Monday, May 24, 2004

When the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse crisis exploded, I analyzed the reactions coming from the Arab world. In an election year, the stakes are high for all parties involved. Each side wants a convenient “truth.” The Bush administration talked about “bad apples.” While on the offensive, the opposition talks of a “systemic problem.”

President Bush went on Arab television, while his opponents rushed to speak on behalf of the “humiliated Arab world.” But as Gen. John Abizaid put it since day one, it sounds as if “the issue is making more noise in the U.S. than in Iraq.” In fact, the Arab-speaking general got it somewhat right. We in America were more concerned about our image than about the actual incidents themselves. The Arab world obviously reacted, but not exactly as many politicians fantasized.

When I asked individuals from different Arab countries what they think about Mr. Bush’s outreach, answers varied. Everybody was sickened by the ugliness of the pictures, but beyond the graphics there were two types of reactions.

Theanti-Americans were not difficult to guess. With Al Jazeera’s incitement, natural anger mutated into hysteria. Suddenly, religion was cited heavily. Very few made a distinction between the psychological illness at Abu Ghraib and the future of Iraq. Actually, the jihadist networks found a lethal political weapon and exploited this all the way. They think they caught America by its mentally weakest soldiers. More than sanctions against the guards, they want to flush the American-led coalition out of Iraq and Mr. Bush out of the Oval Office. In this jihad home run, the architects of the Abu Ghraib crusade against “U.S. immorality” enlisted European elites, too. The oil-chainedestablishment from Paris to Berlin is wailing.Manhattan’s United Nations is mourning.

But there are other people in the region who see the crisis through a different lens. In Beirut, amazement was mostly about Mr. Bush addressing Arab television. Lebanese were certainly disgusted by the aired images, but they were stunned by the fact that a U.S. president was “talking” to Arab citizens. The region is infested with worse ugliness than the prison scandal, yet no one can remember any Arab leader addressing his people about abuse.

“Our dictators never showed up on any media, at any time, for any picture,” said many Syrians, “despite 28 years of horrors in their detention centers.” Thousands of citizens were tortured in al Mazza, the Syrian equivalent of Abu Ghraib, yet no one lifted a finger. Many in the region have their own horror pictures, but who will publish them as long as no Americans were involved?

From Iraq, other voices blasted the media: “What was happening in the same cells of Abu Ghraib under the Ba’ath defies human logic. The awful photos of today would be only appetizers,” said Saddam Hussein’s survivors. “We have pictures, we have documents, but that won’t please your elites.”

These survivors invited the world to visit the mass graves, to see piles of corpses, but to no avail. Shi’ites are cheap, unless they join the anti-American chorus. Their pictures won’t make it to BBC, let alone the Arab networks. Southern Sudanese repeated that 1 million blacks were decimated. They have pictures of naked African men, women and children taken into slavery. Their problem is that they were not taken to Abu Ghraib.

The list is long, but the pattern is one. Deep down, Mideast underdogs know that the pornographic scandal in the U.S.-manned prison was hijacked by the bullies of the region.

Under their dark skin, the victims of the region’s systemic horrors know very well that, with few exceptions, America’s political culture is the antithesis of all the political ideologies of the region. Despite the ugliness of the Abu Ghraib pictures, the Arab world needs to send those uglier pictures from the region’sconcentration camps. It needs to uncover the truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth, everywhere in the region.

Maybe the evil done to prisoners in Iraq will uncover the wider evil in the region.

Walid Phares is a professor of Middle East Studies.

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