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     Volume 5 Issue 84 | March 3, 2006 |

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Food For Thought

Deceptions and Double Standards

Farah Ghuznavi

The recent conflagration of sectarian violence in Iraq notwithstanding, it is hard to sometimes suppress a sense of déjà vu while examining the headlines coming out of that unfortunate country. Not least when one has the feeling that at least some of its misfortunes are externally induced…!

I refer to the recent rash of stories concerning allegations against coalition soldiers of inflicting unnecessary violence on the local population (some degree of violence, after all, is presumably expected nay, inevitable - when one decides to "launch" a war!). Of course, apart from the matter of unnecessary violence, there are also some profoundly disturbing allegations regarding the absolute mayhem, and possible murders - and now I refer to the newest pictures emerging about the "activities" carried out at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The damning photographs and videos purporting to show additional and often gruesome abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the infamous jail were broadcast in "Dateline" on Australian television in February 2006. I should add, I suppose, that the pictures are "new" only to some of us, since the majority of them date back to 2004. And, according to the state-owned Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in Australia, "When the original Abu Ghraib photographs were leaked to the press, members of Congress were given a private viewing of photographs including the images that appear in this Dateline programme…They were shocked by what these extra images revealed of the full horror of the abuses taking place at Abu Ghraib" (UK Independent).

And there is much to be shocked by. The 60 pictures include ones that appear to show a man with a cut throat and another suffering from severe head injuries, as well as numerous shots of prisoners in degrading and humiliating postures, while soldiers are seen apparently abusing and tormenting them. The video footage is even worse; and there are also photographs of six corpses, though the circumstances are not fully explained. As SBS rather diplomatically puts it, "The extent of the abuse shown in the photos suggests that the torture and abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib in 2004 is much worse than currently understood."

Unsurprisingly, the new material was swiftly picked up by Arab channels and broadcast accordingly. What the effect of this has had not only on the "Arab Street", but also among opponents of the war and those who truly believe in principles such as universal human rights (as opposed to those who merely parrot rhetoric on democracy and human rights when it suits them!) was quite predictable - horror, anger and outrage. And this too, at a time when there has already been uproar over the recent film of British soldiers apparently beating up young men in the city of Amarah in southern Iraq, and in the midst of the continuing global fury over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

What is perhaps most interesting about this situation is the reaction of the US government, which has tried to prevent the further release of pictures from Abu Ghraib, through a legal battle aimed at blocking their publication. After a New York judge granted the freedom-of-information request to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to access of 87 of the previously unseen images, the administration appealed against that decision, claiming that their release would "fuel anti-American sentiment". Indeed.

As the pictures reportedly show guards smiling, as they stand behind blood-soaked and hooded prisoners - some of whom are tied to an unidentified apparatus - one might reasonably expect this to do just that! But does this not beg the question of whether it would not be better to avoid fueling anti-American sentiment by refraining from such activities, rather than suppressing them?? Or is that just too naïve…

One can only admire the dogged determination and commitment of organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a few principled individuals who continue to question such actions and policies. Rather than trying to suppress the truth, a useful step towards remedying the situation would be for the US administration to investigate how far these actions were the results of a systematic policy of abusing prisoners in order to gather information (as has been repeatedly claimed by sources within the US military and civilian establishments), and to make it clear that such conduct will not be tolerated. This could be done by handing out exemplary sentences to all those involved in perpetrating such abuses, rather than trying to claim - against considerable evidence to the contrary - that such abuse is the work of low-level guards acting on their own initiative.

The administration's attempts to suppress these pictures, also raises wider questions about the much-vaunted freedom of the press in Western countries. After all, the repeated publication of the recent cartoons ridiculing the Prophet (PBUH) has been justified in the name of the principle of press freedom. So can one really blame the presumably uneducated populations of the rest of the world for failing to understand the subtle distinction of when freedom of the press is worth (others) dying for - as opposed to when it suddenly becomes far less important because it means a rise in anti-American sentiment? Or is the distinction in such cases simply one of appreciating the nationality, race or religion of those who do the dying…?

Surely there must be a way of differentiating between legitimate freedoms and unnecessary provocations. There are no "free lunches" in life, and enjoying freedoms cannot be completely separated from the need to enjoy them responsibly. A harsh sentence was recently passed on David Irving, the right-wing historian who denies the extent, if not the nature, of the Holocaust during World War II. Perhaps these cartoons should have been (calmly) examined for the extent to which they contribute to perpetuating racial and religious stereotypes, as well as being factually incorrect.

The portrayal of the Prophet (PBUH) as a suicide bomber, for example, is not only offensive at a religious level, it is offensive to many in terms of what its so-called "humour" seeks to imply about him, and by extension, ALL of his followers. In an already polarized world, this particular farce has done nothing to promote mutual understanding or peaceful co-existence. Something that is desperately needed these days!

And perhaps the bottom line is, those who wish to promote certain values or principles, must at least be willing to (visibly and consistently) live by them. It is not a coincidence that opinion polls have shown since the middle of 2003 that all Arab Iraqis both Sunni and Shia, want the US-led occupation to end and foreign troops to leave the country (UK Independent).

Justifying hypocrisy is not the way to win hearts and minds. And it is still hearts and minds that must be won, if people are expected to change their behavior in a sustainable way. In the final analysis, western-style democracy, rule of law and press freedom are as appealing as the behavior of those who claim to live by such principles. And, as a wise man once said to me, people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw orgies!

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