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Empire's mockery

By Rouzbeh Pirouz. Source: Open Democracy, 12 October 2004

The dark heart of Abu Ghraib reveals the contradiction between America's fine words and degrading deeds in Iraq, says Rouzbeh Pirouz.

When news first began to emerge that Arab prisoners had been abused in a gruesome manner by their American guards at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, the initial reaction of the Bush administration followed three stages: first, present the events as the kind of freak occurrence that can take place in any walk of life, and should not therefore occasion surprise; second, reaffirm endless tributes to the valour and nobility of the vast majority of America's soldiers in Iraq; third, defensively acknowledge the existence of a few shockingly bad apples in an otherwise wholesome apple cart.

And then came the pictures.

The devastating potency of these grainy photographs was instantly obvious. We live in an age when photographers – moving almost as rapidly as the disasters they track – present us with images of human suffering, violence, and obscenity with a speed of light that stuns the mind and numbs the soul. The images of Abu Ghraib, however, already seem more enduring. They leave a mark on humanity's collective conscience which will not be easily erased.

The reasons for this are simple but also challenging and probably difficult to accept. The Abu Ghraib images remain so resonant because they speak to more profound struggles than the mere commotion unleashed by a set of extremely obscene but isolated incidents. They appear simultaneously to epitomise two related currents in the geopolitical arena: the widespread perception in the Arab world that Arabs are effectively a colonised people treated with barely disguised contempt and careless exploitation; and the dualistic, polarising discourse of Osama bin Laden. This absurd theatre filled with graphic evidence of evil, degenerate western authorities humiliating and sexually violating defenceless Muslim prisoners could not, it seems, be better calculated to reinforce these trends.

Thus, what matters about Abu Ghraib is that its symbolism seems to express at the most intimate and awful human level a large part of the story of American involvement in the middle east in the post–second world war era.

One of the first and most striking images from Abu Ghraib depicted a blindfolded Iraqi male prisoner with a leash round his neck that was being held by an American soldier in army gear. It is no surprise that many people in the region see such photographs as emblematic of a wider political history. In short, many Arabs feel that the region as a whole is caught in a leash that runs straight to the foreign masters.

The United States, after all, maintains an enormous military presence in the middle east in pursuit of its strategic ambitions; one of its primary motives for war in Iraq was its search for a major new base in the strategically critical Persian Gulf after the evacuation of most of its forces from Saudi Arabia. The ruling royal families in two of the most bountiful oil–producing states, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, have long depended on American military protection as an insurance policy in a neighbourhood filled with seemingly nasty neighbours.

An imperial mission

In this light, the image of the prisoner on a leash is a free gift to political cartoonists who feature Uncle Sam with his pet dog, Iraq – only the latest in a ménage that could, in the consciousness of many Arabs, easily be substituted with a number of other Arab states.

The occupation of Iraq added to the intensity of this particular image. The Bush administration has tried hard to portray the Iraq escapade as anything but an exercise in imperialism; America, its leading figures stress repeatedly, doesn't "do" empire. Yet this image seemed to tell another story with all the obvious connotations of past experiences of imperialist dehumanisation and degradation.

More telling is the discovery that beneath the rhetoric of their leaders, American soldiers and prison guards exhibited the almost primal instinct of inherently imperialist behaviour, with its innate need to demonstrate power and assert authority. In this respect, the Abu Ghraib images are not the insignificant aberrations claimed by the Bushites, but an unmasking of the sadder and darker truth that lay at the heart of their Iraq project.

Even if the cynical view that American political leaders know that they are engaging in a form of imperialism and pretend otherwise is discarded, two aspects of Abu Ghraib betray their adventure in Iraq as a clear instance of imperialism.

The first is the rhetoric of a self–defined superior civilisation ennobled by the virtue of its cause, seeking to take control of but also to "develop" a lesser civilisation. The second is that the real test of whether a country is operating in an imperialist way is not in its words but in its actions. It is here that the guards of Abu Ghraib echoed in the most raw and exposed form the attitudes of their past British, French, and Japanese counterparts – almost as a subconscious affirmation of the role of imperialist masters they had been placed in.

However, Abu Ghraib contains a third element that makes America's attempted conquest of Iraq an instance of cultural imperialism. The prison images are also a distressing demonstration of the more degraded side of the freedom and democracy in whose name the mission to revolutionise and ultimately civilise (although no one would dare use that toxic word) the Iraqi nation had been articulated.

For the most prominent western export to Iraq since the 2003 war, one of freedom's most unsavoury fruits, is pornography. From street–vendors in Baghdad hawking raunchy rags to satellite dishes finding frequencies for every fetish, and ultimately to the sickening perversities of Abu Ghraib, sex western–style seems to be showing everywhere in Iraq. But where Iraqis in the street or at home are here using (or misusing) their newfound freedoms – and the most the occupation can be blamed for is creating conditions that make porn readily available – the abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib had no such choice; they were not sexual voyeurs but sexual victims.

America's challenge

In this, the disgrace of Abu Ghraib has momentous political implications, for the pornographic nature of the abuse appears to confirm the portrayal of a decadent west that is systematically nurtured and propagated by radical Islamists seeking influence and power across the middle east.

Many scholars of Islamic fundamentalism, noting how this movement repeatedly defines itself in terms of what it opposes, have traced the essentially reactive character of its recent, rapid expansion. Indeed, fundamentalist thinkers and leaders are extremely specific when, for example, they rage against their representations of American evil, but are far more vague in describing the Islamic utopias they seek.

This reactive impulse involves flattening the rich cultural diversity of modern western societies (of which Islam itself is of course a key component) to a single, governing image: sexual perversity. There are of course tens of millions of people in the west who ignore the distractions of pornography and lead more or less similar lives to their middle east counterparts; yet the appeal of fundamentalism depends on the evasion of such "normality" in the interest of a depiction of western culture as degenerate and subversive. In what Gilles Kepel calls "the war for Muslim minds", this is how the battle–lines are drawn.

Islamic fundamentalism posits its struggle as an existential one against the western way of life. In truth, this characterisation is actually more applicable to its own ideology – for if it loses its battle for Muslim hearts and minds, it will surely be defeated in the war it has itself declared.

This is where the moral and cultural debasement represented by Abu Ghraib runs most deep and does most damage to the cause of those fighting the fundamentalists. Insofar as Abu Ghraib does reflect one, albeit twisted and extreme, face of the west, it is ready–made propaganda for the Osama bin Ladens of this world. It seems to confirm the fundamentalists' caricature of the west, to pose a conflict between the west's value system and those of the Muslim masses where none should exist, and to make a mockery of the best western ideal – the principle of individual rights and freedoms protected by the rule of law.

The problem for Islamic fundamentalism is that maintaining a reductive image of the west – a blend of perversity, wickedness and sadism – is essential to its growth. The problem for the west, and especially the United States, is that Abu Ghraib seems to validate this image.

There is only one way out. We can call it the Abu Ghraib test. Can America – from its president to its prison guards – make its behaviour match the values its rhetoric proclaims?