Talking about torture

On Sunday afternoon, I marched in downtown D.C. behind rows of black-hooded figures in orange jumpsuits, holding a sign that read, “Torture is always wrong.”  I was part of a procession commemorating the “National Week of Action Against Torture, Guantanamo, and the NDAA,” and the mock-prisoners walking ahead of me represented the many victims of torture who have suffered at the hands of the US military.

June 24, 2012

Torture is not a new phenomenon in war and conflict, but in recent years, its use by the US military and government has increased tremendously.  As a result of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military has built prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Afghanistan (e.g. Bagram), and Iraq, where many foreigners have been detained for years without trial and have little hope for release.  Even children, like Omar Khadr, an Afghan boy who was only fifteen when he was captured, have been imprisoned in Gitmo for the last ten years.

Despite promises that previous and current administrations have made to refrain from torture, those in Guantanamo and other US military facilities around the world have been subjected to electrocutions, beatings, sleep deprivation, and humiliation.

Murat Kurnaz, a German Turk studying in Pakistan who was detained by Americans at Bagram and eventually sent to Guantanamo, describes the torture techniques he endured after being interrogated about the “whereabouts of Osama bin Laden:”

During their interrogations, they dunked my head under water and punched me in the stomach; they don’t call this waterboarding but it amounts to the same thing. I was sure I would drown.  At one point, I was chained to the ceiling of a building and hung by my hands for days. A doctor sometimes checked if I was O.K.; then I would be strung up again. The pain was unbearable. (NYT)

For many of us, the immorality of torture is unquestionable.  Harming another human being, through physical torture or coercion, is morally disgusting.

But despite the immorality of torture, we must wonder, is it effective?  Doesn’t torture work to get information that will protect our country from terrorism, and don’t the ends often justify the means?

Matthew Alexander, a former US interrogator in Iraq, answers this question in his must-read book, How to Break a Terrorist.  He writes how he used “brains, not brutality” while interrogating terror suspects in Iraq, and thus tracked down the most dangerous man in the country, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

He describes the tension that existed among his fellow interrogators—one group was convinced that the old ways of intimidation and humiliation (asserting power over and breaking down one’s detainee) would succeed in producing information; the other group, Alexander’s, was convinced otherwise.  By building rapport with detainees, and showing respect for their culture, religion, and background, Alexander could establish trust, and was consequently able to more easily pry for information.

Not only does Alexander’s book argue successfully for the effectiveness of avoiding torture and coercion in interrogation, but he also reminds us that even those guilty of horrific crimes are people, full of contradictions.  One detainee, who ultimately confesses to building bombs for al-Qaeda, writes a love letter to his wife from prison.  “You will always be the first star in the night sky, my love.  I would endure ten thousand lashes to just to see your face again,” he wrote, “I am so sorry for everything that I have done” (Alexander, 130 – 131).

Alexander writes that while terrorists can’t be excused from the violence they committed—no matter the circumstances, their actions were wrong and punishable—, their motives for embracing terrorism are often complicated.  Many of the Iraqi detainees, Alexander describes, were motivated to join al-Qaeda not because they shared the group’s ideals and goals, but “out of economic need and out of fear” that their families would face reprisals if they did not join (220).

How to Break a Terrorist shows Americans what interrogation could look like if we abandon torture and coercion in dealing with foreign “enemies.”  I put the word “enemies” in quotations because not all those detained by the US military are enemies of America.  More often than not, detainees, like Murat Kurnaz, are the victims of bogus detainment operations, driven more by racism and sweeping capture policy than sound intelligence.

And, in recent years, the “enemies” that the US has detained haven’t simply been foreign ones.  Increasingly, US citizens have been detained without initial charge or trial and tortured. Many of the victims’ crimes seem to have simply been the exercising of free speech, or being a convenient scapegoat in a post-9/11 era defined by paranoia and fear.  Sami al-Arian and Ahmed Abu Ali, who have both experienced torture and indefinite detainment in the US, are two Ameircan citizens who have suffered US-sanctioned injustice often tinged with the influences of Islamophobia.

