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The sexual humiliation of Muslims in the War on Terror

Written by Asim Qureshi Tuesday, 24 April 2012
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Sex in Islam is a matter that carries with it a great deal of modesty and shame – the above verse indicates the clear and unequivocal ban on extramarital relations.

It is considered a private matter between a husband and his wife, whether it is in a monogamous or polygynous relationship. Indeed, covering oneself to maintain a minimum level of dignity even when alone is recommended according to the shari’ah (Islamic law).

 
As part of the psyche of Muslim communities around the world, they respond to sexuality and references to sexuality based on the societies they have grown up in and the extent of conservatism within their communities. For Muslims living in the Western world, overexposure to images of sex and nakedness in order to sell objects, is commonplace, thus having a desensitising impact on their psyche, however much they may dislike what they see. For those living in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, such images are far less commonplace, in fact non-existent, resulting in a greater degree of sensitivity.
 
On 4 April 2012, the Zelikow torture memo (previously thought to be destroyed) was released, which effectively confirmed that years after criticism of the way in which torture has been systematically used, that enforced nudity is still to be considered an acceptable practice in interrogations,
 
“The control conditions, such as nudity, sleep deprivation, and liquid diet, may also be sustainable, depending on the circumstances and details of how these techniques are used.”
 
The Tipton Three (Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed) were amongst the first to detail the forms of sexual humiliation that detainees in Guantanamo were suffering. Shafiq Rasul described a cavity search that was conducted on him soon after his arrival in Guantanamo as being, “both painful and humiliating.” However, the shame that was associated with such acts resulted in the slow acceptance that this was taking place,
 
“We didn’t hear anybody talking about being sexually humiliated or subjected to sexual provocation before General Miller came. After that we did. Although sexual provocation, molestation did not happen to us, we are sure that it happened to others. It did not come about at first that people came back and told about it. They didn’t. What happened was that one detainee came back from interrogation crying and confiding in another what had happened. That detainee in turn thought that it was so shocking he told others and then other detainees revealed that it had happened to them but they had been too ashamed to admit it.”
 
In their statement, the men highlighted the case of one of the Algerians, one of whom was treated to a particularly horrific incident,
 
“We were told by one Algerian (not one of the Bosnian Algerians) that he had been taken to interrogation and been forced to stand naked. He also told us he had been forced to watch a video supposedly showing two detainees dressed in orange, one sodomising the other and was told that it would happen to him if he didn’t cooperate.”
 
In Guantanamo, the practice of sexual humiliation was systematic as detailed by Paisley Dodds in an article for Salon, references were made often to the former interrogator Sgt Erick R Saar who detailed some of the practices that were being implemented against the detainees,
 
“Beginning in April 2003, “there hung a short skirt and thong underwear on the hook on the back of the door” of one interrogation team’s office, he writes.” Later I learned that this outfit was used for interrogations by one of the female civilian contractors...on a team which conducted interrogations in the middle of the night on Saudi men who were refusing to talk.””
 
In another incident, Saar described the way in which a man was humiliated through the use of specific Muslim sensitivities,
 
““His female interrogator decided that she needed to turn up the heat,” Saar writes, saying she repeatedly asked the detainee who had sent him to Arizona, telling him he could “cooperate” or “have no hope whatsoever of ever leaving this place or talking to a lawyer.”‘
 
The man closed his eyes and began to pray, Saar writes.
 
The female interrogator wanted to “break him,” Saar adds, describing how she removed her uniform top to expose a tight-fitting T-shirt and began taunting the detainee, touching her breasts, rubbing them against the prisoner’s back and commenting on his apparent erection.
 
The detainee looked up and spat in her face, the manuscript recounts.
 
The interrogator left the room to ask a Muslim linguist how she could break the prisoner’s reliance on God. The linguist told her to tell the detainee that she was menstruating, touch him, then make sure to turn off the water in his cell so he couldn’t wash.
 
Strict interpretation of Islamic law forbids physical contact with women other than a man’s wife or family, and with any menstruating women, who are considered unclean.
 
“The concept was to make the detainee feel that after talking to her he was unclean and was unable to go before his God in prayer and gain strength,” says the draft, stamped “Secret.”
 
The interrogator used ink from a red pen to fool the detainee, Saar writes.
 
“She then started to place her hands in her pants as she walked behind the detainee,” he says. “As she circled around him he could see that she was taking her hand out of her pants. When it became visible the detainee saw what appeared to be red blood on her hand. She said, ‘Who sent you to Arizona?’ He then glared at her with a piercing look of hatred.
 
“She then wiped the red ink on his face. He shouted at the top of his lungs, spat at her and lunged forward” _ so fiercely that he broke loose from one ankle shackle.
 
“He began to cry like a baby,” the draft says, noting the interrogator left saying, “Have a fun night in your cell without any water to clean yourself.””
 
