The problem with studying humans

Written by Shereen Fernandez Monday, 31 December 2012
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As we have seen from the Ahmed Faraz case, academics are often brought in as ‘experts’ on cases, giving them the authority to speak on behalf of a religion, on behalf of a community of people, because they are believed to be objective.

 Spending the holidays writing essays is never fun, especially when you’ve had a year-long break from furiously checking your word-count to see if you’ve made any progress against the ticking clock. This time however, while researching for an essay on the Middle East, I came across a number of articles which made me stop and think about the field I was trying to get into: anthropology. Anthropology has always fascinated me but it was only when I began at CagePrisoners that I knew just how valuable anthropologists could be in challenging negative stereotypes and ultimately help to restore humanity in a time where certain individuals cease to be considered as human. What I was sheltered from however, was the dark side of anthropology, the one where anthropologists would advise government policy and officials as to how to effectively invade a land and its people, as well as teach culture to help enhance torture techniques. What was even more worrying was just how influential anthropologists were in the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and how they were strategically used to show that the War on Terror was both justifiable and humane.

As the War on Terror expanded, it dawned upon government officials that they really had no idea about the cultures or beliefs of the people they were trying to ‘liberate’. Americans were left asking ‘Why do they hate us?’ as the number of fatalities and attacks against US troops escalated. Clearly they had no idea why they were ‘hated’. They were, after all trying to help both the Iraqi and Afghani people from their oppressive governments and with a little force; they would be welcomed into the free world. But the situation on the ground was extremely different. They didn’t understand the local customs, had no idea what the words ‘Insha’Allah’ or ‘Assalam wa alaykum’ meant and yet wanted the people to warm to them and their presence. They needed help from anthropologists who were trained in living with different communities, were believed to be empathetic towards foreign cultures and beliefs and above all, they were expert intelligence gatherers.

The creation of human-terrain systems (HTS) was developed with help from anthropologists as a much needed last resort in 2005. It was hailed as being a way to empower local communities whilst simultaneously reducing the number of attacks against US troops. Everyone was a winner apparently. The locals and troops could live harmoniously in this utopian fantasy and in the end once the ambitious mission was complete, they would go their separate ways. Anthropologists went into the field with troops, side by side, and taught them the culture of the locals. But there was something quite worrying about this technique, beside the fact that culture cannot be taught as it is a lived practice. The ‘teaching of culture’ is a dangerous practice with detrimental consequences and the knowledge gained has in fact been used against prisoners, who were under their watchful eye. Take for example a book called The Arab Mind, written by a cultural anthropologist, Raphael Patai, in the 1970s. It was considered as the key text for military personnel to get to grips with dealing with Iraqi people during the war. In a time where Orientalism by Edward Said was creating shockwaves in Europe and the States, there was a flurry for academics to know the ins and outs of the Orient and its people. Patai writing as if Arabs formed a homogenous identity, unravelled a picture of the Arab and their behaviour; how sexual humiliation was not tolerated amongst Arabs, how showing the sole of your foot or shoe was a sign of disrespect. And what happened in Abu Ghraib showed just how Patai’s work was misused as a weapon to degrade and weaken the body and minds of the prisoners.

Where do we draw the line in academia? Is it an unforgivable crime to use science as a way to inform government policy and action if the knowledge produced could be used unjustly against someone? As we have seen from the Ahmed Faraz case, academics are often brought in as ‘experts’ on cases, giving them the authority to speak on behalf of a religion, on behalf of a community of people, because they are believed to be objective. The expertise of those who testified in the case will now be scrutinized and it is time to rethink how academics are used. I’ll wrap up this piece with a quote from one of the founding fathers of social anthropology, Franz Boas, which I feel holds such weight in this society: any scholar "who uses science as a cover for political spying, who demeans himself to pose before a foreign government as an investigator…prostitutes science in an unpardonable way and forfeits the right to be classed as a scientist". 

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