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Al Jazeera America allowed me to ‘speak whatever must be said’

Much has been written about AJAM’s demise but too little about what it means for inclusion in the mainstream media

February 26, 2016 2:00AM ET

Time enough in this brief hour,
Until body and tongue lie dead
Speak, for truth is living yet
Speak whatever must be said.
—Faiz Ahmed Faiz (translation by V.G. Kiernan)

Faiz, a poet who wrote in Pakistan under Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law from 1977 to 1985, catalogued in verse the misery of disappearances and crackdowns on progressive writers. Faiz was already dead when I first heard those words, driving around Karachi in my father’s car a few years after Pakistan’s return to democracy in 1986. Speaking out was risky even then, with new and surreptitious tactics replacing the visible oppressions of military dictatorship. Who spoke, who continued speaking and who survived the clampdown were crucial and complicated questions in the first breaths of a fragile democracy.

Yet it is Faiz’s words that come to me today as I write the last words of what has been a fairly regular dialogue with my readers at Al Jazeera America (AJAM), words that will be published on the last day of its online existence. In a media landscape that is fervent and ferocious, littered with deaths and births and dominated by a few giants, Al Jazeera editors gave me a platform to speak whatever must be said.

It was a coup for me. I inhabit the margins between the United States and Pakistan, living in the schizophrenia of perspectives that is familiar to all whose belonging is not tied to one location on the map. I wrote for various American publications before AJAM launched in 2013, but my hyphenated identity permitted editors to subtract from my qualification as a commentator, a word that in their lexicon rhymed with insider. The academic qualifications I amassed in the U.S. (in true migrant tradition) were unreliable tickets to entry into an American media fray in which interesting others like me are spoken for but rarely given the space to speak themselves.

At AJAM, I tried to use my moment of speaking well. In its opinion section, which will be no more after today, I dissected not just what my color and race and national origin deem permissible but also many other human stories. I wrote about the right to die, Alzheimer’s disease, the whiteness of the Oscars, anti-gay legislation in Indiana, disaster relief in Nepal, the kidnapped schoolgirls of Nigeria and polygamy in Utah. The most successful op-ed I ever wrote came in April 2014. “The white tourist’s burden” underlined how the American desire for saviordom has found a new outlet in the volunteer tourism industry. It questioned the ethics of purchasing emotional highs catalyzed by the contrast between privilege and poverty, the seductive and reductive optics of being a Nepalese orphan or a Haitian family’s “only chance.” The piece was shared more than 51,000 times and provoked responses, including one on the Room for Debate blog at The New York Times. It is now required reading at several American universities that send students abroad.

To be clear, speaking is not simply the habitation of space and voice; it is also inherently dialectical, the product of a delicate dance of intellect between writer and editor. At AJAM, I worked with David Johnson and Mohammed Ademo, whose questions and queries, instructions and exhortations helped me construct the architecture of dissent from the passion of disagreement. They were rigorous interlocutors, incisive in their questions and their cuts, sharpening my prose and pushing my work to a precision that is crucial to op-ed writing.

There are places that writers always wish to go, pieces that they always wish to write, and then there are those assigned by editors around catastrophic events in the news cycle. I wrote “Lets talk about other dead journalists” days after the attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, left 12 people dead. It is difficult to write in the shadow of such needless tragedy and even more so when an aspect of your identity is maligned as a portion of the murderous motivations. In the aftermath of grisly deaths, the facts of the massacre were fast appropriated into the easy and effortless rhetoric of cultural warfare, with Muslims always on the wrong side. The piece pointed out, only in numbers, that of the 61 journalists killed in 2014, more than half were Muslim. Muslims, too, die for speaking out, but their deaths are frequently erased from the landscape of journalistic courage.

Too little is being written about what AJAM’s failure says about American media’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in the mainstream.

I am loath to write this piece, one that commemorates a closing — a death that in some ways endangers my ability to speak what must be said. As I write these final words commemorating AJAM, the notion that commentary and critique are still the provenance of privilege and the virulent rhetoric of a rabid election campaign rages around me. Caucuses and primaries present with a flourish the workings of the weights and pulleys of the American democratic machine, its commitment to inclusion and participation. Muslim Americans are everywhere in the rhetoric but already invisible in the critique and commentary.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s call to bar Muslims from entering the United States whets his supporters’ appetite; Democratic presidential candidates occasionally remonstrate against this, but only if pressed and pushed to do so. Even when televised debates pivot on the bombing of yet another Muslim country and candidates make false but popular conflations of Muslims and terrorists, no need is perceived to include American Muslims in the conversations. Pundits and panelists, mostly white men, discuss and dissect and repeat the same harangues about an invisible Muslim enemy. The result is an acceptable form of xenophobia that is readily used to appeal to nativist instincts and create an imagined us-them binary.

Much has been said about AJAM’s demise, and a new trickle of obituaries will undoubtedly emerge between now and when the network goes off the air in April. However, too little is being written about what AJAM’s failure says about American media’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in the mainstream and what it says about the oasis in which Al Jazeera tried to grow and about the inviolability of keepers of the status quo who refuse to ration the power of critique to a select few, the privileged, the white and the male. AJAM’s demise is a victory for them.

In my inbox right now is a survey from Vida: Women in the Literary Arts for tracking the number of women, particularly women of color, in the publishing industry. I will fill out the survey as I did before, but I — as are hundreds of other writers who believe in the power of exchange across differences, inclusion beyond identity — am homeless in the present.

We must find another place to speak what must be said.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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