While the US government has denied this incident ever took place, the reporting of the incident by Saar matches perfectly with an incident that was described by Juma al-Dossary, who was eventually released to Saudi Arabia.
 
Also well recorded, has been the transference of techniques from Guantanamo Bay to Iraq, and in particular Abu Ghraib. The now infamous photos from Abu Ghraib betrayed both the sadistic way in which detainees were treated, but further than that, the systematic way in which their religion was used against them. In particular, the simulated homosexual positions that detainees in Iraq were subjected to, breached the most sensitive aspects of the Muslim psyche. According to Bernard Haykel,
 
“Such dehumanization is unacceptable in any culture, but it is especially so in the Arab world. Homosexual acts are against Islamic law and it is humiliating for men to be naked in front of other men...Being put on top of each other and forced to masturbate, being naked in front of each other – it’s all a form of torture.”
 
It is Seymour Hersh who delivers the most damning indictment of the way in which the actions of US soldiers in Abu Ghraib came from policy formed from those at the very top,
 
“The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. One book that was frequently cited was The Arab Mind, a study of Arab culture and psychology, first published in 1973, by Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist who taught at, among other universities, Columbia and Princeton, and who died in 1996. The book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. “The segregation of sexes, the veiling of women...and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,” Patai wrote. Homosexual activity, “or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private.” The Patai book, an academic told me, was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behaviour.” In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged – “one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.” The government consultant said that there might have been a serious goal, in the beginning, behind the sexual humiliation and the posed photographs. It was thought that some prisoners would do anything – including spying on their associates – to avoid dissemination of the shameful photos to family and friends.  The government consultant said, “I was told that the purpose of the photographs was to create an army of informants, people you could insert back in the population.” The idea was that they would be motivated by fear of exposure, and gather information about pending insurgency action, the consultant said. If so, it wasn’t effective; the insurgency continued to grow.”
 
Hersh’s work provides us with a glimpse into the way that sexuality is used against Muslim detainees in the War on Terror. Not only are the tactics being used in order to break the spirit of an individual during the process of interrogation, but further, to use that humiliation as a means to gain a position over the entire community – in effect – as for a form of counterinsurgency tool. Indeed, one of the tools that had been suggested by the CIA in order to undermine Saddam Hussein, was to produce a simulated homosexual sex-tape as if it had been produced by a hidden camera featuring the Iraqi despot. The idea being to destabilise the regime by using such defamatory material in the hope that he would lose any support from his Muslim population. One might claim that such a tactic might have been attempted in the South Park movie which depicted Saddam Hussein as the evil homosexual-lover of Satan.
 
Such smear tactics are not simply proposals, at times they have been carried out. One of the cited myths about Anwar al-Awlaki is that he was twice arrested for soliciting prostitutes, however he has never been charged with any crime and always claimed that the charges were completely false. Although the arrests were allegedly made in 1996-97, the use of this information against him only began to be peddled recently, as the US media sought to discredit the man’s Islamic credentials. A similar tactic was used against James ‘Yusuf’ Yee, a former Muslim chaplain for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Initially, Yee was accused by the US military of espionage in November 2003, and after being told to provide evidence before a court, eventually charged him with adultery and viewing pornography (crimes under US military law). He eventually won his appeal against the adultery and fornication charges as General James T Hill dismissed the case against him. The same of course can be said of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, where media attention turned to the suggestion that there was a “cache of pornography” in his home. These were both examples of how accusations of improper sexual activity on the part of a Muslim have been used against him, in order to present a flawed and thus immoral character.
 
The act of using sexual humiliation in order to undermine Muslim enemies serves different purposes depending on the circumstance. The sad reality is that this is not something new to the Muslim world. The current rape of Muslim women in Syria, the mass rapes in Bosnia, and other degrading treatment meted out over the years of repression and conflict in the Muslim world has seen the use of sexual violence and humiliation as being a cornerstone of the way in which Muslim communities are subjugated. Examples such as Ahmed Abou El-Maati in Syria and Moazzam Begg in Afghanistan, where they were made to believe that their fiancé and wife were being violently abused in the rooms next to them, expose the deepest fears that Muslims have, that it is not just them, but their families who will suffer the most depraved degradation.
 
Sexual humiliation has become a part of the instruments of the War on Terror, by preying on our sensitivities as Muslims, the US decided to play an extremely deadly game, one in which the horror of their actions will only serve to alienate and disaffect Muslims worldwide. The honour and dignity of Muslims is considered to be inviolable, but it is this very concept that he been attacked through the policies that have been practised by the US. This continued humiliation will only last so long, for as the Arab Spring has shown us all, there is only so much that the people can take.
 
Follow Asim Qureshi on Twitter @AsimCP (https://twitter.com/#!/AsimCP) or facebook http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=702330951
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