Why does what bleeds lead?

The death of young scholars such as Regeni must be mourned for the promises that they point to, indicate and vindicate.

Activists hold placards during a memorial for Giulio Regeni outside of the Italian embassy in Cairo, Egypt
Activists hold placards that read, among other things, "Giulio, one of us and killed like us", during a memorial for Regeni outside the Italian embassy in Cairo [Reuters]

The appalling news of a young Italian graduate student being kidnapped, tortured and killed in Egypt has shocked the academic world in Europe and beyond.

“The body of Giulio Regeni,” according to a piece in The Guardian, “was discovered in a ditch in Cairo on February 2, showing evidence of torture and of a slow, horrific death. Giulio was studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge, and was carrying out research on the formation of independent trade unions in post-Mubarak Egypt. There is little doubt that his work would have been extremely important in his field, and he had a career ahead of him as an important scholar of the region.”

The horrific news raises a far more absent question about Egyptian and other Arab or Muslim students and scholars kidnapped and harmed in their own country without it being given much attention in the global media.

The more the horrific story of Regeni gets the global attention it rightly deserves, the more blatant becomes the absence of the news about his Arab and Muslim colleagues and cohorts who are in a more direct line of attack by the same machinery of murderous repression in Egypt and beyond; and yet their fate is left entirely off the global radar. Why?

What is the news?

The issue, however, is even more deep-rooted and distortive of the reality that Egyptians and other Arabs and Muslims live and experience. What about those students, scholars and social and political activists who are not kidnapped, tortured, and killed? What about them? Do they not exist; do they not carry on with their principled moral and political positions and activities? Does a young scholar, Arab or non-Arab, have to be so brutally tortured and murdered to be noticed as a marker of our political realities, social conditions, and historic circumstances?

Who decides, and by what authority? What is the news? Where did this proverbial dictum that “if it bleeds, it leads” come from, and how accurate a barometer of our political circumstances is it?

There must be a massive social basis of labour abuse, economic malady, social injustice, political tyranny in the first place for a young scholar to have lost his life trying to study it.


Such questions raise another and more structural problem of what makes it to editorial decisions in the newsroom, and the concomitant news cycles that are contingent on such questions.

Rethinking the news

The journalistic prejudice for what bleeds leads, the more violent the news the heavier the fonts announcing it, the violent theatrics of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the brute power of the military juntas, the frightful mobilisation of the counter-revolutionary forces of ruling regimes to invade countries, bomb what they call “terrorists” or else to defend mass murderers such as Bashar al-Assad all come together to cover up, camouflage, and distort a much deeper, much more enduring and much wider spectrum of grassroots changes that are happening in the Arab and Muslim world.

In these historic circumstances the old journalistic cliche of leading with the most violent news must be radically reconsidered. The real and more enduring changes affecting societies and polities, cultures and industries must take centre stage.

What is happening in Egyptian universities today; what the leading Arab scholars are thinking, researching, writing; what the ideals and aspirations of Muslim students around the world are; the way that Arab and non-Arab artists, intellectuals, critics – all of them happily alive and well – intelligently dodging the bullet of their illegitimate ruling regimes to live, to think, to paint, to write a poem or make a film, to stage a play or experiment with a new prose, and to rethink the fundamentals of civil liberties and political thought are infinitely more important than the murderous machinery of a ruling regime targeting an innocent student and cutting short his brilliant life.

The death of young scholars such as Regeni must be mourned and marked not just because of their own beautiful and short-lived promises, but because of what those promises point to, indicate, vindicate, celebrate, and anticipate.


There must be a massive social basis of labour abuse, economic malady, social injustice, political tyranny in the first place for a young scholar to have lost his life trying to study it. It is that social basis that requires much more consistent and enduring attention than a sudden tragic incident would otherwise indicate.

As an academic I mourn the vicious murder of Regeni as I would one of my own students, as I will honour the promise of his scholarly life by pointing to what his unfolding scholarship would mean for a free and thriving Egypt far beyond the control of a corrupt, incompetent, brutish, and nasty military junta that has the delusional nightmare that it is actually in control of an ancient civilisation, a deeply cultured and robust civil society, or, above all, the unsurpassed creative power of a nation.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

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