Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Easy Way of Blaming the Victims

The op-ed piece below is reprinted from the Jordan Times, Amman.

By Hasan Abu Nimah

Earlier this month, Newsweek reported that American interrogators used provocative methods, such as the desecration of the Holy Koran, in order to force Muslim detainees to release desired information. In one instance, the paper claimed, the holy book was flushed down a toilet.
This obviously inflamed sentiments all over the Muslim world. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, there were violent popular eruptions in protest and as a result, sixteen demonstrators were killed.

Newsweek, clearly under official administration pressure, finally had to retract the story and apologise for having it wrong.

Some Muslim reaction was undoubtedly severe, and this is understandable. Not only because any community would be equally enraged if its religious symbols were so badly and so deliberately treated, but also because this happened in a context of repeated American scandals related to inhumane and illegal treatment of Muslim detainees.

It is probable that anger, therefore, was more for the ongoing trend than for the incident itself. New scandals bring to light older ones, and people tend to see them together, and to react to them together, too.

The scandal of the torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib caused enormous damage to American Muslim/Arab relations. But further, repeated revelations about the treatment and, of course, torture of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Bagram prison, Afghanistan, at the hands of their US captors have been putting Washington in a very critical standing before international law. Even American justice ruled that the Guantanamo detention formula was illegal.

Last Sunday fresh news broke out about brutal atrocities in Bagram prison. “Even as the young Afghan man was dying before them, his American jailers continued to torment him,” Tim Golden wrote in the International Herald Tribune on May 21-22, 2005.

The story of the death as a result of torture of the two Afghan men Delawar and Habibullah within six days from each other in December 2002 emerged from a 2,000-page file of the US Army's criminal investigation into the horrifying case which The New York Times had obtained and reported on.

The army report ,according to the paper, indicated that many of Delawar's interrogators believed he was innocent. He was a taxi driver who simply drove past the American base with three other passengers after a rocket was fired at the base. Many months had however passed before the army knew of such details. But even after the military coroners had ruled the two deaths as homicides, military spokesman declared that the two men had died of natural causes. Like in Abu Ghraib earlier, the Bagram file “depicts young, poorly trained soldiers repeatedly abusing prisoners”, sometimes to extract information, at others as punishment by military police guards, and in yet other cases, “the torment seems to have been driven by little more than boredom or cruelty or both”.

This harsh treatment was, according to the file, routine, and guards could strike shackled detainees with virtual impunity.

Within this ever expanding context of US soldiers treating their Muslim detainees as less than animals, it was perhaps normal to view the desecration of the Holy Koran as an abstract expression of degradation and contempt to people who, in the eyes of the tormentors, deserve no better. In another report, Saman Zia Zarifi wrote in the same issue of the International Herald Tribune that “ for more than two weeks before the magazine [Newsweek] ran its story, newspapers in the United States, Britain and throughout the Muslim world published interviews in which detainees held by United States in Guantanamo, in Afghanistan and in Iraq claimed that their guards and interrogators denigrated Islamic religious symbols and in particular desecrated copies of the Koran by kicking them across the floor, tearing out pages and tossing them into toilets”.

Washington, with scandals regularly unfolding, was right to struggle to contain the damage, although not by trying to repair one wrong by committing another, such as suppressing press freedom.

This is not the view of the famous columnist Thomas Friedman, who, in his column in the same IHT which reprinted the Bagram torture scandals, apparently prefers to blame the Arab and Muslim worlds instead.

Friedman chides the White House spokesman for “excoriating Newsweek... while not offering a single word of condemnation for those who went out and killed 16 people in Afghanistan in riots linked to Newsweek report”.

He urged President George Bush that, while he should declare that any desecration of any holy book is wrong and is to be punished if proven, he should also require that the “Arab-Muslim world must also look in the mirror when it comes to how it has been behaving towards an even worse crime than the desecration of God's words, and that is the desecration of God's creation”.

Reading Friedman's thesis immediately after the IHT's report on the army file on desecration of “God's creation” in Bagram and remembering Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, I was for a moment bewildered at this terribly flawed and deeply confused logic. Who was actually desecrating both God's words and God's creation?

But Friedman's super-confidence has apparently elevated him far above the level of analysts and opinion writers, to the level of those whose word must simply be taken for granted as the final truth. He wants to know, he wrote, why Muslim spiritual leaders do not repeat his words that Islam “teaches that you show reverence to God by showing reverence to his creations”. That is absolutely right. The only difference is that those sixteen Muslim victims he mourns, who were killed for protesting the American desecration of their holy book, were killed by Muslims representing a democracy which America had just established, by a US-made puppet regime. And the carnage in Iraq, (which he also cites as proof of his “novel” thesis), condemnable as it should be, is the result of the illegal war in a country which is under US occupation. Under international law, it is the responsibility of the occupiers, the 140,000 US soldiers there, to secure the safety of all Iraqis and to preserve order.

Worst still is Friedman's reference to a “courageous Arab intellectual” who joins him in ridiculing Muslim reaction, quoted as saying: “When thousands in Afghanistan are concerned about a report in a magazine that does not reach them, written in a language that they do not speak... it tells us more about the dangers of propaganda.”

Is the message, then, that one has the right to be offended and the right to react only when the offence is made in his own language and when the magazine which carries the offence reaches him physically? And who determines that English and Newsweek are not read in Afghanistan?

This logic only adds insult to injury and is bound to aggravate even further a situation which is critically bad.

The US does indeed need to repair a lot of damage to its relations with the Arab-Muslim world, and to its standing in the world for regular violations of human rights and international law. Looking into the mirror is probably one way of doing it, but by no means the only way. Blaming the victim is always easy, but it is only bound to make the situation worse.