“god is greatest,” and the question of the legitimate use of images of atrocities

I attended a conference in Berlin as audience where the language of the conference was English and most presenters were graduate students from the research institution which organized the conference. One of the presenters showed a video clip from a street footage of an atrocity that took place somewhere in North Africa, which could have taken place anywhere during an upheaval. The video was taken with a cell phone by a bystander and posted online, and since it stirred indignation in the society, it became known to those who follow news from North Africa and popular uprisings. Suffice it to say that the main language in that region is Arabic. I won’t give details about the video or its specific content because I want to discuss something else, about the situation of seeing the video in a setting where one is supposed to take things calmly and analyze them and not respond affectively. (After all, no one in the audience stood up and shouted in protest.) And it is possible to find many other images from recent years that could have evoked a similar meditation to which I’m providing here.

First of all, what first struck me was that a video that was showed the moment when a person was being murdered could be shown and watched in public, at a gathering as a material for academic study, to be subjected to analytic scrutiny. As I was watching the video, I was wondering if such a screening should have been introduced with a trigger warning, which is normally done in the north Atlantic English-speaking forums of research. And what kind of a warning would be appropriate for such a screening? Furthermore, why exactly are we watching this video? What are the justifications for watching it, I mean? Would not it be enough to describe the incident in words, and the footage as well, if the main topic is that this is a witness footage? Why is the audience asked to watch a crime? What can be the justification for making others watch an atrocity? Since this footage has the potantial to serve as an evidence of an atrocity in which human beings are subjected to violence that also shows the humiliation, the dehumanization that was taking place, in which that incident was a horrific example of that, isn’t it also indignifying to those in the video to watch them be humiliated, treated as objects, as a matter and not as humans? When is it OK to watch acts of humiliation of others? In which contexts, for what purposes?

During the panel, I felt that we as audience, as participants to this act of watching, neither were we prepared nor were we provided with the reasoning for watching this video. Maybe it doesn’t seem likely that us thousand kilometers and years apart watching this video may hurt those in the video, or harm them in any way, but I am not so sure about that. The millions around the world have taken to the streets for months on, risking their lives, for a single unifying value: dignity. Yes, the word is complex and means many things, like being able to provide for one’s family, having access to impartial legal processes in case of injustice, and many other very specific and not so abstract things. So, regardless of temporal and spatial distance, watching someone at the moment in which s/he is dehumanized, in which s/he loses his/her life, is not irrelevant to that person, to that person’s humanity and dignity. We, as audience, become connected to that person by witnessing this moment of their lives. And since that person is a victim, here s/he is dead as a result of the crime we watch on the video, that person is not able to tell us if it is fine for them to have us watch this video or not.

Of course, it makes a whole lot of difference how the presenter presented this video and incorporated it to their talk. Depending on that, we could ask further questions as well: is the video presented as an example of a certain type of witnessing? A certain type of atrocity? Is it presented in the context of discussing the power of images and their effects on the society? Or, rather in relation to its informative and aesthetic qualities?

Similar questions can be asked about photographs of crimes and atrocities as well. What is the appropriate form of making use of photographic images in the contexts of research and learning? This type of images were either taken by journalists for the aim of propagating them, or by witnesses, citizen journalists, who make them public in order to show their fellow citizens and the world, to inform them and to provide evidence, and stumbling upon them through a news outline, on social media, or online archives, regardless of the temporal and spatial distance still fulfills this primary function of the image: to inform and evince. And to attest: this happened! And as viewers, we become witnesses: yes, it happened! But when the images are recontextualized, when they are inserted into an academic setting, a narrative, a series, an exhibition, they enter into another semantic relationship with other (linguistic, visual, institutional, architectual, epistemic, etc.) elements. Even when they do not lose this force of attestation, this force, or the fact that they attest is brought to another meta level, like the Latin sentence Barthes gives as an example of recontextualization: “quia ego nominor leo” (because my name is Lion) in his Mythologies (1957). Instead of saying what the sentence says, or rather while saying it, because it can say it, it becomes an example of a particular Latin grammatic structure. The meaning and the function is not negated nor emptied, but it is surpassed by another level of meaning, or rather, hijacked for the sake of another function.

