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 I’m scared

In my last post, I said I’m not sure that America is beyond the kind of bigotry and intolerance that led to the internment of Japanese Americans several decades ago.  And I think the following video proves my point.

Last month, in Orange County, California, Muslim families were attending a dinner hosted by Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA in order to raise money to

Anti-Muslim protest outside Islamic organization fundraiser.

establish women’s shelters and fight hunger and homelessness in the area.  As they walked into the event, they were greeted by protestors who shouted bigoted and ignorant slurs, like “Go back home!” and “You beat up your wife, too?”  Earlier in the day, in the park across the way, a protest was held in which local and federal government officials made statements like “I know quite a few Marines who would be very happy to help these terrorists to an early meeting in paradise.”

(The video was compiled by the Council on American Islamic Relations, and features video from local news stations and Muslims attending the event.)

This video is beyond saddening, but it is only one example among many, I’m afraid.  This next video, which was filmed outside the White House, portrays protestors shouting at a Muslim man who prayed there.  The full details can be found in this Washington Post article.

I truly hope we can say “never again” to institutionalized hate in America.  But we can’t say it naively and passively, assuming that we’re too “advanced” or too “modern” or too “Westernized” to be intolerant.  As I wrote in a commentary while I was a reporter at Y-Press, we said “never again” to genocide while inaugurating the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. in 1993; but a year later, genocide occurred in Rwanda while the Western world looked on.

We must ensure by our words and our actions that we are actively creating an environment that is not conducive to hate.  Apathy and passivity is what allowed the institutionalization of hate in Nazi Germany and 1994 Rwanda.

Passivity allows for the scenes in this video to happen.  A few years ago, ABC’s “What Would You Do?” did this special on discrimination of Muslims in America.  When bystanders saw Muslims being discriminated against, many of them did nothing to stop it.

Sadly, hate against Muslims has become institutionalized in this country, and if passivity like the kind in the ABC special continues, institutionalized hate will only increase.  This past week, we witnessed the Congressional hearing that investigated “radicalization” in the Muslim American community, and in several states efforts are being made to ban sharia law.  Sharia law is greatly misunderstood in the West, and sadly has come to be synonymous with oppression and terror.  (I hope to do a post on sharia sometime in the near future.)

Apart from political institutionalization, hate has become most entrenched in the mainstream media.  It is possible for TV show hosts to make blatant lies about Islam on their shows, and yet no one holds them accountable for it.  Viewers often assume that because those on TV claim to be reporters or journalists or objective commentators, they are upholding journalistic ethics—being truthful, presenting all the information, and just plain being respectful.  This assumption is horribly naive.  Cable “news” programs especially, whether or not they are “liberal” or “conservative,” are more concerned with appealing to an already established base and shaping the political discourse in a way that profits to them.  We must question the news we receive and consciously seek to verify what we hear and see on TV.

In some of my blog posts I hope I’ve been able to provide some facts that will reveal how misguided the claims of cable hosts and guests can be.  Despite the fact that cable networks have 24 hours of time in which to present coverage, their treatment of “news” lacks the nuance and depth necessary to flesh out many of the complex issues related to Islam and the Muslim community.

What we need instead of talk-show hosts that demonize and protests that spew hate are things like this: the “Today, I am a Muslim Too” rally that took place in New York City last weekend.  This was a positive action taken with the intent of creating solidarity with and better understanding of Muslim Americans.

Christian pastor at the rally.

If we want to really say “never again,” and truly make institutionalized hate a part of our country’s past, then we must act—whether that means expanding our news sources, challenging a friend’s stereotypical comment, or visiting our local mosques (without signs).

We cannot sit idly by.

We know all too well the damage that passivity can do.

Japanese internment camp in Colorado

I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you think America has become more Islamophobic?  If so, what evidence have you seen in your daily life, and what can we do to reverse this trend?  If not, why?  Do you think my criticism of the media is fair?

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In a few weeks, CNN will be airing a special called “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door.”  Below is the link to the promo video.  I will be interested to see how this issue of Islamophobia is covered.  As I alluded earlier, I am not always pleased by CNN’s coverage of Islam, so I am curious to watch this piece.

http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/us/2011/03/09/unwelcome.the.muslims.next.door.cnn.html

The souls of our shoes: A reflection on Egypt

On Thursday night, as Mubarak defiantly refused to step down from the presidency, the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square held their shoes high above their heads, making

Egyptians holding up their shoes in Tahrir Square on Thursday night.

visible their soles and directing them symbolically toward Mubarak.  In the Arab world, this action—showing someone the sole of your shoe— is a sign of upmost disrespect.  Raising these shoes seemed to be a final act of frustration in a thirty-year, and a three-week, struggle against the Mubarak regime.  And as we saw yesterday, Mubarak has left (Alhamdulilah!/Thank God!).

