfortunately, though, I
believe that the Pulitzer Prize this year missed a season of change.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Associate Professor at the University of
Delaware and Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and
Understanding. This article was written for the Common Ground News