The journalistic doors of perception

Next week I fly to Kyrgyzstan to participate in a workshop on Central Asian Islam that’s being hosted by the OSCE Academy, and perhaps even more importantly, to talk with the neweurasia team about the future of our small but highly unique organization in these rather ludicrous economic times. Hard realities need to be confronted and even harder choices need to be made, and not only for other people’s livelihoods and professional futures, but my own.

There is some bitterness, of course. Journalism has proven to be not all that it promised — the quest for truth and justice too often replaced with the resort to spin and the hunt for audience; the ideal of “philosophy put in daily practice” frequently side-stepped by the sophistry of deadlines and an amnesiac news cycle; and for many, even the simple relief of the byline undermined by the lack of compensation. Not only is it hard to make a living as a journalist, it is hard to make a life as one.

Still, for me, as I’ve noted numerous times before, journalism brings some subtle, spiritual leavening. As a journalist, one must be prepared to suffer countless humiliations. I’ve watched as colleagues of mine from Pakistan and Turkmenistan, celebrities and respected minds in their own countries, have been reduced to writing press releases or working in night shops here in the West just to make a living, and I’ve known countless Westerners, myself included, embarrass themselves in displays of wanton self-promotion in their panicked pursuit of the much-coveted — and increasingly vanishing — staff-writer job.

Yet, as the etymology of the word “humiliation” suggests (from Latin humus, “ground; earth; soil”), the travails of journalism somehow reduce the best of us to a lower — and therefore higher — state. We grovel, and so we are closer to the savage, dirty truth of Nature; we despair, and so we are one with the World. We embody the uncertainty that has always defined human history (the frenzied denial of which has led to so many of our species’ horrific acts), and we also hint to its eventual transcendence.

I’m constantly surprised by the ubiquity of atheism among my colleagues, particularly those from the West (my Muslim colleagues tend to suffer from it less). They let the manifold little, transient realities of injustice and insecurity blind them to the Ultimate Reality that is so tantalizingly close within their grasp, much closer than It is among the politicians, much less the philosophers.

This bastard profession, with all its hypocrisies and tragedies, has nevertheless pried open some strange, sublime doors of perception for me. Whatever happens — whether I can continue with it in some fashion, or whether I must recede back into obscurity and even more pronounced insecurity — it has been a good journey.

[Photograph by Adrienne Nakissa.]

Did I just kill a revolution?

Today on neweurasia we’re running an interesting kind of exclusive about a Facebook group called “The Green Revival” (”Yaşyl Galkynyş”) that is plotting to overthrow the Turkmen government. Our blogger, Annasoltan, made contact with the group’s admin, who goes by the pseudonym “Berdi Niyazov” (spoof of Turkmenistan’s two dictators — I’ll call him BN for short). Whoever he/she is, the person has clearly read up on both the Arab Spring and previous revolutionary movements. There’s no telling how serious he/she really is, although the person plays the role well (he/she’s even vowing to start up a revolutionary committee from inside Turkmenistan).

However, should we at neweurasia have published this? As we see it, there are three possibilities as to who BN is: (a) an exile trying to bring pressure and embarrassment to the government; (b) an agent of the government engaged in some kind of data-mining scheme intended to provoke malcontents into exposing themselves; or (c) a sincere reformer truly intent upon bringing about change in his/her society.

The fact that BN chose to both publish his/her group’s platform and respond to reactions in English (albeit a very Turkmen-style English) makes us suspicious that it could be the first two options. However, what if this is just the naked, disarming sincerity of a young Turkmen far from his/her home who dreams of a freer, more prosperous Turkmenistan? The person comes across so sincerely, and when I read him/her closely, he/she sounds North American-educated, with not a little bit of liberal idealism.

That he/she is targeting students studying abroad is interesting. It’s actually in keeping with the authorities’ recent inquisition of university-age youth who have overseas experience or connections (check out neweurasia‘s coverage here and here). Whether this is part of the inquisition or a reversal of the logic of repression — the unfairly targeted are now becoming exactly what the Turkmen authorities feared to begin with — is a key question.

Here’s the dilemma with which we as a journalistic organization are confronted: have we just helped or hindered someone’s insidious scheme, or have we aided or murdered a possibility for positive change?

Both Annasoltan and my boss at Transitions Online, Barbara Frye, argue that the story is newsworthy and on those grounds alone it should be run. Indeed, I must confess that as an editor, the story was just too good to pass up and lose the scoop. Once Annasoltan discovered the group, it was almost certain we would publish the story in some fashion.

Yet, neither this nor standard journalistic procedure totally allays the concern: although BN gave Annasoltan permission to run the story and even hoped it would bring the group more exposure, uncertainty persists as to whether this would be precisely what a Turkmen intelligence officer would want. Moreover, if we assume that BN is sincere, it’s also clear that if he/she isn’t concerned about alerting the Turkmen authorities to the plot. Broadcasting via a major social network could either be a calculated gamble or part of an agent’s plan.

But I also want to know the opinions of you the readers. I’m running two polls at the bottom of this post, the first regarding what you think about this story, and the second essentially an innocent or guilty verdict for neweurasia and myself as its editor (click “Read More”). I would also like to hear from you in the comments section: in general, what do you think of this story?

There are some other important aspects, particularly in terms technology and how everyday people can inadvertently reveal the secrets of their societies. I talk about these in a separate post in this blog: “Social leaking / social whistleblowing”

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Wait for the wheel

My grandmother used to say that life is a great wheel. Sometimes it grinds you down to the mud and other times it lifts you up to the light. We are strapped to this wheel, but the point is that most times you get a second chance. You just gotta wait for the wheel.

— John Crichton, Farscape

Today is Nawrúz, the official end of the Baha’i 19-day fast and the first day of our calendar. It’s also my second since joining the faith. When I look back on last springtime, more and more it feels as though February 23, 2009 was a culmination of sorts. In the least it was appropriately symbolic, at most not a coincidence, that I joined right before the fast, as though I had to pass through a kind of death in order to be resurrected and rejuvenated. I think my friend Tony, who joined with me, has a similar interpretation.

The 2009 fast wasn’t my first. I attended a Catholic university, so I was familiar with Lent. During my long complicated romance with Islam I had undergone Ramadan numerous times. I was never successful, breaking down after only a few days, at best after two weeks. But last year was different, and not because the Baha’i fast is a week shorter. My heart had never been in Ramadan; it always felt like an obligation. For the Baha’i fast, though, I found that my heart was ready for the commitment.

Tony and I have talked at great length about the meaning of the fast for us. While many Catholics, Muslims, and Baha’is feel that the act of sustained self-denial brings them metaphysically closer to God, he and I have had no such experience. We personally reject such sudden discovery of piety; instead, of ourselves we demand consistency. As I recently put it to a Flemish comrade, “I was a screwed-up jerk before the fast and I remain a screwed-up jerk during the fast; the big difference is that now I’m starving.”

But of course that’s not the main difference. It’s perhaps surprising considering our normally mystical inclinations, but Tony and I instead find ourselves understanding the fast in worldly terms of challenge and, most of all, ethics. We see the fast as an act of solidarity for those suffering privation throughout the world — approaching the divine via His justice, not His presence. This makes sense to us because for most of the year we’re more theophanic than ethical.

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