What is amazing about this revolution is that it wasn’t only the Egyptians holding up their shoes—the world was doing it with them. By Tweeting messages of solidarity, watching live Al-Jazeera coverage in Arabic class, and posting relevant articles on our Facebook pages, we were virtually shaking our shoes and shouting “Huria” (Freedom) along with the democracy protestors across Egypt.  If the Iranian protests of 2009 showed us the potential of social media in fighting oppression, Egypt showed us social media’s power in action.

Youtube clip: American girls protesting in solidarity

My favorite example of Internet solidarity was a YouTube video posted by an American family.  After watching the protests on TV, the man’s four daughters didn’t want to go sleep; they were too excited and wanted to participate in whatever way they could.  So these four little blonde girls marched around their living room with signs of support and shouting Arabic phrases, and their dad taped it. I almost cried while watching it.  I commend these parents so much for educating their young children about current events and the importance of standing in solidarity with others.  As a parent, I hope I can encourage this kind of curiosity and compassion in my kids.

While the Egyptian people did receive support from many Americans and others around the world, their movement lacked support from most democratic governments, most notably the US, who claims to be a beacon of democracy.  Our government has advocated democracy in word and in deed in other countries, yet regarding Egypt, the US government’s support of the democracy movement was weak.  The Obama Administration was unwilling to criticize Mubarak’s regime (an old ally), and the administration’s call for non-violence rightly fell on deaf ears when discarded tear gas canisters were found bearing the words “Made in the USA.”

Despite the fact that these demonstrations lacked institutional support and rejected violence except in cases of self-defense, the Egyptian people were able to successfully oust their president, the symbol of their oppressive regime.  This fact is utterly mind-blowing and gives me and so many others a renewed belief in the power of grassroots organizing and non-violent responses to oppression.

This event should also prove something to America and the West: that democracy can grow organically from within Arab countries; rather than being imposed on the West’s terms, internal efforts for democracy should be supported.  The US must realize and be willing to accept that the new Egyptian government is likely to be anti-American in some form.  If I were one of the Egyptians, who have experienced how American tear gas and tax dollars have been used to bolster the Mubarak regime for 30 years, I too would want my new government to have little to do with the US.

Many others and I have also been struck by the lack of formal ideology that has fueled this democracy movement.  The Muslim Brotherhood did not participate in the protests initially, and though they joined later on, they were not motivating the demonstrations.  The protesters were driven to stand in Tahrir for three weeks straight—some of them even living there—because of purely practical political, economic, and civil grievances.  Even if the democracy movement becomes more ideologically driven and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the West doesn’t need to worry as much as I expect it will.  The Brotherhood is portrayed in Western media as being more radical than they are, according to a Georgetown professor who talked a few weeks back on the Daily Show.

For me, the most powerful images of the past three weeks were these:

Qur'an and Cross held high in Tahrir Square
Christian+Muslim=Egypt
Christian and Muslim women in Tahrir. (Photo credit: Joel Carillet)

On Friday, February 4th, while Muslims prayed in Tahrir Square, the Christians made a human barrier around the worshipers, who then reciprocated for the Christians as they prayed on Sunday the 6th (which was dubbed “Day of the Martyrs”).  Throughout the demonstrations, Muslims and Christians have been standing aside one another, defending one another, in order to help achieve their common goal of a free and unified country.

We in America and the West must look to and learn from this example of solidarity. Despite the tense and dangerous situation in which they find themselves, the Egyptian people, both Christians and Muslims, are able to put aside their differences and become unified.  If they, while defending their lives in a violent and hostile environment, can come together in decency, respect, and friendship, why can’t we?

In this era of mistrust and hostility between Muslims and Christians in the West, I urge all of us to lower our shoes, which we’ve held up for so long in disrespect.  Instead, we must put our shoes back on and stand side by side, so our true souls can be seen.

 

Note: I’ve also wanted to write about the journalists who have bravely covered the protests, but that will probably come at another time.  In the meantime, I thank them for the sacrifices they made and the risks they took.  Many have been violently targeted because of their noble and important work.

Also, the events in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world may have massive implications for many college students’ study abroad plans–including my own.  Hopefully I’ll post on that topic as well.

Israel: Denying right to free speech

This report from Al Jazeera English discusses Israel’s increasing crackdown on organizations and individuals who dissent against the government or support Palestinian causes.  If other recent incidents have not compelled the American government to reconsider its support of Israel, than this must.  Rather than cling to an increasingly false notion that Israel is the democratic and free society we want it to be, the U.S. needs to rethink its blind support of this repressive government.