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America’s Islamic Blind Spots

17 March 2012 General 9 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

by The Project Syndicate

NEW YORK – In the wake of the Koran-burning by troops at the United States’ Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, protests continue to escalate, and the death toll mounts. In the process, three US blind spots have become obvious.

One is that of the US media, whose coverage simply underscores – and amplifies – the stunning cluelessness that triggered the protests in the first place. Professional journalists are obliged to answer five questions: who, what, where, why, and how. But, reading reports from The Associated PressThe New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others, I searched exhaustively before I could form any picture of what had actually been done to the Korans in question. Not only did accounts conflict; none offered a clear notion of who had allegedly done what, let alone why or how.

Were Korans burned, as one US report had it, under the oversight of US military officials? Or were they brought by soldiers for incineration, as another version maintained, as part of a haul of “extremist literature” and prisoners’ personal communications, with Afghan workers alerting others at the base to the nature of the material?

These murky accounts – with no clear subjects or actions (The New York Times, incredibly, managed not to describe the burning at all) – reflect what happens when major news outlets appear simply to take dictation from the Pentagon.

The second US blind spot is the politicization of this terrible affront. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has called Obama’s apology a “surrender,” while another Republican contender, Rick Santorum, is offended that anyone is suggesting that the US should bear any “blame.”

This absence of perspective reveals the cultural ignorance that has turned recent US foreign interventions into political catastrophes. I, too, come from an Abrahamic religion, Judaism, which shares strong roots with Islam. In both faiths, sacred texts are treated as if they are, in a sense, living beings. Jews, too, give them “burials’ when they are too old to use, and treat them ritualistically while they are “alive,” using silver pointers to avoid profaning them with human hands, dressing them in velvet jackets, and kissing them when they fall to the ground.

Burning a conquered people’s sacred texts sends an unmistakable message: you can do anything to these people. As Heinrich Heine put it, referring to the Spanish Inquisition‘s burning of the Koran, “Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.” Jews understand that very well: from the Inquisition toCossack massacres to Kristallnacht, the aggressors destroyed Torahs as a logical and well-understood precursor to destroying Jews.

The third blind spot is almost too painful to bear having to address – which, on a charitable interpretation, might explain why not one mainstream US media report has done so: the burnings were not carried out on some street in Kabul, but at Bagram. That is, Korans were burned at a US facility that meets the dictionary definition of a concentration camp.

In 2009, Spiegel Online ran a portrait gallery about Bagram titled “America’s Torture Chamber.” In “The Forgotten Guantánamo,” it reported that 600 people were being held at Bagram without charge. All were termed “unlawful enemy combatants,” allowing the US to claim that they have no right to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. A military prosecutor said that, compared to Bagram, Guantánamo Bay was “a nice hotel.”

Indeed, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, invariably described in the US as “the self-proclaimed chief architect of 9/11,” told the Red Cross that at Bagram he had been suspended by shackles and sexually assaulted: “I was made to lie on the floor. A tube was inserted into my anus and water poured inside.” Another prisoner, Raymond Azar, testified that ten FBI agents had abducted him, shown him photos of his family, and told him that if he didn’t “cooperate,” he would never see them again.

The BBC collated testimony in 2010 from nine prisoners confirming that human-rights abuses continued at Bagram. The prisoners independently described “a secret prison” inside the prison, called “the black hole.” Prisoners were still being subjected at the time to freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation, and “other abuses.” One testified that a US soldier had used a rifle to knock out a row of his teeth, and that he was forced to dance to music whenever he needed to use the bathroom.

Another investigation confirmed similar allegations in 2010, and last month the BBC reported that Bagram’s prison population had reached 3,000, while an Afghan-led investigation found still more allegations of ongoing torture, including freezing temperatures and sexual humiliations.

Of course, since the US military can detain anyone in Afghanistan, and hold him or her without charge in these conditions forever, the entire country lives under the shadow of torture at Bagram. The Koran burnings are a potent symbol of that systemic threat.

