Snapshots of the Islamic world
After 9/11, Iranian-born photographer Abbas began a seven-year odyssey around Islamic countries. His striking images and diary chronicle the spread of a new orthodoxy, from African ports to the beaches of Asia
So we move on quickly to his startling new book, In Whose Name? The Islamic World After 9/11, a collection of 173 photographs taken during 7 years of travels in 16 Muslim countries after the terrorist attacks of 2001.
The pictures show a huge range of lives being lived across the Muslim world – children playing on streets in Zanzibar, artists at work in Iran, pilgrims in Mecca, football on the beach in Yemen. But they also show victims – witting and unwitting – of violence, of religious orthodoxy. They show young men maimed in religious conflicts, mourners, graves, women and girls vanishing behind niqabs and chadors, newly liberated Shi’ite men in Iraq flagellating themselves, a man and boy fashioning a satellite dish from tin cans in Kabul, a young girl hauling gravel from a Bangladeshi river.
In the travel diary that accompanies the pictures, Abbas explains, “I was born in a Muslim country and was steeped in its culture, which helped to form the person I am: this voyage was something I owed myself.” Now a non-believer, he laments what he sees as the “intellectual stagnation” of Islam, the “arrogance” of a religion that welcomes converts but considers it lawful to behead apostates, the way many of its followers are locked in the past. At one point he discovers the writings of Henri Michaux, a Belgian: “At last I’ve found a traveller… who doesn’t feel compelled to like the inhabitants of the countries he visits.”
Abbas’s argument is not with Islam, but with the Islamists – the political ideologues who have hijacked the faith, and the jihadists who use it to justify their violence. He decries the “creeping Islamisation” he found in almost every country – the building of ever more mosques, the relentless covering up of women, the censorship, the ever louder cries of muezzin calling people to prayer.
On an Indonesian beach he photographed women and children bathing fully clothed where they used to wear swimsuits: “Here we have an entire nation turning its back on its natural element, the tropical ocean, and adopting the customs of an imperialism derived from the desert.”
These are symptoms of a more worrying phenomenon, Abbas believes. “What Islamists have lost in terms of military effectiveness – and they’re relentlessly hounded by all the states – they gain daily through the spread of Islamic influence and ideas.” Muslim governments may be cracking down on the jihadists, but they are losing the battle for their peoples’ hearts and minds. Most are appeasing, not confronting, the Islamists in their midst, he says. “Many states are encouraging this Islamisation. Why? Because they think if they can ride the tiger they’ll be safe. They forget that’s what Pakistan did for many years and now the tiger has turned against them.”
They should be waging intellectual war with the extremists, challenging their self-serving interpretations of the Koran, he argues. “It’s not just fighting the jihadists – that’s simple. You catch a few guys, you put them in prison, you kill them – that’s easy. But fighting an ideology which draws its justification from what you all believe, which is the Koran – that’s more difficult.”
Abbas was briefly held captive by militiamen in southern Iraq, but declines to discuss his experiences: “The work is enough, no?” The only picture of himself in the book shows his face in a car mirror with a camera obscuring it.
For the record, he was born in Iran 65 years ago, and emigrated to France with his parents while still a boy. As a young photographer he covered the wars in Biafra and Vietnam. Later he worked in other hotspots – Bangladesh, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Cuba, Chile and South Africa. More recently he has spent years at a time working on photographic essays – on Mexico, the Iranian Revolution and, from 1987 to 1994, on the resurgence of Islam.
He was in Siberia, photographing shamans for a book on animism, on September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Centre was destroyed 13 time zones away.
Three days later, on television, he saw a young British man of Pakistani origin yelling, “This is how every Muslim should die,” as he left a London mosque. A year later he visited Ground Zero and saw a cross that workmen had erected from steel beams salvaged from the rubble. It was, he says, “as if the workers who erected it wanted the world to know that it is not only their country that has come under attack but also their culture, their religion and their civilisation”.
At that point Abbas abandoned his animism project to try to answer the more pressing question: how would the umma – the world community of Muslims – react to the jihadists in their midst? The answer, he suggests, is that too many people are burying their heads in the sand.
Abbas expects In Whose Name? to be banned, officially or unofficially, in many Muslim countries. That is sad, he says. “My book is not meant for the West. I am telling Muslims, even intellectuals, to wake up. They are the ones who should read this book and look at the photographs.”
PHOTO GALLERY – JOURNEY INTO ISLAM