5 Questions with Madiha Tahir, Assistant Professor

May 4, 2023

Madiha Tahir is Assistant Professor of Critical Information Studies in the American Studies Program. She is the director of Wounds of Waziristan, a documentary on drone survivors, and co-founder of the bilingual journal Tanqeed.

Can you tell me about your research and the transition you’ve made from being a journalist to an academic?

I really came into journalism as an activist. I was involved in the anti-war movement and Palestine-related work. Journalism seemed like the next step for me because I was interested in certain questions of ethics, truth, and justice. I ended up reporting on the War on Terror in Pakistan, often on drone attacks. I realized over time that a cohort of journalists like myself—South Asian, English-speaking, some diasporic, others who grew up in Pakistan—were not the voices mainstream publications wanted to hear. When I realized that I could not tell the stories I wanted to tell, I started to rethink journalism. So I went back to school and pursued academia.

Now I’m an academic of militarism and the technology of militarism attempting to write my first book on digital war. In it, I’m thinking about questions of U.S. empire. By empire, I don’t mean the United States does things and the rest of the world obeys. Rather, I’m trying to rethink the notion of U.S. imperialism to account for the ways in which other actors—in my case the Pakistani military—pursue their own geopolitical projects in the context of the United States’ hegemony. The story of technology and militarism is a way to track U.S. empire.

One of the problems in digital war scholarship is that a lot of digital war scholarship is very valuable, but it explicitly or implicitly takes the perspective or viewpoint of the American or Western soldier, military worker, or drone operator. Even if it is anti-war scholarship, it tends to treat people who are being targeted, like Pakistanis, like Yemenis, like Iraqis, like Afghans, merely as victims of U.S. imperialism and not necessarily as sites for conceptual analytics of war itself. What I’m trying to do is say, “Let’s think about what is happening in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands. How does that help us rethink what we think we know about drones and digital war?”

How do you see the relationship between your activism and your position in academia?

That depends on what you understand activism to be. I think some people assume that activism is about pushing a particular propaganda viewpoint. But I believe the world that we live in is shaped by and through power relations. The questions for me are: Who are the marginalized? How are they constituted? What is their position? How are they impacted by power relations? How do they live? Those are not questions of propaganda. Those are questions about reality, about power, about ethics. Those are questions about living. So to me, there’s not a gap between that set of questions and asking them in the context of journalism or academia. I think that U.S. journalism in particular is very wrongly wedded to the idea of objectivity. What they seem to understand by objectivity is that all sides have a viewpoint, so we have to represent the viewpoints of all sides. But that understanding of the world is false, because all sides do not have the same say. They do not have the same amount of power to be heard. To pretend that the

United States government is just one of a number of stakeholders that is on par with a drone victim is absolutely false. When drone attacks, for instance, were being reported, The New York Times and other sorts of mainstream media organizations in the United States had no problem repeating verbatim the articulations of all kinds of military officers, including anonymous U.S. officials. But they had a lot of trouble reporting on drone survivors and what they said had happened to them. The survivors’ stories were subjected to a kind of fact-checking that the officials were not subject to.

So by activism, what I mean is taking stock of the world as it currently and actually exists, which is within a set of power relations, and not as we would like it to exist, with everybody in an equal position.

You work on South Asia but from the Department of American Studies, and critique American perspectives on empire and power in relation to the rest of the world. What is the importance of location to what you do?

There are a number of locations involved in this. I was born in Pakistan, was a refugee to the United States, where I grew up, and received my U.S. citizenship in 2010. So there’s that question of my own location vis-a-vis South Asia. And then there’s the question of my department. My project is really a project that’s trying to think conceptually about what my field site can tell us about power in the world. It’s not a descriptive project about Pakistan. So I think the American Studies Department is actually a great fit for two reasons. One is that the project is trying to think about U.S. power and its entanglement with other military and state actors. American Studies has had a transnational turn that moves beyond U.S. infrastructures to really think about the way that there are ambiguous and gray zones of power where these entanglements happen. The second thing is that because American Studies is such an open field, and very interdisciplinary, I’m able to do a project that requires ethnographic fieldwork, but also other kinds of work.

To put it more succinctly, I’m trying to think about the distributions of U.S. empire through visible and invisible networks of strong men, informants, and various kinds of security technologies, and my field site to do that right now is Pakistan—so it is a project that says something about Pakistan but also something about U.S. power in the world.

How is the process of writing your book going?

I’m learning, and I feel like I’m always learning. I’m always at the first project, and it’s always a different kind of project. So I’m learning how to write for this kind of project. There was a moment in my academic work when I said, “I’m going to be an academic and do the academic thing.” Now I’m coming back to my journalistic training, where certain questions of form are concerned, because I want this to be something that is more widely read. The second thing that I’m trying to do is write stories not just in a way where you can intellectually understand what is happening, but that can, at its best, move you or startle you or give you an a-ha moment. I haven’t figured out the magic way quite yet of how you marry those kinds of formal aspirations with the requirements of academia.

How has your experience at Yale and as a professor been?

My experience has been fabulous. I’m deeply impressed with my students. In my digital war class, they are putting together some fantastic projects that I’m looking forward to reading and engaging with. That really has been wonderful. I haven’t taught a semester-long course before, so this has been a really gratifying experience. I’ve learned a lot from my students while hearing their thoughts on the readings and the way that they tend to pick up on some things that I may have glossed over or not recognized.

Going forward, I’m really interested in collaborative work with my colleagues, not just conceptually but in embarking concretely on some projects together. I, alongside Zareena Grewal, will be Co-Director of the Ethnography Hub, an interdisciplinary formation of scholars who do ethnography at the intersection of anti-racist, feminist, postcolonial, and decolonial studies, in the coming year. I’m really excited to engage in that and think with colleagues about experimental and collaborative ways of doing ethnography. Also, we are at the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. So we’re thinking about how to mark that occasion in the coming year. The fact that I’m in this department really is a godsend, because people are welcoming and open about interdisciplinary work, including doing things that are not what one might call traditionally academic.

Byline: Daevan Mangalmurti