On Charges of Torture, Etc., Etc., Etc.

american history makeover

War and Torture go hand in hand, and no one should be surprised that the United States has its hand in this cookie jar. The Torture Report revelations especially struck me, I was in the midst of reading the Seerah (the biography of the of Prophets life and mission) around the time the Muslims were tortured by the Quraysh, so it colors my reflection for Rabi al-Awwal.

This is an annual tradition for me now, heading into the auspicious Rabi al-Awwal, the Islamic month that the Prophet was reported to have been born (and died in), where I spend time reading the Seerah. Today marks the first day of the Islamic lunar month of Rabi al-Awwal and I would like to take this month as an opportunity to join me in inaugurating my own bidah for this month.

This is the month that many Muslims celebrate the Mawlid, a semi-religious, but not authentic celebration of the Prophets birth, and other Muslims spit out the word bidah (detrimental innovation or addition to the Faith) at Muslims marking the Mawlid. My bidah is the reading of the Seerah during this month, and this year I have chosen to read Muhammad- Man and Prophet by Adil Salahi, again.

Because so much of my reading and reflection on the Prophet’s life happened under the shade of the Senate Torture Report, its hard to not begin the month from any other perspective, that of the first generations of Muslims.

Torture is defined as “the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain.” The Quraysh inflicted precisely the treatment that falls within the definition of torture on their fellow Meccan’s, what Salahi refers to as the “campaign of persecution” against their own family members, allies, and the poor, defenseless, as well as slaves amongst them.

“It was indeed only natural that the brunt of the campaign of persecution would be borne by Muslims who belonged to these classes. After all, the Makkan tribal society was defending tis very system which classified people according to their birth and circumstances. The privileged class would not relinquish its privileges easily. It was unable, however,r to disregard those privileges or to deny them to those companions of the Prophet who were entitled to enjoy them by virtue of their birth and lineage.”

The underprivileged, largely those who didnt belong to the large tribes that made up the tribal system of Arabia, were also still the ones that kept accepting Islam. The contradiction is something that has a hard time settling in.

Muslim kids early on are told about the trials and tribulations of these underprivileged members of the early community of the faithful, with special emphasis on Bilal, an Abyssinian slave who would go on to play a significant role in the establishment of the Muslim community in the Medina-city-state. He was brutally terrorized by Abu Jahl, one of the worst tormentors of Muslims and plotters against Islam in Mecca at the time.

One person stood out amongst, the many that were tortured, Khabbab ibn al-Aratt, who’s faith was described as being as “firm as a mountain.” He was kidnapped from his tribe at an early age and sold into slavery to a man from the Khuza’ah tribe, and was amongst the earliest followers of the Prophet. It was on Khabbab, according to Salahi, that the Quraysh experimented various torture methods, fine tuning them and carrying them out against others.

Amongst the things they did to Khabbab were throwing him into a large fire pit, constant beatings that lasted for weeks, they heated stones in fire and laid Khabbab, naked, onto these stones; and through a contraption they built they twisted his neck to extremes. Khabbab carried permanent injuries from this torture, disability that would mark him as a survivor of Quraysh campaign of persecution to stamp out Islam.

A rational mind would see the “persecution” of those unconnected to tribes being beaten to near death for their Islamic faith as a good reason to stay away from proclaiming that same faith- that was the message the Quraysh were trying to send to these people. Yet these folks, along with notable members of the Quaysh tribes, kept becoming Muslim, kept expressing a faith as firm as the mountains that surrounded Mecca.

In Islam torture is considered a major violation to the fundamental rights of a being. It occurs when pain or suffering is inflicted upon a living creature, therefore its not limited to just humans. Muslims know that every act of aggression done to others, no matter how small or how large, will be questioned on the Day of Judgment. There are a multitude of rulings and writings on this principle, so I won’t repeat it here, and sadly its a principle that Muslims have themselves brushed under the rug when they saw fit. I think there can’t be any better example of a Muslims resolves against torture then to contextualize it in our own history, but we also need to understand the universality of the principles that deem torture as inconsistent with our societal norms.

 A Historical Makeover

We have to come to terms with either we are a society that condones torture, or we must take all means necessary to prevent the use of torture. Those who justify enhanced interrogation techniques must be cornered and put on the record as justifying the use of torture; and those who say this torture should not be used need to be put on record as stating that torture in all its forms is wrong, no matter what intelligence is gathered.

Because, sadly those speaking out against torture today, were the same ones justifying its use, euphemistically, in the aftermath of September 11th:

Democrat Jay Rockefeller, while the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was asked in 2003 about turning over Khalid Sheik Mohammed to countries known to torture. He replied: “I wouldn’t take anything off the table where he is concerned.”

I think its clear that if we are to speak from a place of principle, then we need to oppose torture and even more so when it comes to the more crucial point about whether through torture there is actionable intelligence gathering. Is torture justifiable under this circumstance?

What is lacking from the debate about this report is what torture means to our values as a nation; instead much of the conversation about the Torture Report has been framed by fear: increasing retaliation against the US; undermining the US security efforts; the backlash by governments against the US; and, the Muslim street response. But no one thought about this when they were conducting the torture?

