Did the Pulitzer Prize miss the season of change in the Middle East?
By Muqtedar Khan
A few days ago, I was in Ankara having a conversation with a senior advisor 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 Baghdad.”
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 this time.
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. US 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 Service (CGNews).