So, while Obama should continue to apologize for the Koran burnings, we must understand that Afghans’ rage is a response to an even deeper, rawer wound. Obama should also apologize for kidnapping Afghans; for holding them at Bagram without due process of law; for forcing them into cages, each reportedly holding up to 30 prisoners; for denying them Red Cross/Red Crescent visits; for illegally confiscating family letters; for torturing and sexually abusing them; and for casting a pall of fear over the country.

The Koran forbids that kind of injustice and cruelty. So does the Bible.

Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.

Original post: America’s Islamic Blind Spots


  1. Any type of torture is wrong. If people are to be held then one of two things need to happen. Treat them as prisoners of war with all the rights and access to services that entails, or treat them as criminals and try them under whatever laws are applicable to them. This enemy combatant talk was simply made up in the Bush administration and carried over by the Obama Administration and is simply a way of stripping away basic human rights from the people it accuses. Its shameful and wrong. Some people want to say that these people have no rights under our constitution, but if they are being held by us and the articles of war are not being used then I disagree. Our founding fathers developed our constitution based upon rights they believed men had simply because they were born. The Constitution does not give us those rights it merely highlights some of the more important rights men are born with as our founding fathers did not want anyone to see them as items of debate. I believe the term they used was natural rights, which they believed was inclusive of all mankind.

  2. Naomi Wolf has been associated with several silly things, so I never know whether to believe her.

    The crazy stories coming out of Gitmo and Bagram need to be investigated. The prisoners don’t seem to be accorded any status.

    Obama where are you?

  3. The people in the “war on terror” are designated as “enemy combatants” because they do not wear uniforms and deliberately attack civilians. These acts violate the laws of war and constitute war crimes. Under the laws of war “enemy combatants” can be executed on the battlefield.The enemy combatant status is used to differentiates the terrorist from the honorable warrrior.

    I also think it was foolish for President Obama to apologize to President Karzai over burned Korans. Particularly since more soldiers were killed after the apology then before the apology. One of our cultural values is that a human is worth more then a book. Obama should be reinforcing American cultural values, one way of doing that would have been to have Karzai apologize to the families of the American soldiers murdered by Afghans over a few burned books.

  4. Hera, that is a poor excuse for stripping people of basic rights. You know as well as I do that many countries and groups cannot field soldiers and equipment to fight the United States on a man to man basis. They would lose the war within a matter of days. I do not agree with terrorism but these people do not have uniforms and basically fight a guerilla war. To say a small country or group violates international laws because they cannot raise the money to buy uniforms or field a army vast enough to directly confront the United States is not realistic.

    I do not agree with what these men are fighting for but they are Men fighting for a cause they believe in. They are doing it in the best way they know how against an enemy or enemies that have vastly superior firepower and manpower. They deserve to be treated like men and given basic human rights including those afforded soldiers under the Geneva Convention and failing that basic human rights espoused by our forefathers under the guise of natural rights as designated and highlighted by our constitution. If I were to water board a dog or deprive a chimp of sleep for days on end I would go to jail for animal cruelty. We have been treating some of these people with less regard than we do a lab rat. That is just wrong. Personally I do not care about the Korans as I am not a Muslim. I do, however, care about the Muslim fighters. I have no problems with killing them on the battlefield, or with drones, or a sniper rifle a half a mile away as they are soldiers, fighters, or terrorists. However, when we capture them alive we have the responsibility to treat them as men and under sets of rules that guarantee them some sort of rights. If we’re doing indefinite detention then the Geneva Convention should be used with access to the red cross. If were holding them under U.S. Law then constitutional protections should be afforded them including charges, trials, and release dates.

    To pick up a rifle and fight against the United States does not take away your humanity or the blessings God has given every man and woman on this planet.