I’ve written about other American victims in the past, in my post “Why you should care about the National Defense Authorization Act” in which I describe in detail a problem that former President Jimmy Carter explains so succinctly:

Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces,” a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the [Constitution]. (NYT)

At the time al-Arian and Abu Ali were detained, these practices were illegal—but that didn’t stop the government from using them.  The legalizing of them, then, likely means that more al-Arians and Abu Alis will be subjected to these injustices.  At the rally, we were marching for the repeal of the NDAA’s clauses that violate our constitutional guarantees and, more importantly, our collective American conscience.

To me, what is almost more appalling than the injustice itself, is that Americans are virtually ignorant of the problem.  As we passed tourists at the rally, one onlooker said to me: “It [torture] happens to us too, you know.”

Her short statement implied a few things: 1) that we, the protestors, were only concerned about foreign torture victims at the hands of the US, and not about our own, who have endured harsh treatment all over the world, in places like Vietnam; and 2) that we should meet torture with torture—“Why should we stop torturing, if our enemies will continue torturing our people?”

I wanted to answer her, “Yes, I know torture happens to us, as Americans, too, and that’s why we’re marching.”  She didn’t know that many, many Americans suffer torture at the hands of our own institutions, which should uphold the values they claim to possess.

So, once again, I want to reiterate a message that seems to constantly reappear in my writings: that ignorance of injustice is our biggest enemy.  I hope the few words I’ve provided here about torture and America’s complicity in it begin to chip away at that ignorance, which is the first enemy that must be broken.

Why you should care about the National Defense Authorization Act

*This is a long post.  But its length reflects the importance of its topic.  I hope this discussion communicates the complexity of the NDAA and the significance of the law’s implications.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was signed into law by President Obama on December 31.  This bill is passed yearly to determine the budget for the Department of Defense, but this year it also contains short but sweeping provisions that affect ordinary Americans and expand the scope of the executive branch’s power.  Civil rights groups, military officials, and others have expressed concerns about this law, fearing that it infringes on the rights of Americans and hampers America’s ability to fight terrorism.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): This law “contains harmful provisions that some legislators have said could authorize the U.S. military to pick up and imprison without charge or trial civilians, including American citizens, anywhere in the world.”

Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com: “It will be the first time that the United States Congress has codified the power of indefinite detention into the law since the McCarthy era of the 1950s.”

New York Times Editorial: “The measures… will strip the F.B.I., federal prosecutors and federal courts of all or most of their power to arrest and prosecute terrorists and hand it off to the military, which has made clear that it doesn’t want the job.”

These criticisms of the law seem outrageous and scary, if they are indeed true.  As I hope to explain clearly through this Q&A-style post, these claims about the NDAA are true, meaning that we, as Americans, have lost some of the basic rights that make our country the free place we believe it to be.

1) What exactly do the NDAA’s “harmful provisions” say?

Sections 1021 and 1022 are the provisions that concern the ACLU, the New York Times, Glenn Greenwald, and me.

Let’s look at the first section (p. 265)  It authorizes the president and armed forces to detain the following people:

These individuals can be detained indefinitely without charges or trial, until the end of the War on Terror:

Now let’s look at Section 1022 (p. 266), summarized by Glenn Greenwald, the Salon.com columnist and former constitutional and civil rights litigator:

“[Section 1022] mandates that all accused Terrorists be indefinitely imprisoned by the military rather than in the civilian court system; it also unquestionably permits (but does not mandate) that even U.S. citizens on U.S. soil accused of Terrorism be held by the military rather than charged in the civilian court system (Sec. 1032).”

Here’s the text from the provision specific to US citizens:

2) Why are these provisions problematic?

Let’s look at the portions that were highlighted above by Greenwald.

Substantially supported;” “associated forces”:  These phrases are extremely vague, and can be interpreted widely by those enforcing the law: the president and the military.  How can one determine what “substantially supporting“ a group means?  (See Question 8 for a more detailed discussion on this point.) How can one determine if a group is “associated” with al-Qaeda?

