Who's Afraid of Abu Ghraib?

According to Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, "the humiliating scenes of abused Iraqi prisoners" and the war in general "have turned that country [Iraq] into a model to be feared and avoided in the eyes of many in the Middle East, and a tool in the hands of governments reluctant to change." Telhami, who was a driving force behind a recent major Muslim-targeted public-diplomacy project chaired by former assistant secretary of state Edward Djerejian and paid for by Uncle Sam, sees American-occupied Iraq as "a far cry from the anticipated model of inspiration that the administration promised would spur demands for democracy in the Arab world." In the eyes of Jackson Diehl, a liberal columnist for the Washington Post who regularly lends his voice to Arabs struggling against dictatorship, "the photos from Abu Ghraib prison may have destroyed what was left of the Bush administration's credibility with Arab popular opinion," which--combined with the administration's recent actions backing Israel's Ariel Sharon and Libya's unreformed dictator Muammar Qaddafi--have surely undermined the promotion of democracy, supposedly the administration's top priority in the Middle East.

Echoing the same themes in the Financial Times, former senior Clinton administration officials Ivo Daalder and Anthony Lake see the Abu Ghraib scandal as a significant factor undermining "whatever credibility or legitimacy the U.S. presence in Iraq may once have had." They are certain that "in Iraq today, America no longer offers a solution," rather "it has become part of the problem." Also panicked and shamed by the images of Abu Ghraib, Secretary of State Colin Powell has been telephoning all over the Middle East and listening to Arab rulers and foreign ministers express their dismay at what transpired. "They are disappointed in us," Powell commented. The rulers and the ruled are "outraged and there's a serious backlash. . . . We have presented ourselves as a value-based country--and we are. And so when they see this kind of activity taking place--this horrible, horrible series of pictures that we've witnessed--it causes a tremendous response out in the region." To try to stem the tide of ill will, the secretary is soon traveling to Jordan to "have a chance to talk with many, many Arab leaders and try to put this in some context and perspective, and to convey to them what we are doing to help the Iraqi people."

In the battle for Muslim hearts and minds--which many on the left and right believe is the only solution to Islamic terrorism aimed at the United States--things have just gone to hell thanks to a perverse, kinky group of American soldiers and their military-intelligence overlords who seem to have mixed the U.S. armed forces' manuals on interrogation with S&M techniques. Even a viewer of the Fox News Channel who never hops to CNN might now conclude that our goose is cooked in Iraq and the greater Middle East. With such American depravity and Arab hatred, the Bush administration has dug a hole that we may never get out of.

But is our situation in Iraq really in any way compromised by Abu Ghraib? Have the chances of democracy in the Middle East really been set back because sexually sensitive Muslims are so revolted that they won't embrace representative government? Or to put it more broadly, is America's standing in the Muslim world a popularity contest where our chances of success--whatever the mission may be--are directly proportional to how much an American president and his officials or the American people and their values are liked and esteemed?

Let us look at Iraq post-Abu Ghraib. As disgusting as the tactics of the 800th Military Police Brigade may have been, they have not elicited much condemnation from Iraq's Arab Shiites and Sunni Kurds, who represent about 80 percent of the country's population. Most critically, the senior clergy of Najaf, in particular Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's preeminent Shiite divine who virtually has a de facto veto over American actions, has hardly mentioned the matter, let alone aroused the faithful against the moral pollution of the American occupation.

There are probably several reasons for this. Both the Shia and the Kurds, not to mention the Arab Sunnis who were on the receiving end of Saddam Hussein's wickedness, know very well what real bestiality is. They know real sexual torture--Saddam institutionalized rape as a means of destroying and preemptively neutering individual male and tribal pride. Though there are surely too few U.S. troops in Iraq, most Iraqis have had some contact with American soldiers.

They may not view them as German children viewed World War II GIs, but they have certainly had enough contact to know that American personnel, with the rarest exceptions, aren't rapists, sexual deviants, or by reflex or training particularly violent people. If this weren't the case, the senior clergy of Najaf would have long ago declared a holy war against the American occupation, as they declared a jihad against the British in 1920. The young clerical militant Moktada al-Sadr would have tens of thousands of recruits, and coalition forces would be fortified in their barracks, not on the offensive.

Also, the Shiites and Kurds probably assume that the humiliated prisoners in Abu Ghraib are Sunnis (which may in fact be the case). Though the Shiites and Kurds have so far been remarkably restrained in their desire for intiqam--revenge--which is a leitmotif of Iraqi culture, they probably are not above enjoying schadenfreude. They also want the Americans to beat the ex-Baathists, Sunni Arab fundamentalists, and foreign Sunni holy warriors who are trying to drive the Americans out of Iraq and stop the march toward democracy. After all, democracy will inevitably empower Shiites and frustrate the Sunni Arab penchant for pummeling the Kurds. Their tolerance for unpleasant American tactics in this endeavor is probably quite high. Unlike much of Washington, D.C., they have not lost sight of the larger objective: creating a democratic Iraq where they and their children will never again know the horrors of dictatorship.