  5. It’s beyond hypocritical for a terrorist group that sends “fighters” with hidden bomb vests into pizza parlors to blow up teenage civilians to then turn around and demand Geneva convention protections.The laws of war are ment to protect civilians, the civilians that terrorists deliberately attack. That’s why lawful combatants are to wear uniforms, carry their weapons out in the open and NOT deliberately attack civilians.Since enemy combatants engage in war crimes by deliberately attacking civilians they forfeit any protection under the Geneva convention. In World War 2 for example many of the soldiers were conscripts into the Germany or American army.The purpose of POW camps was so captured soldiers would be removed from the battlefield and treated humanely so they could return to civilian life after the conflict has ended. “Enemy combatants” knowingly join terrorist groups to engage in war crimes, they do not deserve the same protections as honorable warriors. Under the laws of war an enemy combatant can be summarily executed on the battlefield WITHOUT trail. Those are the rules, you join a terrorist group you take your chances.

  6. Hera we kill and have killed civilians in every conflict we have engaged in. I will not make a statement that this is necessarily wrong so long as the attack has a goal meant to end the war or provide favorable gains for the United States. Look at our firebombing of Dresden we killed more people in that attack than in the atomic bombings of Japan. It is true our bombers had uniforms but the enemy could not see them they may as well have been naked. To try to set up a set of rules that only favor the strong does not work. Should the terrorists all dawn uniforms and openly carry weapons so that they can be killed or captured more quickly ? What would be the point? A mass protest in a prison camp? The ability to the United States to identify them and kill them with drones with no risk to civilians? Regardless of how we feel these are people with demands that are not being met and by my standards do not need to be met, but they do not live by the standards you and I set.

    As to what an Honorable warrior is in these times I do not know. Is it the man who sets at a computer and guides a missile into a town to kill a group of men but end up killing 20 others including children in collateral damage? I say yes because that is the way warfare is developing. Is it a man who sets up an explosive device on a road to kill off those he sees as invaders of his lands? I say yes as it is one of the few means for him to attack and live to attack another day. Is the sending of a missile 200 miles away from a ship really much different than a suicide bomber delivering his payload? The missile has a chip that will drop it exactly where we want it. Third world fighters do not have access to those weapons so they must use the human brain to deliver the payload to its location. The guerilla fighter cannot always hit military targets so they must hit political targets or targets used for political gain.

    My point is that none of these people have given up their humanity even as they commit acts of utter savagery and yes even the firing of a cruise missile is savagery. Killing them is fine as they have taken up the gun and have no other expectation, but when captured they must be treated like men because that is what they are.

    These ideas we have toward “illegal enemy combatants” started in 2006 under Bush with the Military Commissions Act and are not covered under international law in that this act is more restrictive of who a legal combatant is than international law.

  7. The reason soldiers are to wear uniforms and carry their weapons in the open is to clearly differentiate between the combatant and the non-combatant. The idea is to protect civilians. When the “enemy combatant” disguises himself as a civilian, hides among civilians and deliberately attacks civilians he puts civilians at risk.He’s committed a war crime which is why he can be summarily executed to the battlefield WITHOUT trial. You don’t see many institutions like Gitmo because most terrorists are executed, which is legal under the laws of war.I also find it interesting that people who demand “humane” treatment for terrorists do not also cry out when American, Iraqi, Israeli and Western soldiers are captured tortured and/or summarily executed by Islamic terrorists.

    Under Geneva these are the circumstances that entitle a person to POW status. A terrorist wearing a hidden bomb vest to kill civilians does seem to fit this standard.


    “Persons belonging to one of the following categories, who have fallen into the power of the enemy:

    Members of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces.

    Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfill the following conditions:

    That of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;

    That of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;

    That of carrying arms openly;

    That of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

  8. Hera
    The US gought and killed in the Revolutionary War, the French-Indian War, the Civil War, ww1, Ww2, The cold war, the Vietnam War, the ‘war on terror’, etc. Half of the time, especially with the Middle East and Vietnam, The US shoulda stopped acting like an enraged 6 yr old and stayed out of it. And now Israel is pushing America to let it fight Iran, which wants arbitration. This is ridiculous.

  9. No matter what a person has done, they should not be held without charge, and I think that is what is going on at least in some cases.

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