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To Obama:

Abu-Ghraib Is Also "Muslim World"

Wednesday, June 03, 2009 04:02:16 PM, Alex Gainem


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When Barack Obama, the US president, lands in Cairo on June 4 as part of his efforts to address the Muslim World, he will have arrived at the foot of a mountain of troubles carrying two leather folders.


The charismatic young president will have to resort to every trick in his book of eloquence to convince some 1.3 billion Muslims that America is not their enemy, and that his administration is reaching out to 57 Muslim countries in the hopes of ushering in a new era of cooperation, mutual respect, and combined efforts to combat worldwide extremism.


Tough sell.

The purpose of Obama's trip is untenable at best; he will have to deconstruct decades of belligerent US doctrine and foreign policy and atone for what many Arabs and Muslims say are crimes against humanity.


The first folder is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama will have to explain why the United States has blindly stood shoulder-to-shoulder by Israel, offering unwavering support for Israeli military campaigns which have since 1948 left hundreds of thousands of dead men, women, and children.


Rugged Quiz

He will have to explain why his predecessor George W. Bush called Ariel Sharon a man of peace after the latter was found by an Israeli commission to be complicit in the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon. Or why a man who bulldozed over Jenin and rejected the Arab Peace Initiative flouted during the Beirut Arab League conference of 2002 is called a partner in the peace process.


Why, for example, has the United States led international efforts to pursue and convict Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan, and Rwandan leaders on charges of genocide but tacitly offer Israeli leaders virtual immunity from any prosecution.


As the leader of the world's only superpower, which advertises itself as a beacon of freedom and democracy, he will have to tackle the issue of Israel's free rein during the 2006 Lebanon and 2009 Gaza wars.


Obama will also have to revisit why 61 years of US policies have allowed Palestinian lands to be usurped, stolen, and annexed leaving almost nothing to negotiate over when — if — peace negotiations ever do resume.


The Palestine folder is exhaustive but Obama will likely embark on outlining what measures his administration will take to get the derailed peace process back on track. His words will mean little, however, because Israel is today ruled by the Jewish State's most right-wing government which has already signalled it is unmoved by his overtures.


However, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of America's most pressing — and bungled — foreign policy issue for several decades, it is more recent events, and wars perpetrated by Washington, which Obama must urgently address.


New Realities

Condi Rice, the former US secretary of state, may have been right in one thing: This is a new Middle East we live in. The belief that a resolution to the Palestinian issue will take care of all outstanding crises in the region is no longer palpable.


The second folder, the war of choice in Iraq, has created new realities, drawn new battle lines, and resurrected age-old distrust and sectarian strife. Iraqis say that nearly 1.3 million people have died since the United States invaded on March 19, 2003 (according to the UN, some 1.7 million Iraqis died due to the 1990-2003 UN sanctions).


Those who could, fled for their lives — to the order of some 4.5 million Iraqis now begging for jobs on the doorsteps of western and Arab countries.


The plight of Iraqis since the invasion is well-documented and serves as an immediate and recurring indictment of US foreign policy. However, one issue that is yet to be conclusively addressed is America's blatant disregard for human rights and war conventions, with particular emphasis on the horrors visited on Iraqis in the notorious Abu-Ghraib prison.


Well before the abuses in Abu-Ghraib came to light, Iraqis had already reported that US forces had covered up abuses at the notorious prison. The Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a NGO working with refugees and promoting peace initiatives, published on the group's website a long list of allegations of "verbal, physical, and psychological abuse inflicted on Iraqis by US forces."


But the media — and the US administration — chose to look the other way until journalist Seymour Hersh and others published photos proving illicit interrogation techniques at the prison.


At the time, US officials who had seen the extensive photographic and video evidence said they could not allow such material to become public domain because the severity and inhumanity of US torture techniques would tarnish America's record.


Perhaps the picture would show that the US military has conducted itself in much the same as a pariah state — like Rwanda, North Korea, or Nazi Germany — would.


Obama's Old Promises, New Hopes

The pictures and videos will likely surface despite the protestations of Major General Antonio Taguba, the former army officer who conducted an inquiry into the Abu-Ghraib torture in Iraq. He did admit however that the pictures showed every type of "indecency", and then some. Choosing the word indecency to describe the rape and torture in Iraq is tantamount to my choosing to call the Holocaust a bar fight or the 3,000 deaths in 9/11 an airline glitch.

I would do neither, of course; the crimes of the Holocaust are inescapable realities, while the crimes committed on 9/11 are acts of wholesale murder.


When he addresses the Muslim world, Obama must be made to answer why US officials have actively participated in the abscondence of evidence which indicts official policy and US misconduct.


British commanders, who were until recently based in Basra, have been condemning the Americans' heavy-handed and disproportionate military tactics in Iraq. According to the Telegraph's Sean Rayment, a British officer, "who agreed to the interview on the condition of anonymity, said that part of the problem was that American troops viewed Iraqis as 'untermenschen' — the Nazi expression for 'sub-humans'. (Untermenschen is the popular term a certain Adolf Hitler used to express his disdain for what he termed the "inferior" Jews in Mein Kamp.)


"They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life in the way the British are. Their attitude towards the Iraqis is tragic, it's awful."

The British officer accused the US Military of targeting "terrorists" even if they are located in densely-populated civilian areas: "They may well kill the terrorists in the barrage but they will also kill and maim innocent civilians. That has been their response on a number of occasions. It is trite, but American troops do shoot first and ask questions later. They are very concerned about taking casualties and have even trained their guns on British troops, which has led to some confrontations between soldiers," the Telegraph reported in 2004.


Consequently, if the US Military, which can be considered the military hand of the US government, considers Iraqis as inferior beings, it is then academic to extrapolate that US lawmakers view Iraqis as lesser people. Perhaps that helps explain why the Bush — and now the Obama administration — is so fearful of releasing the Abu-Ghraib pictures.


As an African American, Obama is sure to understand how racism and disregard for human rights allowed slavery to flourish in America. He should draw from the experiences of civil rights leaders in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and other states to understand that if criminals are not brought to justice, hatred and distrust will continue to thrive. Obama should look to the South African model of truth and reconciliation.


The world community is made to watch re-broadcast footage of Nazi atrocities against six million innocent Jews during the Holocaust; images of the World Trade Center and mention of the 3,000 killed on 9/11 are re-broadcast in North American media. But by keeping the Abu-Ghraib pictures under lock and key, Obama is signalling that stories of atrocities against Muslims and Arabs must be kept buried like the hatchet, perhaps in the hopes that the blemish on the West will somehow be erased.


The Middle East is a region where histories live on in the daily lives of its people; if the US president hopes to make in-roads, he should start by apologizing for Abu-Ghraib.


Obama has his work cut out for him in Cairo. (


Aexander Gainem is a journalist and commentator

who has written on

Middle Eastern affairs since 2001





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