2016-06-30
The images of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by American soldiers are painful, hurtful, and agonizing. They strike at the very heart of decency and humanity. And yet they are not unexpected or isolated developments, but rather a continuation of twenty years of American foreign policy centered on dehumanizing Muslims.

The irony is inescapable: The American and British soldiers who are in Iraq-so we are told-to "liberate" the country and bring "freedom" and "democracy" are humiliating, violating, torturing Iraqis. To add one more layer of irony, all of this takes place in the very same Abu Ghraib prison where some of Saddam Hussein's worst atrocities occurred. Similar atrocities, same site, different abusers. And we act shocked and surprised that the whole world, including Muslims in this country, have not, do not, and will not buy this war as a "liberation"?

There is much to be said about this atrocity. And it doesn't come only from Muslims like myself. Some of the strongest condemnations come from human rights organizations.

Amnesty International said it "has received frequent reports of torture or other ill-treatment by Coalition Forces during the past year. Detainees have reported being routinely subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during arrest and detention. Many have told Amnesty International that they were tortured and ill-treated by U.S. and UK troops during interrogation. Methods often reported include prolonged sleep deprivation; beatings; prolonged restraint in painful positions, sometimes combined with... prolonged hooding... Virtually none of the allegations of torture or ill-treatment has been adequately investigated by the authorities."

Human Rights Watch has correctly pointed out that this is not an isolated case of a half-dozen soldiers "behaving badly," but rather one tied to a pattern of indifference and lack of accountability. As Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW, puts it: "The brazenness with which these soldiers conducted themselves, snapping photographs...as they abused prisoners, suggests they felt they had nothing to hide from their superiors."

According to the New York Times, "the theory that these horrific acts were committed by a few renegade soldiers has been undercut by charges that the men and women shown in the pictures were actually working at the direction of military intelligence officers." And Seymour Hersh published a thorough and shocking investigative piece in The New Yorker.

Clearly, these brutalities violate international agreements, including the 13th article of the 1949 Geneva Convention, which states: "Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach of the present Convention. . Likewise, prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.

As it might be expected, these images have brought out cries of anguish and frustration in most of the Arab and Islamic world as well. These stories, which have come to dominate outlets such as Al Jazeera, have merely confirmed the worst suspicions of people in the regions about American claims to fostering human rights and democracy.

These methods of torture and humiliation would be immoral and illegal if applied to any human being, male or female, Muslim or non-Muslim. But they seem to be especially designed to bring the maximum amount of humiliation to Arabs and Muslims.

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.

In the last 20 years, we Americans have had a singular obsession with the "Hitler substitutes"-Qaddafi, Khomeini, Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and so on. It is as if there are no real people in the Middle East, no beating hearts, no mothers clutching their children, no ordinary human beings going about their everyday existence. It is as if in discussing the Middle East we can't see past the stereotypes and slogans-"the terrorists," "Islamic fundamentalists," oil, "threat to Israel," and others. Once we fail to engage any group of people as human beings, it is easy to justify bombing them, imposing sanctions on them, even raping and torturing them.

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.