Which is why, of course, the Shiite clergy has been focused throughout the Abu Ghraib affair on the guerrilla campaign of Moktada al-Sadr, who is detested by the traditional clergy since he is challenging their religious leadership and Sistani's decision to cooperate with the Americans. They've also been watching the Marines at Falluja and the American decision to return Baathist soldiers to duty to placate and quiet the town, which has been a center of Sunni Arab resistance. The American decision in Falluja provoked Jalaluddin al-Saghir, a spokesman for Sistani, to warn that "members of the Baath party committed the most heinous crimes and created bloodbaths and the biggest mass graves in the history of mankind." A very healthy self-interest is an obvious and major reason why Iraq's Shiites and Kurds--and perhaps a decent slice of its Arab Sunnis--can watch the images of Abu Ghraib and maintain their equanimity. They have vastly more important things to worry about.

As do Arabs throughout the Middle East. A very odd, very American notion about foreign affairs has now become gospel in certain quarters in Washington: Bin Ladenism will end and democracy spread throughout the Muslim Middle East only when a critical mass of Muslims like, respect, and trust us. Democracy cannot exist in the Muslim mind on its own merits but is judged overwhelmingly by the actions and intrinsic goodness of the United States. Or, as Professor Telhami put it, "When you don't trust the messenger, you don't trust the message, even if it's a good one." Muslims, especially Arab Muslims to whom Bush administration officials feel especially obliged to apologize for Abu Ghraib, have become so America-centric, according to this view, that they cannot admire democracy even though democracy as it is practiced in much of Western Europe has produced political elites that are pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian, and anti-Zionist. But Muslims' appreciation of democracy cannot be that nuanced. Or, to put it another way, Muslims aren't rational, historical actors. Their political predilections--unlike those of Americans or Europeans or Japanese--aren't shaped primarily by the societies in which they live, but by foreigners whom they rarely see except on TV.

A historical analogy. Let us suppose that George H.W. Bush had marched to Baghdad in 1991 and ousted Saddam Hussein and the Baath party. Let us suppose that the Abu Ghraib scandal had happened then. Does anyone believe this would have altered attitudes toward elected government in, say, Algeria? In 1991, the Algerian military regime canceled parliamentary elections when it became clear fundamentalists were going to win. Would the Algerian generals' case against democracy have been more appealing to the members of the Islamic Salvation Front and other Islamist parties who really wanted a democratically elected alternative to military autocracy because American soldiers made Iraqi prisoners stack themselves naked? Algerian democrats--not the hard-core fundamentalists who wanted one man, one vote, one time--could have managed, I think, to hate America (and their former colonial master, democratic France), hate the one-party state that had impoverished their country, and still have the wisdom to see that democracy would end the tyranny of the latter and allow them to continue to detest the former.

Or consider a contemporary parallel. In March 2004, the new Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and most influential fundamentalist organization in the world, allied his followers to a plan for gradual but substantive constitutional and political reform in Egypt. Egyptian liberals, like Saad Eddin Ibrahim, also back the effort, as do a fairly wide array of individuals and organizations, many of which, like the Muslim Brotherhood, you would never describe as "pro-American." Does anybody really believe that these people, especially the followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, will find Egyptian president-for-life Hosni Mubarak's case against democracy more persuasive because some American soldiers and intelligence officials in Baghdad thought forced onanism was an effective aid to interrogation? Democracy and anti-Americanism can happily and healthily coexist. What's true in Latin America is true in the Middle East. Muslims are not children.

Indeed, the democratic ethic in the Middle East has often been carried by men who have a tense, if not hostile, attitude toward the West. "Islamic modernists" of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wanted to import more representative government into the Muslim world, in addition to many other Western ideals and manners, in order to fortify their homelands against European influence and imperialism. A modern-day version of this is Iran's "moderate" president, Mohammad Khatami, who desperately wants to insert some democracy into Iran's theocracy precisely to allow Iranian society, and via Iran the entire Muslim world, to stand toe to toe against the perfidious influence of the United States. In Khatami's books, Fear of the Wave and From the World of the City to the City of the World, the cleric clearly depicts democracy as an essential mechanism to allow the Muslim faith and culture to flourish and compete against the awesome liberal (too liberal), increasingly irreligious, tradition-crushing, cleric-hating, anti-Muslim bulldozer called America. Is it too much to suggest that Khatami and Iranian mullahs who are even more committed to democracy than he have not lost faith in the virtues of representative government because some U.S. soldiers and military intelligence officials have some things in common with the state-sanctioned torturers who thrive in clerical Iran's prisons?

