Originally published here
“After 9/11, I dedicated myself to creating bridges of understanding between different cultures and faiths. The relationship between the West and the Muslim world seemed to especially be fraught by much misunderstanding,” says Professor Akbar Ahmed. For his latest book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Professor Ahmed focused on tribal areas: The peripheral areas between states and on the communities living between borders. Ahmed provides an exhaustive survey of tribal cultures across North and East Africa, Yemen, and Southwest and Southeast Asia. The title of the book is a metaphor; the thistle was how Leo Tolstoy described the tribes living in the Caucuses in his book Hadji Murad because, like the flower, they were thorny and prickly. The drone, on the other hand, is a symbol of globalism and the epitome of technological advancement.
In The Thistle and The Drone, Ahmed explores in-depth tribal history, culture, code of honor, and tribal Islam, an Islam that is very different in nature from more mainstream branches of the religion. Drawing on 40 case studies that Ahmed and his team of student researchers interviewed and analyzed, Ahmed couches his discussion in the dichotomy between center and periphery.
The first main finding of the book is that terror towards the West is very much perpetrated by tribal people. 90% of the 9/11 hijackers were from Yemeni tribes. The rhetoric used by Osama bin Laden and many others has always been very tribal in nature, Ahmed suggests. Thus, he says, “we [the West] are fighting one kind of war when it is an entirely different kind of war to them.” The second major point is that Ahmed believes that there is a way that the tribes can be pacified via peaceful and diplomatic means, citing the example of the Aceh in Indonesia or the relations between Scotland and England.
The central argument of The Thistle and the Drone is that “war on terror” is ultimately a war between a central government and a periphery. In Ahmed’s view, the “center” is nearly always in direct conflict with the tribal societies—a war of the state vs. its domestic antagonists, if you will. These tribal societies are often fighting against modernity or increasing encroachment upon their territories and way of life– the Rohingya in Burma, the Tuareg in Mali, or the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example. “These tribes already have turbulent relations with the central government, which has failed to bring them into the nation, and the war on terror has only exacerbated this tension.” In addition, their own fellow Muslims often look upon the tribespeople as backward as well. This central vs. periphery tension is something Ahmed sees as fixable but not through the use of drones in the war on terror. “Drones have in essence become a symbol of Western arrogance. A far cry from the surgical-precision weapons they are described as, they have devastating moral costs. We often don’t hear about what it is like to live in an area where drones are buzzing overhead all night long—how often the women and the children suffer…”
Particle Fever epitomizes the wide-eyed enthusiasm and awe of a “heck yeah, science!” sentiment we can all get behind. The documentary is a breathtaking look at one of the most significant scientific experiments in recent times and one that captured the public’s imagination like few others. It focuses on nothing less than the search for answers about the nature of our universe by looking for the smallest particle in the microverse, the elementary particle called the Higgs boson/a.k.a. “the God particle.”
Directed by Mark Levinson, a physicist, and produced by another physicist involved in the experiment, David Kaplan, Particle Fever makes grasp-defyingly big concepts such as what are the origins of the universe and how is matter created accessible to the viewer. Rather than relying on clever infographics, Particle Fever makes us understand *why* this experiment matters and makes the scientists’ mixed emotions of giddiness and apprehension feel palpable.
The film introduces us to several scientists at the CERN lab in Switzerland, where the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, resides. CERN’s “accelerating science,” motto is quite fitting. As one of the physicists in the film points out, “You know it’s big, but not until you see it do you actually understand how big.” The collider is the world’s largest machine, a 17-mile ring of magnets designed to crash particles into each other at unbelievable speeds. There is a network of 100,000 computers world-wide just to handle the data; 10,000 scientists from more than 100 countries worked on the project, including people from “enemy” countries like Pakistan and India.
The fact that there is a veritable mystery at the core of the film makes the suspense and awe all the more understandable. The search for the presence and size of Higgs boson matters tremendously because it would prove or disprove the so-called Standard Model, a theory about the nature of the universe, that could only, oh, be the end of physics as we know it. No big deal. Whether supersymmetry or multi-verse ends up being the correct model has huge implications, and as one of the scientists puts it, this could mean that he has literally wasted his entire life studying something that may not even be true. Talk about momentous!
Despite its colossal subject matter, Particle Fever remains profoundly human, from the trepidations and child-like excitement of the scientists who have spent decades working on this, to the sight of Peter Higgs crying upon the discovery of something he had only theorized about. In other words, it spans the universe from the smallest to the largest. Higgs boson, the smallest particle known to exist, is also perhaps sort of misguidedly called the “God particle,” because it is the essential building block of the universe. How apropos that to understand the grandest of the grand, one has to find the tiniest of the tiny.
