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Abu Ghraib: I do not know where to look for hope

Mai Ghoussoub
9 May 2004

All I can do is scream through my keyboard.

Do the soldiers-torturers act with such abject cruelty out of racism? Racism is not enough to explain their behaviour, their abuse, the joy on their faces while they are attacking the prisoners in their flesh and their dignity.

Are they aware that the only justification left to their leaders was to save the poor Iraqi people from a regime that behaved incessantly like they do in the pictures that make me want to throw up? Have they studied Saddam’s methods of abuse and felt their efficiency, so they re-enacted them? Keeping prisoners naked, sodomising them or obliging them to have sex with each other, were common practice in Saddam’s jails, in Abu Ghraib in particular. Dragging a man like you drag an abused dog is the ultimate humiliation for an Arab man: dogs are najes in Islamic tradition, a synonym of dirt.

Are they aware, were they ever told, that those who acted in Bosnia as in the pictures circulating these last few days are being tried for war crimes in the Hague?

The photos of abuse and humiliation of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison, discussed here by Maï Ghoussoub, have been circulated by media worldwide. The images are graphic and disturbing, and openDemocracy publishes a link to them mindful of this fact

Depraved people like to abuse and torture, but there are too many of them here to allow us to speak of psychologically deranged individuals. They are too many and they are seemingly not hiding from their fellow-soldiers and the rest of the prison guards. They are even taking souvenir snapshots like hunters who smile in front of their cameras proudly holding their prey to exhibit their trophies.

How can this be? Can we ever say “never again” with any conviction? We have asked these questions before. We have heard the same justifications before: “we did not know!” or: “we were obeying orders! ” Now there is a new phrase: we were investigating the claims (for months).

The family of a woman soldier shown abusing prisoners have released a picture of her holding tenderly a young Iraqi child. It is meant to show that she is a loving person who cares for the Iraqis. She was told to obey orders, declare her family.

Mai Ghoussoub discusses the Arab male gaze, her sculpture of Om Kalthoum, connecting cultures and breaking frontiers, in this interview

Another familiar story! You may love children, be sweet and caring but the rules of war are special and they turn you into something particularly ugly. The secrecy of occupying armies turns soldiers into little gods shaping and coercing peoples’ bodies. The secrecy of occupying armies has also turned women soldiers into sadistic pornographers.

The leaders were “investigating the claims”; the soldiers, the guards were obeying orders. But even the doctors who were conducting experiments in Nazi camps were supposedly obeying orders. Can it be the same? They always seem to have obeyed with great enthusiasm.

How can democracies defend their values when challenged by violence? Maï Ghoussoub joined seven other Europeans in openDemocracy’s online roundtable: “Terrorism, democracy and Muslims after the Madrid bombs” (March 2004)

I feel angry and lost. I do not know where to look for hope. I cannot even repeat in front of people in the country where I come from in the Middle East that in western democracies people in power are accountable. How can I tell them now that democracy, more than any other system, rests on openness and honesty? Those in power in America and Britain have been mainly trying to suppress evidence; they don’t even understand the need to resign immediately in the face of these disgusting crimes, so as to have the decency to admit their failure. If they have succeeded in creating disbelief in me, what effect does their behaviour have on people who were already sceptical about the virtues of democracy and the rule of law – never more badly needed in the Arab world than now?

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