It is true that the democratic ethic is not as highly developed in the Arab Sunni world as it is among the Shiites of Iran or the clerics of Najaf (see again the Grand Ayatollah's stunning June 29, 2003, fatwa, or juridical opinion, in favor of democracy to see how advanced Iraqi Shiite thinking is on the virtues of representative government). But Arab Sunnis are much more advanced than many in the West, especially among the "pro-Arab" crowd in academe and in the Near East Bureau of the State Department, appear to think.

To put it tersely: The Abu Ghraib affair hasn't hurt at all the cause of democracy in the greater Middle East, so long as the United States doesn't believe it has. For most Muslims, the affair really doesn't matter politically. It's the Americans who are the weak link. Unfortunately, much of our view of the Muslim Middle East is shaped by our own profound, understandable, and in other circumstances often commendable liberal guilt. (We are certainly more ashamed of ourselves than Muslim fundamentalists are ashamed of us--you have to admire or feel some fraternity with someone before you can feel ashamed of them.) And Muslim, especially Arab, liberals, who often serve as a lens for Westerners on the Middle East, have not helped either.

They are in an awful predicament. Often far from the Muslim mainstream on sensitive issues, regularly scared of being labeled "pro-American" or worse "pro-Zionist" for having distinctly Western views on many subjects, Muslim liberals live in fear of American actions that for them could reverberate badly. They are not the cutting edge of democracy in the Middle East--religiously oriented organizations are--though they fancy themselves the vanguard. And they always have the ear and usually the sympathies of the Western press and diplomatic corps. Pain for them inevitably gets magnified and transmogrified into pain for the entire Middle East. We should always wish them well--on many issues the liberals fight a very lonely and noble fight. But they are too often poor analysts of the Muslim world in which they are politically and morally off-balance. For them, the Abu Ghraib affair opens up a cultural can of worms that could easily and gleefully be exploited by their opponents. We should not allow, however, their emotions over Abu Ghraib to become ours.

Properly understood, the spread of democracy in the Muslim Middle East is now well into its second century. Bitter experience with the Western pathogens of socialism, communism, and fascism, which arrived after World War I, started building an appreciation among Muslims for checks on power. So, too, the explosion of hybrid pathogens in the form of Islamic revolution in Iran and Sudan, and the awful indigenous violence of extreme Sunni fundamentalism of which bin Ladenism is one expression. The political experience of Muslims has been long and painful. And in that pain, the constant trial by error, Muslims have learned and evolved. A democratic ethic really does exist in Iran and Iraq and among ordinary people in the Sunni Arab world, even among fundamentalists. You can see it in the Arab press, in the dictators' and hard-core fundamentalists' fear of free elections where one man, one vote ultimately will decide the mores and political leadership of a country.

For over a thousand years, Greek thought fortified the antidemocratic strain in Muslim monotheism. As the great Oxford and Harvard scholar of the Middle East Hamilton Gibb once pointed out, Greek logic and physics, which took the Muslim world, particularly its scholarly classes, by storm, powerfully reinforced the "Koranic conception of God as absolute will . . . and the Koranic statements as absolute postulates," leading Muslims to always "stress the unimaginable transcendence of God" and his Holy Law. "Islamic theology is thus always forced into extreme positions. There can be no agent of any kind in the universe except God, since the existence of an agent implies the possibility of an action independent of God, and therefore a theoretical limitation on the absolute power of God."

But Muslims have always given more weight to practice than philosophy and theology. Islam's philosophers and religious scholars are perpetually playing catch up, trying to make the ideal match the reality. That reality for the last one hundred years has been increasingly dark, where the absolutist traditions within Islam have merged with absolutist political strains imported from the West to make life ugly, if not hell on earth. Muslims this time round are increasingly embracing the democratic idea--perhaps the most seductive Greek creation--to limit the damage that one Muslim can do to another. America and its power may be an important element in this process. They may not. But two things are certain. First, Secretary Powell talking to Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah about our Abu Ghraib shame is truly odd given that we have asked both to interrogate al Qaeda suspects more "aggressively" than the 800th MP Brigade ever did Iraqi prisoners. And second, in the nearly 1,400 years of Islamic history, Abu Ghraib is a blip that cannot possibly derail the long Muslim march to a time when the faithful elect their political leaders, just as they believe their forebears did after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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