Posted by sepoy on May 01, 2004 · 4 mins read

The Iraqi prisoner abuse story is extremely significant. It is a devastating blow to any notion of winning the hearts and minds of Arabs in or outside of Iraq. Most newspapers are carrying stories on outrage in Cairo, UAE, Bahrain. The scandal has now spread to British soldiers as well.

What is the significance? In the Islamic world, home to dictatorships and police regimes, this is not newsworthy solely because it happened. Instead, it has immense symbolic power because the perpetrators are those that have had the rhetoric of "good" vs evil. Those that claimed that it is civilization they bring to the people. And freedom, of course. Even more than that, is the content of these pictures. If there is one thing valued higher than life, it is honor. The pictures of naked Iraqi prisoners in a pile or in sexual position, and being ridiculed by a white female soldier screams to the Arab and muslim public that their honor has been stripped bare. Shame is in the unveiling.

A world that knows it has been militarily, economically, culturally and politically dominated by the West, now stares at pictures confirming their worst fears. The power of images need not be overly stressed as images like the little vietnamese girl, or the Tiananmen Square man etc. are stark examples of visceral impact on the public mood. In the Arab psyche, the humility of 1967 was far greater than the military defeat of 1967. Similar was the symbolic shame of having non-Muslim troops in Saudi Arabia defending Mecca from Saddam for certain Muslims. These images have the potential to wreck the same havoc.

And no, I am not reading TOO much into it. And no, it is NOT worse than Saddam's "rape houses" - as our president is fond of saying. It is NOT.
I am talking about cultural memory and self-image. This war on terrah is a war for the hearts and minds, no? The uprising in Najaf, Fallujah, the attacks in Saudi Arabia and this...the battle for Iraq may have been won, but the war on terrah is being lost.

Just got my hands on Seymour Hersh's piece in the NewYorker, Torture at Abu Gharib, that is chilling in its details.

The photographs tell it all. In one, Private England, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, is giving a jaunty thumbs-up sign and pointing at the genitals of a young Iraqi, who is naked except for a sandbag over his head, as he masturbates. Three other hooded and naked Iraqi prisoners are shown, hands reflexively crossed over their genitals. A fifth prisoner has his hands at his sides. In another, England stands arm in arm with Specialist Graner; both are grinning and giving the thumbs-up behind a cluster of perhaps seven naked Iraqis, knees bent, piled clumsily on top of each other in a pyramid. There is another photograph of a cluster of naked prisoners, again piled in a pyramid. Near them stands Graner, smiling, his arms crossed; a woman soldier stands in front of him, bending over, and she, too, is smiling. Then, there is another cluster of hooded bodies, with a female soldier standing in front, taking photographs. Yet another photograph shows a kneeling, naked, unhooded male prisoner, head momentarily turned away from the camera, posed to make it appear that he is performing oral sex on another male prisoner, who is naked and hooded.
Such dehumanization is unacceptable in any culture, but it is especially so in the Arab world. Homosexual acts are against Islamic law and it is humiliating for men to be naked in front of other men, Bernard Haykel, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, explained. "Being put on top of each other and forced to masturbate, being naked in front of each other, it's all a form of torture," Haykel said.