This broad language was likely intentional, written to bring the law in line with the Obama and Bush administrations’ post-9/11 policy of indefinitely detaining individuals without trial.  (See Question 6 for further discussion.)

Without trial until the end of hostilities”: The line doesn’t need much elaboration.  A detainee held without charges and trial doesn’t need to be released until the end of the war, in this case, the War on Terror. But how do we know when the War on Terror has been won?  When all terrorists are killed?  When anti-American sentiment has been quashed?  (In my opinion, more American military action yields more anti-American feelings and contributes to the creation of terrorist groups.)

Military custody”: Those detained are not held by civilian law enforcement, but by the military, no matter if they were captured in a war zone or an American neighborhood.

The requirement to detain a person…does not extend to US citizens”:  This new law affects both foreigners and American citizens.  Foreigners must be held by the military.  US citizens are not required to be held by the military, but the option is still there.  This means that Americans are not protected from indefinite detention.  They can be subjected to it without formal charges for their supposed support of terrorism.

It is important to note that, under existing American law, even non-citizens are guaranteed the right to a trial.  The NDAA strips away that right as well.

The full issue is a long, complicated one, and Glenn Greenwald has done a good job answering it in his article, “Three myths about the detention bill.”

3) Indefinite detention seems wrong.  Don’t we have laws that should protect us from that?

Yes, the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.  The fifth guarantees due process, and the sixth a speedy and public trial.

4) This talk of indefinite detention rings a bell.  Has Congress passed a similar provision before?

Yep.  Glenn Greenwald:

“This is the first time indefinite detention has been enshrined in law since the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when — as the ACLU put it — “President Truman had the courage to veto” the Internal Security Act of 1950 on the ground that it “would make a mockery of our Bill of Rights” and then watched Congress override the veto. That Act authorized the imprisonment of Communists and other “subversives” without the necessity of full trials or due process (many of the most egregious provisions of that bill were repealed by the1971 Non-Detention Act, and are now being rejuvenated by these War on Terror policies of indefinite detention).

5) I heard that President Obama was going to veto this law.  Why did he threaten to veto and then change his mind?

Initially, the Obama Administration objected to a portion of an earlier draft of the bill that would exempt accused US citizens from mandatory military detention.  Why would it urge the drafters to take out this portion?  Greenwald and many argue that the administration wanted to increase its own power to determine who and how is detained.  Greenwald:

“This was an example of the White House demanding greater detention powers in the bill by insisting on the removal of one of its few constraints (the prohibition on military detention for Americans captured on U.S. soil). “

The current version of the law—the one that passed and was signed by Obama—has the new provision I mentioned in Question 2: US citizens aren’t required to be detained by the military, but they still can be.

Greenwald: “Those changes were almost entirely about removing the parts of the bill that constrained his power, and had nothing to do with improving the bill from a civil liberties perspective. Once the sole concern of the White House was addressed — eliminating limits on the President’s power — they were happy to sign the bill even though (rather: because) none of the civil liberties assaults were fixed.

6) Didn’t the Bush and Obama administrations indefinitely detain Americans before this law was passed?  How does this law change anything?

In practice, the law changes little.  Obama, like Bush before him, claims that the president possesses the authority to detain Americans indefinitely.  (See Question 7 for more details.) These administrations have detained many Americans (and even more foreigners) without charges and held them.  This law only codifies this practice into law—protects it—and that’s what is scary and dangerous.

7) What gives the President and the military authority to indefinitely detain people?

