America in the Balance: Sex, Lies and Prison Abuse
Most Muslims admire American democracy but disapprove of what they perceive as US moral laxity, according to polls. The revelations about the American treatment of Iraqi prisoners may damage faith in democracy, and reinforce disgust with immodest behavior. The photos of prisoner abuse will shake their faith in Washington’s commitment to the rule of law and accountability. They will also strengthen gender stereotypes that Muslims have of American men and women, and the belief that America is a dangerous source of moral wickedness and sexual perversion.
Many Iraqi and other observers are now openly saying that America is a false advertisement for democracy. Others are pointing to the hypocrisy of the US going to war in Iraq to bring about an open society, but of now violating democratic norms on camera. Others will complain that the Americans toppled Saddam’s statue as liberators and then made prisoners of war into sexual slaves.
As a Muslim-American woman trained in Pakistan as an attorney, it deeply pains me to see the US constitution and the bill of rights defamed in this way. As an immigrant to this country in the 1980s, I fell in love with those documents, which seemed to me only a little short of divine revelation in their wisdom and justice.
But since September 11, I have been on an emotional roller coaster ride, frightened half to death about the survival of American democracy. It seemed to me that every day US policy climbed another rung in the ladder of hypocrisy.
Some apologists will say that these things happen in war. I agree. The problem here is that the Bush administration proclaimed that it went into Iraq with the express purpose of establishing democracy and rights, and with a promise to improve the lives of the people. The very rationale for the war has been perhaps fatally undermined.
My second concern is a gender issue. As a woman it has long been hard for me to hear from the Muslim community the often sweeping denunciations of American women. The images of Private Lynddie England prancing in front of naked, hooded prisoners will only reinforce stereotypes of American women as morally lax. In World War II, the British complained of American men that they were oversexed, overpaid and over here. Are Iraqis now echoing that sentiment more forcefully, but now with regard to both sexes?
Nobody in the Middle East is going to accept that these episodes were the mistake of a handful of soldiers. They will think that the abuse derived from racism, religious bigotry, and loss of control in Iraq. From Saudi Arabia to Turkey, no one in the region will admire America’s violation of the Geneva Conventions. In their minds, the US had over-ruled the United Nations and had gone into Iraq unilaterally. America already had two strikes against it in public opinion in the region. The prison abuse was strike three.
When Muslim males look at these pictures, they will feel dishonored and humiliated, and some may well decide that it is henceforth a religious duty to expel the immoral Americans. The photos of prisoner torture have the potential to unite Iraqis behind a new nationalist fervor, and to bring Shiites and Sunnis together. Some will wonder whether their daughters can possibly be safe from the American infidels if male POWs are treated this way.
Arabs are angered that President Bush has expressed only regrets, but offered no formal apology in his interviews on Arabic-language satellite television. His attempt to place the blame on a small handful of perpetrators reminds Muslim viewers of their own fruitless attempts to convince the American public that September 11 itself was the work of a small handful of terrorists. Many Americans never accepted the latter argument. Can we really expect Middle Easterners to be mollified so easily?
The one thing I agreed with in Bush’s interviews is that in democracies, abuses are corrected by open inquiry. The Iraqi POWs were tortured precisely because they were held in an environment where American soldiers were under orders and unable freely to critique the informal policy of “softening up” the prisoners.
America has in the past, at least, been hospitable to critical voices. Criticism can have an impact, and can produce change. But expressing it is not necessarily painless. We have heard too many voices in this country in the past three years who equated criticism to treason, and who attempted to ruin the lives of critics and dissidents. These voices may well have contributed to an atmosphere where the prisoners could be demonized and tortured.
Many Americans, especially Muslim Americans and those on the left, had faced a new equivalent of McCarthyism in recent years. America should have learned its lessons from the original episode of McCarthyism, in the 1950s. President Bush and his ardent partisans need to be reminded that our critics are our friends—they make us a better person. By critiquing one another, and listening to one another, we can make a difference in the world and protect human rights. That is the only way to exorcise the restless ghosts of Abu Ghuraib.
Shahin Cole is an independent scholar who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.