Skip to main content
Op-Ed

Photos Etched in Arab Minds

Shibley Telhami

The pictures will be imprinted in the minds of many in the Middle East and around the world for years to come: American soldiers sadistically torturing Iraqi prisoners in the same facility where Saddam Hussein’s secret service tormented his subjects. In one of the latest images, a man lies naked on the floor with a collar attached to his neck and a leash held by a female American soldier.

These were pictures of utter humiliation in a region where humiliation is the pervasive sentiment that allows militants to exploit potential recruits. The sexual nature of some of the images of torture added fuel to the fire. In Arab and Muslim societies, notions of shame, especially connected to sexuality, sometimes trump everything else.

Images of this sort are hard to remove from one’s mind. The pictures of the four mutilated Americans in Falluja moved Americans and others around the world and propelled the U.S. military to lay siege to the city in an operation that killed hundreds. The image of Muhammed Durrah, a Palestinian boy who was shot in the arms of his helpless father moved hearts and enraged Arabs and Muslims all over. Pictures of Israelis killed by the bare hands of a Palestinian mob turned many Israelis against peace. Like these images, the shocking footage from Abu Ghraib will endure beyond the immediate crisis.

All this is bad enough, but there is much more to the enraged reaction in Arab and Muslim countries, and to why the damage will be difficult to repair. Certainly, many in the region know that torture takes place in their own countries. But in these pictures, they see a troubling reinforcement of their deep fears: An occupation of an Arab country by a power whose credibility in their eyes had already collapsed.

To begin with, consider that the vast majorities in Arab countries, and most people around the world, opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq. In the Arab world, public opinion surveys conducted on the eve of the war showed that most Arabs opposed the war even if Iraq were found to have weapons of mass destruction. Most had little faith in the stated objectives of the war and believed the entire campaign was largely for oil and for Israel. Many Muslims expressed the belief that the United States was simply out to weaken Arab and Muslim countries.

But the war happened anyway. And worse, many of their own authoritarian governments cooperated with the U.S. effort, exposing the utter helplessness of the public in the region. The Bush administration first explained the war as a mission to get rid of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and as a part of the war on terrorism because Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida were linked. It quickly turned out that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found and that the only link between Iraq and Al-Qaida was that the war enabled Osama bin Laden’s allies to take root in post-Saddam Iraq. This has visibly increased the prospects of regional terrorism, as was evident in the discovery of the planned mega terrorist attack in Jordan last month.

The primary explanation for the war in the past few months has been the spread of democracy in the Middle East, something that the region surely can use. That Iraq has not yet turned into a stable country, let alone a democracy, has been hard to miss for anyone who watches the daily news. Polls and political trends reflect that most people in the Middle East do not believe that democracy and stability are likely to take hold in their region; instead, they sense greater repression. Democracy may one day come to Iraq, but it will not be soon enough to revive the faith of people in the region in any foreseeable future.

That reality has left the logic of the war hanging by a single thread: The removal of a ruthless dictator and his horrific structures like the Abu Ghraib prison, which most Iraqis would have viewed as a central and inescapable benefit of the war. Maybe Iraqis cannot have full democracy in the short term, but surely they can have human rights and the dignity that most subjects of dictators crave. This surely was the meaning of the war, the legacy of the American-led occupation.

This lone thread to justify the war has been abruptly severed by the ugly sights that have been splashed all over the media. Surely they must be (we hope) isolated cases. But, too many people will argue that they are the norm, and the simple recollection of the lasting imprint in the mind will silence those who argue otherwise in Arab and Muslim countries.

Certainly militants have been handed a welcome gift that they can use to mobilize recruits, for humiliation is the most potent motivation that militants exploit. While the Bush administration will continue to press the region’s authoritarian leaders to reform, and will try to reassure people in the region that Abu Ghraib was a hideous aberration, and that the culprits will be punished, there is too little trust of the administration’s words or intentions for these efforts to succeed.

In the end, the shocking images of Abu Ghraib are not the cause of the collapse of trust but its reinforcement. Confidence in the United States has been in the single digits in many Arab countries for the past year. The administration’s credibility in the region was at an all-time low even before these images flashed on the screen everywhere, exacerbated by the recent violence in Falluja and by Bush’s endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan.

And matters could get worse, if a credible investigation is not conducted of the degrading and brutal treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and if culprits are not punished. The United States must come clean for its own sake.

But the most immediate impact of this episode will be to change the terms of the debate about Iraq from the transfer of sovereignty on June 30th to the status of U.S. forces in Iraq: If we are not there for democracy or because of weapons of mass destruction, why are we there? These questions, set against the backdrop of grotesque behavior by some American troops, will feed the notion that America is not in Iraq for democracy, but for oil. Regardless of how this debate is settled, the images of Abu Ghraib will leave a lasting scar on our moral standing in the Middle East – and the world.

More

Get daily updates from Brookings