Sunday, May 9, 2004

Those photographs of Muslim prisoners in an Iraqi prison fuel the rage of Muslims everywhere because they go to the psychology of identity, reinforcing humiliation. Such humiliation is to the Muslim what losing face is to the Chinese, public exposure of the worst kind. The humiliation felt at Abu Ghraib prison is rooted in a feeling of Islamic weakness in a region caught in the ebb and flow of aggressive hostility to the West for more than a century.

The roots ofMuslim rage,says scholar Bernard Lewis, emanate from a series of humiliating defeats that dramatize how far Muslims have fallen as “heirs of an old, proud, and long dominant civilization.” Not only have they failed to revive a rich culture of creativity, but Muslims have been diminished by societies they consider to be made up of their inferiors.

In “From Babel to Dragomans,” a collection of essays written over four decades, Mr. Lewis interprets the “clash of civilizations” that has brought Muslim society in direct antagonism with the Judeo-Christian West, a clash that grew from disappointment, frustration and debilitating humiliation. At first the Muslin response to Western civilization was admiration and a desire to imitate Western success, an earnest attempt to gain equal status. But when Muslim countries were unable to keep up with the West, Muslims transformed failure into bitterness and hatred.

It didn’t start with American support of Israel, but the seeds were sown when five Arab states attacked Israel in 1948 and suffered a humiliating loss to the new state made up of little more than a half- million Jews. Arabia tried again in the Six-Day War of 1967, and again in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, all with the same effect. The fact that Israeli women fought valiantly against Arabs in 1948, and contributed to their defeat, intensified the blow to Muslim manhood.

When Muslim men went away to fight to defend the Ottoman Empire during the second decade of the 20th century, Muslim women went to work outside the home out of necessity. But when Arab countries failed to sustain economic, technological and politicalachievement,the women were first to suffer the reaction. The pride of Muslim manhood demanded it.

The Islamists easily encouraged dissatisfaction, exploiting belief in absolutes of good and evil to fight modernism and secularism. Women, perceived as “dirty,” have experienced the brunt of male Muslim chauvinism in their own countries. Being guarded, punished and humiliated by American women in Abu Ghraib prison challenges the very essence of what it means to be a Muslim man stuck on the lowest rung of the world power hierarchy.

Islam historically has had many faces in the Middle East, some liberal and some conservative, but vulnerability breeds contempt and compels the search for villains. Western values of freedom, as set out in the 20th century, are perceived by the narrowest readers of the Koran as human perversions rather than expansions of the reach of human possibility. Freedom of speech and open debate on policy issues are seen as signs of weakness and disunity. Examples of high and low entertainment reflect cultural decadence. The freedom of women is the work of Satan.

With the photographs of American men and women humiliating Iraqi prisoners, Islamists can capitalize on whattheycallWestern hypocrisy. These pictures require no interpreter and become powerful weapons, each one worth considerably more than a thousand words. They are aberrations that can be found in any society, but they feed fanaticism, undermining attempts at reconciliation.

“There is something in the religious culture of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equaled in other civilizations,” writes Mr. Lewis. “And yet, in moments of upheaval and disruption, when the deeper passions are stirred, this dignity and courtesy toward others can give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred.” This is what we have been fighting in the war on terror.

Photographs taken in the very prison where Saddam Hussein tortured his enemies are used to sell the idea that Americans are no better than he was. Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course. It was our Army that discovered the humiliation at Abu Ghraib prison, and our media, with its guarantee of freedom of the press, that put them out for the world to see. This is a sign of the strength of Western values, not weakness, and we must make that point over and over, as many times as necessary, to impress it on the consciousness of the world.

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