According to Bush and Obama, the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), which was passed by the Congress just days after September 11, 2001.  Here’s an excerpt from the AUMF:

Greenwald: “…First the Bush administration and now the Obama administration have aggressively argued that the original 2001 AUMF already empowers them to imprison people without charges, use force against even U.S. citizens without due process (Anwar Awlaki), and target not only members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban (as the law states) but also anyone who “substantially supports” those groups and/or “associated forces” (whatever those terms mean). That’s why this bill states that it does not intend to change the 2001 AUMF (even as it codifies far broader language defining the scope of the war) or the detention powers of the President, and it’s why they purposely made the bill vague on whether it expressly authorizes military detention of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil: it’s because the bill’s proponents and the White House both believe that the President already possesses these broadened powers with or without this bill. With a couple of exceptions, this bill just “clarifies” — and codifies — the powers President Obama has already claimed, seized and exercised.

8) I’ve heard that this law also threatens free speech.  How so?

Let’s go back to the brief discussion about what it means to “substantially support” al-Qaeda or terrorist groups.  As I said, this term is extremely vague, and as Greenwald has argued above, this vagueness is likely intentionally so.

Generally, we understand “support” to mean material support—giving weapons, money, etc. However, a 2010 Supreme Court case changes all that—a case that went virtually unnoticed despite its surprising verdict and widespread negative implications.

In Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project, the US Supreme Court ruled that ‘speech’ given in support of an organization is the same as ‘material support.’  This decision was made to match similar rulings in the UK, where free speech is not guaranteed in the way it is in the US.

This ruling, coupled with the practices of indefinite detainment and the NDAA, greatly endangers the First Amendment and free speech.  If speech equals material support, and material support is a detainable offense, then speech, simply speech, is a crime.  And a crime that doesn’t result in a fair trial or even formal charges.

In my opinion, this is what makes the NDAA’s implications so frightening.  For engaging in what should be free speech, an American can be rounded up and held.  For simply being “associated” with terrorist groups, an American can be detained.  And because these Americans are held without formal charges and aren’t guaranteed to see court, it will never be truly known if those detained were actually “guilty.” 

9) Why should I care about the NDAA and the practice of indefinite detention?

Many Americans citizens, and even more non-citizens, have been affected.

Look at Murat Kurnaz, a German who was held in Guantanamo without charges for five years.

And Sami al-Arian, an American and outspoken Palestine activist.  He was detained and treated horribly in civilian prisons on terrorism charges.  Most of the evidence brought against him in his eventual trial were things like books he own and things he said. 

And Tarik Mehanna, who translated al-Qaeda documents into English for American readers.  Despite that this action is in the realm of free speech, he was arrested and tried in a civilian court for them.

All Americans, myself included, have the potential to be affected by the NDAA.  If the government decided that I somehow had ties to or supported terrorism because of books I read or things I said, I could be locked up.

Sadly, though, this law will likely be only used to target Muslims, people like Kurnaz, al-Arian, and Mehanna.

Non-Muslim Americans who advocate violence and terrorism will probably not be targeted.  People like a middle-aged American who commented on my YouTube account, calling for Muslims to be expelled from America.  When I went to his YouTube page, I found a video in his “Favorites” list, called “Top 10 Mosques to Bomb.”  This man was supporting violence against Muslims.  I called him out on it, and he removed the video.  (Click the photo to the right to see the conversation I had with this man.)

I want to make this very clear: violence and terrorism are both wrong.  I don’t support violence and terrorism, and I condemn those who do. But a Muslim’s verbal support of these tactics should not be more punishable than a non-Muslim’s.

As I’ve talked to friends and professors about the NDAA, I’ve heard a one main concern expressed, one beyond specifics of the bill and its possible uses.  What does it means for our country when our legislators and our executives are able to sit around and discuss taking away some of our most basic rights, as if it doesn’t matter? There have been dissenting voices, but there is no loud outcry. As Americans, we pride ourselves on our freedoms, and want to spread them to the ends of the earth.  Ironic, given that we’ve done away with many of them.

The NDAA needs to receive much more critical media attention if we hope to preserve the rights we still have and regain the ones we’ve lost.  I hope this post can contribute in some small way to the national discussion we must have about the NDAA.

10) What can I do about this?

Contact your legislators and ask them to vote for the Due Process Guarantee Act.  In the wake of Obama’s passage of the NDAA, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) proposed this bill to amend part of the law and protect American citizens.

