Osama bin Laden called his journalism “neutral”. It was one among the many accolades and awards Robert Fisk, who died on October 30, received.
There are not many reporters who can claim to have covered all the major events in a strife-torn part of the world – from the revolution in Iran to those in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, covering all of the Middle East.
On a trip to California in 2005, I attended one of his lectures at Stanford University. The hall was packed with people of different shades, and they were enthralled.
A man who spent decades in Beirut, weathered dust storms, bullets and wars, had become a Messiah. He did not tell his besotted listeners what they wanted to hear; he told them what the West wanted them to hear – that the war against terror was real. It was all coddled up in minutiae. The romance of Fisk’s old-world discomfort with the internet and emails and his sitting over telex machines were all immensely charming. About how he could open the old rattlers apart and get them to start, but when his computer said, ‘disk failure’ he had to just give up, and a story was lost.
While one cannot reduce his contribution to some amazing reportage, what did he see his role as? At the lecture he mentioned how he used to believe that journalism was about being there while history was happening. Filing eyewitness accounts and writing about how Afghan refugees in Pakistan beat him up added to his repertoire, his unfailing enthusiasm and commitment to the job at hand.
However, to assume that he was in complete sync with the happenings around would not be entirely true.
While being shocked by the videos of Saddam Hussein’s rape room and torture chambers that had spectators, he did not catch the irony of himself showing short clips of these at his lectures. Saddam’s “perverted nature” merely became a classroom lesson for his audience in Ireland and America. Even worse, he said, “And it’s easy, looking at these images of Saddam’s sadism, to have expected Iraqis to be grateful to us this week. We have captured Saddam. We have destroyed the beast. The nightmare years are over. If only we could have got rid of this man 15 years ago – 20 years ago – how warm would be our welcome in Iraq today.”
The bald-faced aggression by the West meant nothing. Bush and Blair had only made “historical mistakes”; they didn’t become nightmares.
In his book The Great War for Civilization, he talked about being on a trans-Atlantic flight on 9/11. “We went around the plane together to look around for passengers we didn’t like… Of course they were all Muslims, some reading the holy Quran, praying with worry beads. They were dark skinned, they were all Muslims, they looked at me suspiciously. Because I was looking at them suspiciously I realized suddenly that bin Laden has turned nice liberal Bob into a racist. I was going around racially profiling the passengers on the aircraft. I realized that one of the purposes of the attacks of Sept 11 might have been to turn the innocent against the innocent, not just Muslims against the West.”
This was not reportage; it was blaming an event for one’s own prejudices. Fisk used terms like “Muslims” and “the West” as two very disparate but individually congealed wholes in themselves.
This passive-aggressiveness went further. Wondering about how “Hitler lasted only 12 years” and Arab rulers clung on for decades, he provided an explanation, “A patriarchal society, a religion that speaks of submission, a refusal to rebel when Western enemies are ‘at the gates’, tribalism? Or is this just a reflection of our own ‘civilisation’?”
Putting western civilisation in single quotes and referring to the Arab leaders as “these little men” was a very Fisk thing.
Sam Hamad, a Scottish-Egyptian writer, called Fisk a “peddler of propaganda” in his coverage of Syria and support for its leader against civilian rebels. “He won’t write about the children rolling tyres along the street to be burnt in order to create a makeshift no-fly zone to protect the rebels and themselves from Russia and Assad’s brutal air force.”
How did Fisk become a saviour of sorts despite the confusing, if not problematic, positions he sometimes took? Much of the elite diaspora trapped in a hyphenated identity has huge respect for the white man who appears to understand them. They seek validation for what they already know.
He was saying what the Islamic world has been saying for years: That not all of them are terrorists; that they do not want to be liberated by the West; that they are not a conglomerate of pan-Islamism; that they can handle their own conflicts.
But how many Muslim reporters would be considered “neutral” even by Laden-esque standards? How many Muslim reporters would count suspicious-looking people on a plane and later be respected for admitting to racial profiling?
When Fisk was sardonic about how the West transformed “occupied territories” into “neighbourhoods” and said that neighbours don’t throw stones at each other, he was not doing much for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict except for reducing it to the level of semantics and scepticism.
Maintaining his record of neutrality, he never voted. He remained an observer, challenging the writing on the wall, not the wall itself. In that he was, in fact, upholding its unwavering status as circumscriber of space.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey