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May 20, 2004 Special Dispatch No. 718

Reaction and Counter-Reaction to the Abu Ghureib Abuses in the Arab Media

May 20, 2004
Iraq | Special Dispatch No. 718

The revelations about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at the Abu Ghureib prison in Iraq aroused many reactions in the Arab media. For the most part, the response was one of harsh condemnation, accusations of hypocrisy directed at the coalition countries, and equating the Abu Ghureib abuse with Nazi atrocities.

Following these reactions, however, were several counter-reactions in the Arab press, that included criticism of the Arab media's double standard – i.e., exhaustive coverage of the misdeeds of American soldiers yet complete silence on the spread of the phenomenon of torture in prisons throughout the Arab world.

The following are examples of condemnation from the Arab press, as well as counter-criticism:

Condemning the Abu Ghureib Incident

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said, during a meeting with a group of teachers, that the Abu Ghureib abuse was "abhorrent and sickening, and against all human values and human rights confirmed and defended by the international community." [1]

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa published a communiqué stating: "What intensifies the emotions of sorrow and shock is that these immoral deeds were carried out by people who claim they adhere to defending freedom and human dignity." [2]

Syrian Minister for Expatriate Affairs Buthayna Sha'ban, who is also the former Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, wrote in an article in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "The pictures that one lone soldier managed to smuggle out of the Abu Ghureib prison aroused revulsion and condemnation in the world, because of the extent of the contempt for human dignity and fundamental human rights – particularly on the part of the forces that claimed [they had crossed] the oceans to rescue the Iraqi people from the inhumane actions [by the Saddam regime] and to bring freedom and democracy… It is the American administration's supercilious view of the Arabs and Muslims, particularly after the events of September 11, and the racist campaign against Islam and the Muslims in Europe … that leads to crimes of this kind…" [3]

The Kuwaiti cabinet expressed "sorrow and condemnation for the ill treatment and torture … in the prisons in Iraq, particularly at Abu Ghureib." The cabinet stated that these actions are "against norms, international laws, and human rights" and called on "the commanders of the coalition forces to punish those responsible for these inhuman actions, bring them before the court, and thus ensure the rights of the Iraqi individual and a halt to his repression." [4]

In an editorial, the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, wrote: "The revulsion- and shock-arousing pictures that appeared in the world media clearly reveals the falsity of the American claims that the war is aimed at liberating the Iraqi people from the dictatorship of the previous regime…

"The statements of condemnation and denunciation from the Western capitals, particularly the U.S. and Britain, are insufficient. Deterrent and firm action must be taken to prevent a recurrence. An international court must be established immediately in order to punish the perpetrators of the war crimes in Iraq, in the same format [as the court that tried the war criminals] in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda…" [5]

Equating the Abuse with Nazi Atrocities

In an editorial, the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh wrote: "America and Britain do not differ in their behavior from what history has convicted Stalin, the Nazis, the Serbs, and others of… If these countries have a human conscience [they must] transfer the issue to international courts and judges and thus at least ensure that the truth comes to light, as in the trial of the Nazi war criminals." [6]

In the Palestinian Authority daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Israeli Arab Member of Knesset 'Azmi Bishara wrote: "What happened at Abu Ghureib prison is no exception, rather the rule… When some of us saw the people [lying] naked on top of each other in a pyramid, in our souls arose the pictures of bodies at the Auschwitz death camp – not because this is a scientific and precise comparison, but only because [in both cases we see] naked people gathered in a human heap." [7]

Zuheir Andreos, editor of the Israeli Arab weekly Kul Al-Arab, wrote in an editorial: "Saddam Hussein, former Iraqi president, will stand trial on charges of war crimes. Former Bosnian president Milosevic is standing trial before the International Criminal Court. Why isn't Bush being tried for war crimes? The crimes he committed against humanity are terrible and deserving of his sitting in the prisoner's dock… George Bush is a war criminal. He and his bunch in the White House [and] in the Foreign and Defense Ministry [sic] are the new Nazis. The crimes they have committed may be more abhorrent than the Nazis' crimes in Hitler's time…" [8]