We are now two weeks into this and apparently the larger American population has no problem with torture, and worse, American Christian’s overwhelmingly approve of Torture (shocking considering we are going into Christmas, probably the only religious holiday that celebrates the death and resurrection from torture, but then again, its just torture) but that there is a Gospel that teaches differently.

Thats where I want to spend time: the religious context, the lack of American moral authority (clarity), and American historical context of torture, because we claim to be a nation that sets an example to other nations of higher moral and principles, yet we have no problems justifying inhumane values.

Where is that Muslim World Response?

My friend Deen Obeidallah wrote a great analysis in his DailyBeast article about the lack of protest in the Middle East, and the Muslim world, regarding the Torture Report. He states that there are two reasons for the lack of response:

First, people across the Middle East have seen their own governments employ horrible forms of torture for years. It’s one of the oppressive techniques utilized by their respective leaders to remain in power.

The second, and what I see as the bigger reason for a collective shrug from the Muslim world, was what we didn’t see in the report. There were no allegations that the jailers engaged in desecrating Islam.

He argues that these two factors resulted in the non-response. The piece is a good read as it delves further into the evidence behind this argument, but I think what is missing from this is the fact that no one, in the Muslim world especially, actually thought that the United States wasn’t using torture, there is no collective gasp, anywhere.

There is a collective shrug because the world already knew what the US was doing, and equated the US to being no better then any other despotic regime. This is the perception we have, this is our collective history.

The people of the world are keenly aware of American legacy of torture, done in the name of liberty, democracy, and individual rights. The New Yorker has an account of the “Water Cure” inflicted on Filipino fighters, who just years before had fought alongside the US army under the assumption the US was helping to liberate the Philippines from Spanish colonial rule, but sadly America was gripped with Imperial fervor of its own (more on this in a later blog post):

A letter by A. F. Miller, of the 32nd Volunteer Infantry Regiment, published in the Omaha World-Herald in May, 1900, told of how Miller’s unit uncovered hidden weapons by subjecting a prisoner to what he and others called the “water cure.” “Now, this is the way we give them the water cure,” he explained. “Lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot, then put a round stick in the mouth and pour a pail of water in the mouth and nose, and if they don’t give up pour in another pail. They swell up like toads. I’ll tell you it is a terrible torture.”

The torture, along with the summary killing of thousands and thousands of Filipino’s, the burning of villages after the torture took place as a form of collective punishment for being witnesses to American torture; all of this, was justified by “military necessity” by the military and those that supported the war, not much has changed even today.

Herbert Welsh wrote in 1901, as one who “professes to believe in the gospel of Christ, the cruelties and barbarities which have been perpetrated under our flag in the Philippines” must be condemned, and he started a one man campaign to get to the heart of the disturbing stories coming back from the Philippines. But the allegations, the Senate investigations, all were swept under the rug by the simplest fashion- a declaration of victory in the Philippine campaign by President Roosevelt.

The United States is quick to point out other nations human rights record, publishing an annual State Department list outlining human rights behaviors of our foes and frenimes alike.

Just because our institutions are part of a democratic government, backed by a free society, does not make conducting torture less torture and more okay. In fact, if we are calling out others, we better be behaving better then them, or else its really the pot calling the kettle black.

In a April 1902 New York World editorial, the paper asked “But where is that vast national outburst of astounded horror which an old-fashioned America would have predicted at the reading of such news?” It went on to suggest that it was lost over the 8,000 miles that divided the place of atrocity with the public in whose name these atrocities were carried out for. But this legacy continued into other wars, and other areanas of American interest.

A case in point is that while American politicians were lambasting the Torture Report in the United States, in Brazil, President Rouseff was reading a report on torture carried in her country, which she was a victim of while she was detained by the military government for her political beliefs, and that the United States supported.

“Under the military dictatorship, repression and the elimination of political opposition became the policy of the state, conceived and implemented based on decisions by the president of the republic and military ministers,” the report states. The commission “therefore totally rejects the explanation offered up until today that the serious violations of human rights constituted a few isolated acts or excesses resulting from the zeal of a few soldiers”.

The work exhaustively details the military’s “systematic practice” of arbitrary detentions and torture, as well as executions, forced disappearances and hiding bodies. It documents 191 killings and 210 disappearances committed by military authorities, as well as 33 cases of people who were “disappeared” and whose remains were discovered later.

Her experience with American funded, taught, and politically sanctioned state torture is a norm in Latin America for oppositional political figures. This is where the Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and his incessant ant-American spiel comes in, and why it has credibility in the South American populace (simplistic and not-all-together comprehensive view, but read more here).

The irony should not be lost on anyone. This is American values and principles meeting the world, and while this is one aspect of the American experience, its one that doesn’t get airbrushed by photoshop. While reading the torture report, Rouseff broke down in tears and said “[w]e, who believe in the truth, hope that this report contributes to make it so that ghosts from a sad and painful past are no longer able to find shelter in silence.”

This sentiment rings true for the United States. We can’t hide behind our principles when they are such a mixed message and then ask “why do they hate us?” “They” hate us because of our double standards.
When it comes to our national security and interest, the United States has always undermined its efforts through undemocratic behaviors, and never fully committed to allowing the people of the world to decide their own affairs, and this has been out of “necessity” to prioritize our interests.
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