Monday, May 23, 2005

Beacon No. 39: Guantánamo (tr. v.) Lower the Pride, Dignity or Self-Respect Of


When the U.S. military makes a mistake—from the accidental deaths of Iraqi civilians to the Abu Ghraib scandal—both it and the rest of the U.S. government must redouble its efforts to show that a mistake is just that: an aberration not to be tolerated or repeated. It must be what Caesar demanded of his wife: that she be above suspicion. Any other path risks reinforcing the tainted view most of the Muslim world now has of U.S. intentions.

That view is now so lopsided that when a magazine like Newsweek runs a poorly sourced item about Qur'an 'abuse' in the prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, riots break out and to date at least 17 people have died. Ah, the Muslim world seemed to say, it was enough that they abused our men—heck, our own governments do that—but now the Prophet's words are threatened. Kafiya, as Egyptians are saying about their domestic politics: Enough.

Newsweek backpedaled once, then a second time. The White House condemned the magazine and prison abuse generally, forgetting that allegations of Qur'an desecration at U.S. facilities are both old and ongoing (as in Red Cross and Amnesty International reports). None of it did any good, because it didn't fit with the Muslim world's pre-existing notions of U.S. techniques and intentions.

Now a new generation is embracing this view, as Somini Sengupta and Salman Masood wrote in Saturday's Times. They report on the annual play at a private boys' school in Islamabad, Pakistan:

It didn't matter that the boys at the Lahore Grammar School, an elite academy that has sent many of its graduates to study in American universities, lived in a world quite removed from that known by most prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. The more they explored, the more the play resonated, the director of the school's production, Omair Rana, recalled Friday in a telephone interview. The detainees were Muslim, many were Pakistani and one had been arrested in Islamabad, the country's capital.

"It was something we all could relate to," Mr. Rana said of "Guantánamo," a play created "from spoken evidence" by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, a Briton and a South African, that was staged in London and in New York last year. "All that seemed very relevant, very nearby - in fact, too close for comfort."

These boys have access to many sources of information and could have put on a play about anything. But as Sengupta and Masood point out, endless photos of prisoners in shackles and orange jumpsuits have struck a chord. That one of Guantánamo's watchtowers features a qibla pointing toward Mecca and thus the direction of prayer; that Muslim chaplains minister to Guantánamo prisoners; and that mosques dot major U.S. cities matters not a bit to people who are now predisposed to think much worse things are going on away from the camera's eye.

As Donald Rumsfeld once said, the U.S. must succeed in stopping terrorists 100 percent of the time, where the terrorists only have to succeed once. The Caesar's Wife Corollary to this maxim is that the U.S. must stop creating demeaning images of Muslims 100 percent of the time—even of people who only embrace Islam when it's to their advantage, like Saddam Hussein. There mustn't be a single action or appearance of disrespect for people who are already helpless on some Caribbean island or Afghan airbase, or their religious books, or their allegedly private moments folding their pants.

Taking greater care in how already helpless prisoners are viewed makes it less likely that Qur'an desecration would lead to rioting and death in other countries, particularly those where the U.S. would like to be seen as a benefactor, like Afghanistan.

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