“Shock and Awe” is how U.S. military commanders described what Iraqi soldiers and civilians would feel as their cities were bombed day and night during the first few days of the U.S.-led war against Iraq. More than one year later, shocked and disgusted are the words that describe the reaction to the photographs across television screens 24 hours a day, around the world, depicting U.S. soldiers sexually humiliating and degrading Iraqi detainees.
When the photographs that many of us have instilled in our minds were first leaked to the public, many Americans were alarmed at the sight of U.S. soldiers acting out in sadistic ways against the same people that we had gone to liberate. Only Saddam Hussein and dictators of his like would ever think of torturing people this way. But the fact that our own military could do something so heinous was beyond our imagination. Now we are left trying to decipher what actually happened and where the chain of command went astray.
To Iraqis, Arabs, and Muslims around the world, the few photographs that we have seen reveal the dark side of the American psyche. Notions of humility and modesty are ingrained in the religious and cultural consciousness of the Arab and Muslim world. Revealing one’s naked body in front someone from the same tribe, village, or city, let alone a stranger, is a form of disgrace and immense shame. Additionally, in a part of the world where ideas of hyper masculinity and heterosexism are eminent in the minds of men, being forced to simulate homosexual sex acts epitomizes physical and psychological degradation.
Sexual humiliation and degradation and forcefully depicting same-gender sex acts are perhaps the worst form of torture for an Arab or a Muslim. Being forced to stand and masturbate, while a friend or acquaintance kneels in front of you, being forced to simulate male-to-male anal penetration, being forced to simulate oral sex, being stripped and forced to wear women’s underwear, while being handcuffed to a bed represent a form of torture that will scar forever the lives of these victimized Iraqis.
The photographs of prisoner abuse that have been released also depict a form of sexual and physical submission, in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim world—the white American colonizer and conqueror imposing his or her will over the proud and noble Iraqi. Men who have sex with men in the Arab world, and in many Muslim countries, are also often thought of as being overly feminine and sexually submissive. Being forced to simulate or even perform certain sex acts that are viewed as being sexually subservient and passive are psychologically and mentally degrading, to someone who might otherwise perceive themselves as being assertive and aggressive.
Unfortunately, the sexual humiliation of Iraqi detainees is not limited to men. New photographs being shown to U.S. senators depict women being forced to show their breasts in front of American male soldiers, other Iraqi women, and even Iraqi men. Some reports indicate that some female detainees may have been sexually harassed and even raped. In a country that values modesty and physical humility, such behavior for Iraqis is intolerable and dehumanizing.
While the world is outraged by the continuing reports of systematic abuse and torture across Iraq, the Bush administration insists that the pictures taken in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison represent isolated cases of abuse. While some quarters are calling for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, many in the world are wondering whether it is President Bush himself who should be held accountable, as commander in chief of the United States military. If Saddam Hussein’s loyalists are to be arrested and put on trial because Hussein was the commander of Iraq’s military, one would think the same should be true in the United States
But then again, our country is not the one being “liberated.”
The sexual humiliation of Iraqi detainees represents the worst moral and ethical crime in U.S. military history post-World War II. A simple apology and monetary compensation to the victims will not suffice. An independent investigation must be launched and human rights organizations must be allowed access to military prisons. Our country has an obligation to end the occupation of Iraq. Our commander in chief should bow in humility and shame and bring our troops home today.
Faisal Alam is the founder & director of Al-Fatiha, an organization dedicated to supporting and empowering lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning (LGBTIQ) Muslims. For more information, contact Al-Fatiha at al-fatiha.org.