Torture Existed Before Abu Gharib, But Why
When the Abu Ghraib prison abuse crisis exploded, I analyzed the
reactions coming from the Arab World. In an election year, the stakes are
high for all parties involved. Each side wants a convenient "truth". The
Bush Administration talked about "bad apples." While on the offensive, the
opposition talks of a "systemic problem."
President Bush went on Arab TV, while his opponents rushed to speak on
behalf of the "humiliated Arab world." But as General Abuzeid put it since
Day One, it sounds as if "the issue is making more noise in the U.S. than
in Iraq." In fact, the Arab-speaking General got it somewhat right. We in
America, were more concerned about "our" image than about the actual
incidents themselves. The Arab World obviously reacted, but not exactly as
many politicians fantasized.
When I asked individuals from different Arab countries what would they
think about Bush's outreach, answers varied. Everybody was sickened by the
ugliness of the pictures, but beyond the graphics there were two types of
The anti-Americans were not difficult to guess. With al Jazeera's
incitement, natural anger mutated into hysteria. Suddenly, religion was
cited heavily. Very few made a distinction between the psychological
illness at Abu Ghraib and the future of Iraq. Actually, the Jihadist
networks found a lethal political weapon and exploited this all the way.
They think they caught America by its mentally weakest soldiers. More than
sanctions against the guards, they want to flush the American-led
Coalition out of Iraq, and Bush out of the Oval office. In this Jihad "home
run," the architects of the Abu Ghraib crusade against "U.S. immorality"
enlisted European elites too. The oil chained establishment from Paris to
Berlin is wailing. Manhattan's U.N. is mourning.
But there are other people in the region who see the crisis through a
different lens. In Beirut, amazement was mostly about George W. Bush
addressing Arab TV. Lebanese were certainly disgusted by the aired images
but they were stunned by the fact that a U.S. President was "talking" to
Arab citizens. The region is infested with worse ugliness than the prison
scandal, yet no one can remember any Arab leader addressing his people
"Our dictators never showed up on any media, at anytime, for any
picture" said many Syrians, "despite 28 years of horrors in their
detention centers." Thousands of citizens were tortured in al Mazza, the
Syrian equivalent of Abu Ghraib, yet no one lifted a finger. Many in the
region have their own horror pictures, but who will publish them as long
as no Americans were involved?
From Iraq, other voices blasted the media: "What was happening in the
same cells of Abu Ghraib under the Baath defies human logic. The awful
photos of today would be only appetizers," said Saddam's survivors. "We
have pictures, we have documents, but that won't please your elites."
These survivors invited the world to visit the mass graves, to see
piles of corpses, but to to avail. Shiites are cheap, unless they join the
anti-American chorus. Their pictures won't make it to BBC, let alone the
Arab networks. Southern Sudanese repeated that one million blacks were
decimated. They have pictures of naked African men, women and children
taken into slavery. Their problem is that were not taken to Abu Ghraib
The list is long, but the pattern is one. Deep down, Mideast underdogs
know that the pornographic scandal in the U.S. manned prison was hijacked
by the bullies of the region.
Under their dark skin, the victims of the region's systemic horrors know
very well that, with few exceptions, America's political culture is the
anti-thesis of all the political ideologies of the region. Despite the
ugliness of Abu Ghraib pictures, the Arab World needs to send those uglier
pictures from the region's concentration camps. It needs to uncover the
truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth, everywhere in the region.
Maybe the evil done to prisoners in Iraq, will uncover the wider evil
in the whole region?
Walid Phares is a professor of Middle East Studies and an expert on
the Arab World. For more information, visit