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.
We have been sold a war that is predicated on not engaging the humanity of people, of not seeing their corpses and their suffering, and even not seeing our own dead soldiers' names and faces on the airwaves. Dehumanizing is a virus that eventually contaminates all of us.
We have to be clear about this point: It is not up to us to "humanize" Iraqis. One can only humanize something that is not already fully human. The Iraqis, exactly like us, already possess their full, God-given humanity. If we have failed to see and interact with Iraqis on a human level, if we have not listened to their cries, seen their tears, mourned their deaths, it is because they have been presented to us as inhuman, subhuman, or nonhuman.
The task for Muslims and indeed all human beings who oppose the violence of the U.S. military is to also speak up against the culture of violence that now pervades segments of Iraqi society, a violence that is unleashed against UN workers, fellow Iraqis, and yes, American soldiers. Our task is to do more than condemn, but rather work with Iraqis in finding a non-violent way of voicing their righteous rebellion against the American occupation.
In speaking against both of these forms of violence, we recall the Qur'anic injunction that notions of social justice (`adl) and spiritual excellence (ihsan) are indeed connected. May we bring some healing into this much-fractured world. May that healing begin with you and me, at this very moment. Amin.