It says: “An authorization to use military force, a declaration of war, or any similar authority shall not authorize the detention without charge or trial of a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States.” (See the entire bill here.)

This bill doesn’t fix the entire problem, but it goes along way in addressing the issues of the NDAA.

Have any questions I didn’t answer?  Ask them in the comments section.

Sharia: A Fabricated Threat

In recent weeks, “sharia” has become the favorite buzzword of many a politician, blogger, and pundit.  We heard the word at Peter King’s second round of Muslim radicalization hearings, in remarks made by presidential hopefuls at the recent GOP debate, and in T.V. appearances by blogger/activists who claim to fight “radical Islam.”

We also heard it on the floors of state legislatures during the last several months as more than 20 states proposed bans against the usage of “sharia, foreign, or Islamic law” in U.S. courts.  A few bans passed, like the one in Oklahoma, where 70% of voters assented to a constitutional amendment banning the consideration of sharia or international law in U.S. courts.

Why this continuous discussion of and fervent concern for “creeping sharia?”  Is it really a threat?

Despite the claims of the aforementioned groups—that Muslim radicals are attempting to supersede the Constitution by implementing sharia law—Muslim-Americans have not been pushing for anything of the sort.  If they had been, I’m sure we would have heard about it—the media would be all over it.  As of now, we have only heard about sharia from non-Muslim newsmakers, those who tell us that it poses a threat but have no solid evidence to back up their claims (except an intentionally-botched understanding of Islam.)

I like to believe that people act with good intentions, and I really hate to claim that those who perpetuate this fear of “creeping sharia” are doing so to get political points, a new book contract, or the chance to be an “expert” on CNN.  But I can’t find any other reason why so many people—with very prominent voices in our society—are devoting their lives to making Muslim-Americans’ lives so unnecessarily hard.

Scapegoating Islam and Muslims has become politically and financially rewarding, and people like Newt Gingrich, Pamela Geller, Rep. Allen West, and Brigitte Gabriel have realized that.  Playing on Americans’ ignorance of Islam, they and others have created and exploited a climate of fear to get reelected, make money, or experience fame, whether or not they are willing to admit that to their audience, or even to themselves.

The easiest way these Islamophobes (I use this term to talk about people who manufacture and then capitalize on fear of Islam) to do their work is by taking a previously unknown but seemingly menacing word like sharia, and attach their own sinister meanings and interpretations.  They simplify their message about sharia, and purposefully ignore the nuance and complexity that surrounds sharia, or any other religious concept for that matter.

This is why it’s all the more important for me and others to help disseminate the actual meaning of sharia.  I hope to do that here with the help of a few good articles on the subject.  The three pieces from which I will quote extensively are the best articles I’ve read on the topic because they present the complexities and real meaning of sharia clearly and, most importantly, without getting defensive or huffy.  If I was Muslim and my religious practice was being questioned and misconstrued everyday, I would get pretty annoyed and angry, and I’m pretty sure that frustration would show up in my writing.  So I’m amazed by the poise with which these Muslims (two of the following experts quoted are Muslim) respond to ignorance and hate in both word and speech.  I’m sure it’s a hard thing to do.

What is sharia?

Literally, sharia means “a path to the watering hole” in Arabic.  And that’s what sharia is—a guide to living a good, Islamic life.  But as Georgetown professor and Islam expert, John Esposito puts it, “many Muslims and non-Muslims have come to confuse and use the terms ‘Shariah’ and ‘Islamic law’ interchangeably.”  Sharia is not a law book, he says, but a guide for Muslims informed by the Qur’an and the sayings and lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad.  “Early jurists used revelation as well as reason to create a body of laws to govern their societies. But, over time, these man-made laws came to be viewed as sacred and unchangeable.”

As Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, the chair of the Council for a Parliament of World Religions, describes, “sharia is not one monolithic body” and not all parts are agreed upon by every Muslim:

“There are literally hundreds and thousands of books written in the last 1,400 years, in multiple languages in places as diverse as Timbuktu in Africa to Bukhara in Central Asia, with millions of opinions, judicial reviews, etc. on various issues. Together, they form the body of sharia.”

