It is unbelievably callous and reckless of CNN to be pushing sensational and grotesque images of bearded brown men and their morbid and deathly religion at a time when the United States is living through a period of unprecedented concern and fear.
In the last few days, three Hindus and one Sikh have been shot in America, two of them fatally. Threats and bomb scares are circulating widely. This is a time when other cultures should be humanized and depicted with care by the mainstream news media.
And yet, CNN, for all its supposedly principled stand against anti-immigrant politics, is going to make Monday morning miserable and fearful for thousands of innocent people in America.
Not the allegedly anti-immigrant politicians and media. Not Breitbart, not Fox News, nor even that reckless Twitter handle that has replaced traditional press briefings. But CNN.
And, I am saddened to say, the host of the show, Reza Aslan too, who is about to do a complete U-turn from the important role he played to defuse Islamophobia in America in the painful years after 9/11 and in the heat of the Iraq war.
For the last few days, CNN has been promoting an episode of Believer with the title “City of the Dead,” and showing footage of corpses being burnt on the banks of the River Ganga. The ghoulish promos appear on social media frequently, and what is ghoulish about them is not just the brazen voyeurism towards the deceased and their families, but the total destruction of the culture of piety and respect that surrounds funeral rites.
The text in these promos spew total errors and lies as “facts,” misstating the meaning of the word “Ghats” (“a flight of stairs leading down to the river”) as “pyres,” depicting the whole city as a “giant crematorium,” and callously describing the poignant ceremony of loved ones immersing the ashes of those who have passed on into the sacred river as “dumping.” What sort of journalism is CNN doing? Or Reza, a renowned public commentator on religion and nice guy? And to whom on earth is the most sacred city of Hindus known as “city of the dead”? A complete hoax.
What promises to be even worse than the callous misrepresentation and dehumanization of a widely practiced tradition marking love to those who have gone is the episode’s planned focus on a fringe cult of extreme ascetics known as the aghoras. If the promos and reviews are any indication, American viewers from all over the land will be treated to a spectacle about bizarre, painted, ash-smeared, bearded men eating half-burnt corpses as a part of their spiritual practice.
It is one saddening reality that despite having had immigrants in America for so many decades now, a major news channel like CNN still cannot do better than the old Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom sort of story when it comes to India. But what is even more callous is the fact that CNN and Reza Aslan seem oblivious to the kind of discomfort and even danger that images like this could create for South Asians, Sikhs, Muslims and other brown people in America.
Here is a simple empathy question: would anyone in their right mind, or with a kind heart, have done a kitschy and voyeuristic program about an obscure and violent cult of Muslims on CNN in the years after 9/11? Why was Reza Aslan, a pleasant and articulate professor, welcomed as the face of Muslims in America on national TV and not some obscure hooded figure burning with fundamentalist zeal and violence? Common sense, and sheer decency, called for such a choice, and it was an apt one.
And yet, at a time when fears are high, and many people in America know so little about their diverse neighbors, a major news channel is going to peddle a shallow tale about dangerous and outlandish others.
Maybe there is some noble higher purpose that the show’s creators think they have in trying to highlight marginal religious groups and stoke liberal sensibilities and all that. But unfortunately, that is only a theoretical conceit. In truth, what CNN is perpetuating is a very racist, colonial era discourse of dehumanization and even demonization.
In the 1920s, an American writer named Katherine Mayo wrote a powerful, poisonous, and highly influential book called Mother India. The very first chapter of Mother India spends 25 lines describing in gruesome detail a woman’s body being burned in a ghat by the river in Calcutta (and includes some imaginative anatomical liberties about stealing the “navel” from the remains of the pyre). Mayo’s book was refuted by several writers in India, including leaders of the Indian women’s movement. Later, it would turn out that Mayo, an anti-immigrant and anti-labor zealot (who was at first naively supported by Indians in America who thought she would help them gain immigration rights), was more or less in cahoots with British intelligence seeking to defuse the popular support Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian freedom movement were gaining among Americans.
Mayo tried very hard to have India branded as “the world menace” and made frequent references in her book to how easily people and diseases could reach cities in the United States from India. She eviscerates all sense of humanity in the lives of Indians, reducing them to a spectacle of torture, delusion, false religion, disease, and most of all, death. She does this all clinically, in the name of science, hygiene, and civic concern.
Now, one hundred years later, an alarming moment in American political history has once again stoked fears of the other. Demagogues are labelling whole nationalities and religions as dangers to America, and criminals are feeling empowered perhaps to act on all the fears and resentments they harbor. At a time like this, media should be very responsible and not feed the frenzy with falsehoods and stereotypes of Hindus (or anyone) as death-obsessed cadaver-eating cultists.
Katherine Mayo did not quite succeed in making all or most Americans think a whole race of people were a “world menace.” It would be a shame if someone like Reza Aslan did it now.