Professor Christine Chin came to write her ground-breaking book, Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: Women and Migration in a Global City, somewhat reluctantly as sex work a subject she was not initially interested in and one that is fraught with contention in feminist scholar circles. “My first book was about domestic workers in Asia; my second was about global cruise ships. Even though I kept hearing about sex workers, I was not interested in conducting research on the topic initially. One of the reasons was that the debate amongst feminists on how to understand this phenomenon was divided between abolitionists and those who felt that sex workers had agency and that it was a valid choice, with the dominant perspective being the abolitionist. I did not want to get into this debate as I felt it was too binary and picking a side was incredibly limiting.”
Dr. Chin instead allowed what was coming in from the field to shape her line of inquiry—for example, news reports of immigration raids were suggesting that not all of the women in the industry had been trafficked. “I started to dig into this somewhat reluctantly, but I also saw how the literature up to this point was so rigid and so…almost morally rarefied; it was very focused on sex trafficking and I felt that there was an unrecognized spectrum of experience that could only be seen by letting the women tell their stories.”
Utilizing an ethnographic method, Dr. Chin interviewed a number of sex workers from all over the world–including Asia, the Middle East, and Russia–living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, shattering many of the prevailing views on the industry, and turning her research lens on non-trafficked women who willingly migrate to major global metropolises for sex work. Uncovering a wide spectrum of experiences, including the nature of the migration (serial, where women shuttle back and forth between home and a city vs. circular, where the women move within the global cities of a region and then move to another region), whether the workers moved with the aid of a syndicate or independently, and the motivation for their involvement in the industry, Cosmopolitan Sex Workers paints a complex picture of the structural forces of globalization at play and how the women very keenly understand and respond to them.
When I sat down with Dr. Chin to discuss her book, she outlined three of the key findings of Cosmopolitan Sex Workers. Firstly, migration for sex work is being globalized via an interconnected web of global cities that are nodes on this new frontier. For example, there are Senegalese women in Paris and Eastern European women in the Middle East—in other words, the same forces at play as a result of globalization are impacting this industry in predictable ways as well. The clients these women serve also travel to these destinations driven by the same economic motivations. Second, the common assumption that the workers are the “poorest of the poor,” is often not true. Some of the women are college graduates and/or come from middle class families. The women enter the business for a variety of reasons. For example, to assist their families, save money to start a business, get an education abroad, enjoy a certain more consumptive lifestyle, or simply earn income while travelling. These are the same reasons most workers migrate, regardless of their profession. From the women’s perspective, and the reason Dr. Chin prefers to use the term “sex work” rather than “prostitution,” sex work is work. Dr. Chin underlines the fact that doing this strictly for survival purposes is not always the case; for many of the women, this is a very calculated choice based on a careful consideration of their ability to earn income doing work that is commonly associated with—and available to–migrants, more specifically domestic work or other blue-collar labor. Sadly, the math weighs heavily on the side of sex work, which could earn them something akin to ten times as much as what they could bring in otherwise. Women’s monthly incomes (post-syndicate “taxes”) range between several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. Thus, the impetus lies somewhere between a familiar, pragmatic strategy and an imperative.
Finally, Dr. Chin reflects on how neoliberal globalization facilitates the occurrence of the relatively new phenomenon of non-trafficked sex workers. Some of the women contract with syndicates or facilitating groups—one of those syndicates is explored in-depth in the book. Morphing from a traditional Chinese secret society or a triad to a new model of a transnational corporation, it reflects the environment of the global city. Whereas organizations such as this one previous dealt in debt bondage and extortion, the newly “cleaned up” climate of the global cities rendered those feudal vestige industries obsolete, if you will. This is a horizontal organization that conducts a lot of “legitimate” business, such as investing and as a business organization also responds to the needs of its clients. What are those needs, you might ask? Predictably, fair-skinned women are in high demand, as are African women who are perceived to be “exotic” in Europe. To quote one of the members, “they want to make this a five star city; we will give them five star women.” Women who contract with such syndicates pay agreed-upon fees and a percentage of their income in return for syndicate-arrangement of their travel documents, transportation, board and lodging, and personal security. The spaces for the sex work are very varied as are the hierarchies of what was “in,” in other words: The physical characteristics of the women controlled where they could work and what prices they could command. Most of these women come into the cities under the auspices of either a tourist or a student visa. Though it deserves mentioning that some actually were receiving legitimate educations and not just using the visa status as a cover.
“The political economy of colonialism is not that terribly removed from the political economy of globalization and the sex industry illustrates that these ‘shadow economies’ are not afterthoughts or side effects but something that is inherently built into the system.”
“The political economy of colonialism is not that terribly removed from the political economy of globalization and the sex industry illustrates that these ‘shadow economies’ are not afterthoughts or side effects but something that is inherently built into the system,” Dr. Chin says. This system, in parallel with the same structural forces in place under colonialism, is highly gendered and racialized. Dr. Chin explains, “The book shows the gradations, the nuances of something that was previously thought to be very binary. I wanted to show that the women are responding, and rather astutely so, to structural forces at play. They understand the hypocrisies inherent in the system—the fact that their occupation is morally-condemned, yet at the same time, work such as being a domestic servant is so incredibly low-paying and subjects them to abuse as well.”