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who heads the Cordoba Initiative and the Park 51 building project in Manhattan, has this to say:

“At the core of Shariah law are God’s commandments, revealed in the Old Testament and revised in the New Testament and the Quran. The principles behind American secular law are similar to Shariah law – that we protect life, liberty and property, that we provide for the common welfare, that we maintain a certain amount of modesty.”

Sharia: Living the faith

When Muslims carry out their daily life as believers, they are carrying out sharia.  Imam Mujahid’s description of lived sharia is probably the best one I’ve heard:

“You might have seen a government-required sign at a McDonald’s restroom telling employees to wash their hands. Muslims do this as a part of living their faith, which is called sharia in Arabic.

“When Muslims begin anything they say, ‘in the name of God’ –that is sharia. When they greet each other, they smile and say, ‘Assalamu Alaikum’ (peace be with you) –that is sharia.

“Muslims often avoid taking out mortgages due to the sharia prohibition on Riba (usury/interest). This has led to the establishment of the worldwide Islamic financial industry and Dow Jones Islamic Market Indexes. The latter select companies that don’t deal in weapons, pornography, gambling, tobacco, or alcohol, etc. These investments are similar to 30 other ‘faith-based’ investment options, like the Catholic Values Index. These are examples of the practice of sharia in the realm of business.” 

Sharia: The bad parts we hear about

When discussing sharia, critics of Islam often bring up the violent and “sharia-enforced” punishments we hear about in places like Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.  They tend to reduce sharia to its penal code, which as I’ve explained is only a small part of the greater guide for living.

Imam Mujahid addresses sharia’s penal code and many Americans’ concerns about it:

“It is true that Islamic criminal law has been at times implemented harshly, and even wrongly, by some Muslims. Such an application of Islamic criminal law is void of God’s mercy, which is considered His primary attribute in Islam.

“There are parts of sharia—[the sometimes-violent penal code]–that Muslim Americans don’t implement in their daily lives.

“Since Muslims ran a civilization for over a thousand years, they naturally developed a body of laws to deal with governing society. These laws deal with issues ranging from fighting neighborhood crime to international laws of war and peace.

“Muslim Americans don’t practice these laws since they deal with the realm of government and state. sharia emphasizes that the rule of law in a society must be implemented by the state. It considers vigilantism a major crime and a sin. Therefore, sharia prohibits Muslims from practicing this part of Islam on an individual basis.”

Imam Abdul Rauf has this to add:

“Where there is a conflict [between secular law and the Qur’an and the teachings of Muhammad], it is not with Shariah law itself but more often with the way the penal code is sometimes applied. Some aspects of this penal code and its laws pertaining to women flow out of the cultural context.

“The religious imperative is about justice and fairness. If you strive for justice and fairness in the penal code, then you are in keeping with moral imperative of the Shariah.”

A few final words from Imam Mujahid:

“When some American pundits call sharia, ‘a growing threat to the United States,’ Muslim Americans wonder what in the world are they talking about. Sharia is overwhelmingly concerned with personal religious observance, not with constitutions and laws. All observant Muslims practice sharia. Defining sharia as a threat, therefore, is the same thing as saying that all observant Muslims are a threat.

“To understand sharia is to understand Islam. Criminalizing sharia will criminalize the practice of Islam in America.”

Islamophobic politicians and pundits often claim they have “no problem” with peaceful, practicing Muslims; they simply have a problem with sharia.  But, as I’ve discussed here, Muslims can’t be Muslim without sharia—without greeting one another with a friendly “Assalaamu alaikum,” without performing ablutions, and without giving charity.

Preventing our Muslim friends and neighbors from doing these things just seems senseless.

__________

Main articles cited:

The complete article featuring John Esposito, which also defines other buzz words like “jihad” and “taqiyya”

Imam Mujahid’s op-ed

Imam Abdul Rauf’s op-ed