The context that I am discussing about that video is its usage in an academic setting, which led me to ponder on the limitations and justifications of using such images of atrocities in different contexts and settings. But I will leave that line of meditation aside for now.

The other thing that bothered me about watching that video during that conference was the disjunction between the diegetic semantic field of the video, that is to say, the meaning of the words uttered in the video, and the lack of their resonance during the screening. Of course, this is what I imagined to have taken place, because how can one be sure of what others understand or do not.

So, people in the video, who are witnessing the death of a fellow citizen, are reacting to this murder in fury, exclaiming and expressing their indignation in Arabic, and repeating the words “God is the greatest” (Allahu akbar) in Arabic. Even though there is English subtitles, it is not really possible to translate these words to another language as the connotation of these words is impossible to compass in few words. So, while those in the video were crying out, repeating the same words over and over “allahu akbar, allahu akbar”, for me these words, known as Takbir in Islam, meant so many thing all at the same time even though I don’t speak Arabic yet I grew up a Muslim and I am familiar with Islamic teachings, and the mystic philosophical traditions of Islam in which the non-orthodox meanings of these words are in circulation. So, while I may not know exactly what those in the video clip were thinking at the time when they were shouting out in desperation “Allahu akbar”, I felt that the semantic intersection of all those possible translations that I would provide was much larger than those sitting at the conference room could, who most likely grew up in a society where Muslims are not in majority, and the general public here in the Western countries is not well-informed about the Islamic faith. Of course, this is my imagination. I cannot know what something means to others. But I felt that these words did not resonate much to those in the room and maybe that was the reason why the video may had not created as much affect on them as it had on me. Because, as I was watching the video, I thought about the videos and news coverage in the West that appeared in recent decades in which these words appeared the most: the coverage of Islamist fundamentalists where they utter these words before or after committing heinous crimes in the name of their religion. Or, during street protests against the Western military interventions. Many more recent iterations of these words in the Western news media and fictional works were taking place when a jihadist was uttering these words as their last words before committing a suicide attack. I felt that that imagery of these words hijacked other possible and coexisting meanings of these words for those people sitting at the conference in Berlin, who didn’t grew up a Muslim, or were not aware that these words mean a lot of things at the same time. Yes, of course, God is the greatest, but also no one is God. That is, only God is the greatest, which means, no human being is above any other human being, no king, no queen, no ruler, no patriarch, no president, no monarch, no state. Not even one’s father or mother. God is the greatest and only God can judge, and only God gives life and takes life and no other has that right. And it is the greatest blasphemy in Islam, any time, any where, to equate oneself with God and to assume the powers and rights that are only God’s. Or, to suggest or assume any one else has those powers. Of course God is the greatest, because only God is not created and it is God who created all that exists and all that can exist. And when people say that only God can give life and only God can take life, it is not only about the ability to give life, but also about a right, about jurisdiction. As in the symbols of alpha and omega in Christianity, God is the beginning and the end, everything comes from God and ends at God, and only God knows why. And so when they shouted “God is the greatest,” they were shouting in indignation, in protesting a violation, that was also a violation of the teachings of Islam, and against the words of God, and how can a human being do such an atrocious thing to another human being, between the soil and the skies, on this earth, among other beings, among living things and among inanimate things that are all created by God. Because, how can that be? How can that be?

That’s what I heard when they were shouting “god is the greatest” over and over again, for minutes on. And none of that had the slightest hint of the self-righteousness that reigns over the dominant imagery of those words, with which those in these parts of the world are more familiar, uttered by those wearing suicide vests.

mosaic video still

The question of the legitimate use of images of atrocities needs to be addressed with more examples of recontextualization. I hope to do that in some later posts.