Stripped of Their Humanity

The abuses in Iraq are just the latest in a long-standing pattern of dehumanizing Muslims.

BY: Omid Safi


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Islamic societies place a great deal of emphasis on public modesty. It is very common for men as well as women to wear long pants and long sleeves and otherwise modest attire. The stripping of people from these societies is in and of itself offensive and shameful-and that seems to be the very intention of such practices.

Far more offensive are the simulated acts of oral sex, masturbation, rape, and staged homosexual activity, all of which are crafted to inflict the most profound humiliation on human beings for whom honor and shame are powerful ethical concepts, and where the majority of the population understands Islamic law to forbid nudity and homosexuality.

In short, these hurtful violations are aimed at stripping human beings of the very core of their dignity. And in the background, we have the cruel smirks of American and British soldiers, men and women, enjoying the spectacle. It is not just the Iraqis who have lost their dignity: the soldiers who participate in and condone such practices have also stripped themselves of their own dignity and humanity.

This is of course the fundamental reality of our shared human existence. As Martin Luther King said so beautifully, "All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny."

Yet refusing to see Iraqis as fully human is just the latest in an ongoing pattern of such denial. So far the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted in civilian casualties far greater than that of September 11th. Yet the loss of these lives has hardly been acknowledged by the American media or government with the same respect with which we have treated the loss of American life-both military and civilian. the Associated Press estimates the number of Iraqi civilians who died in the first month alone of the 2003 war at 3240. Independent evaluations of the Iraq casualty count put the

total number of civilian deaths

so far at between 9,058 and 10,914. When pressed to explain such a high number of civilian deaths in a war that was represented as being conducted through "precision targets" and "smart bombs," General Tommy Franks responded: "We don't do body counts."

For American Muslims this callous disregard for Iraqi civilians, coupled with the pomp and circumstance which surrounds the rightly joyous occasion of rescuing American prisoners such as Private Jessica Lynch, can only be explained as arising out of the different worth attached to American lives as opposed to Muslim lives. It is this much-resented double standard which Muslims in both this country and beyond see as an unspoken and unjust aspect of American foreign policy.

As much as I hold Bush and his neoconservative advisers responsible for this cruel disregard for human life, it is important to acknowledge that these policies started more than a decade ago and continued under Bill Clinton. A huge number of Iraqi casualties, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, came as a result of the U.S.-enforced sanctions on Iraq which led to so many perishing from lack of food and simple medicine. The epitome of this disregard for human life in Iraq was the conversation on May 12, 1996 between Madeline Albright and the "60 Minutes" reporter Lesley Stahl. Stahl asked Albright, "We have heard that a half-million children have died...I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And-and you know, is the price worth it?" Albright responded: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price-we think the price is worth it."

This puts the horrifying images of abuse from Iraqi prisoners in perspective. They are not completely novel developments but part of this longer pattern of dehumanization.

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