Criticizing the Arab Media's Double Standard

In an editorial, in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, editor-in-chief Ahmad Jarallah wrote: "Dr. Buthayna Sha'ban, who is 'revolted' by the torture of the Iraqis, should be the last to express her revulsion – because the kinds of torture carried out in the prisons of the regime of which she is a part and in whose services she acts are too numerous to count. No atrocity surpasses the kinds of torment and torture [in the Syrian regime] except those that the former East German ruler [Erich] Honecker [used] against his political rivals, and those by [Nicolae] Ceausescu against his citizens in Romania…

"We have gone overboard in our talk of the Abu Ghureib torture scandal… We tried to unite the world against the perpetrators of the torture at Abu Ghureib. None has dared acknowledge that the U.S. behaved properly in uncovering [this] scandal, for having sufficient courage to apologize. It could have remained silent, or denied it – as is the custom of some Arab regimes that torture, assassinate, bury alive, rip out fingernails, and dissolve [people] in pits of acid, and appear before the world like innocent children with angels' wings, using denial and falsehood." [9]

'A Crime is Not a Crime Unless it is Committed by a Foreigner'

Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, former editor-in-chief of the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote: "The names of all the thieves of the Oil for Food [Program], who took the oil money while the food never reached the Iraqi people, were documented [in a list] of perk recipients, and no one in the Arab media asked that they be punished or show their shame. Their crimes are much more serious than the Abu Ghureib prison scandals, because for years they stole medicine for the sick and for hospitals in Iraq and sold it on the Jordanian and Gulf markets.

"Now U.N. investigations are uncovering the scandal of the violations of the Oil for Food contracts. Kofi Annan is acknowledging it, expressing his revulsion, and promising to punish the perpetrators. But the Arab media are preoccupied only with the scandals of the Americans…

"A crime is not a crime unless it is committed by a foreigner. Torture is [carried out] by the Arabs with the consent of the Arab press, which is always silent about it. When someone tries to bring this up, he is accused of damaging the Arabs' good name, and of acting for the Zionist camp!

"No one is acquitting the Americans of what a group of jailers did to Iraqi prisoners. It is a crime… But it is inconceivable that the bribery of the Iraqi regime and the crimes of its adherents are exposed to the eyes of all, and we see the list of those who stole food and medicines – yet they walk with their heads high, because they know how we treat crimes…

"Ten [American] jailers photographed 100 naked [Iraqi ] prisoners. [But] our criminals ate the food of millions of the poor, and stole the medicines of thousands of the sick. Our media raised a ruckus about a hate-filled [American] soldier who urinated on an [Iraqi] prisoner. [But] the thieves of [our] food and medicines urinated on an entire nation, and the [Arab] media doesn't care about their crimes; it awarded medals to some, and kept silent about the others." [10]

Al-Rashed's article provoked a wave of strong reactions in the Arab world; he then published another article further explaining his position: "The intention of the [previous] article was to condemn the torture and also [to criticize] the double standard of the Arab media, which close their eyes on the issue of hundreds of Arab prisons and the actions of thousands of Arab jailers over many years – and exclusively focus on the Abu Ghureib case because the jailer was American…

"This reminds me of a sight that shocked me during a visit in Tunis with my colleague Mr. Salleh Al-Qallab. [11] We visited the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, which was situated there at that time. In the office of one official sat a Palestinian with a sad face. During a conversation [with him], he said he had recently been released from an Arab prison, after years of living in one of the dark basements through which sewage flows.

"The man stood and showed us his foot with a defect. He related that the [jailers] used to chain him tightly, which wore away his flesh and broke the bone. I asked him, 'Why don't you sue for this crime, or why aren't you exposing it to the media?' He answered: 'We don't want to make the situation worse.'" [12]

'Thank You to the American ABC Television Station'

Columnist Ahmad Al-Rab'i wrote in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al Awsat:"Since the Abu Ghureib prison crime was exposed, the biggest discussion group in the Arab world has been [discussing] human rights, and this is a fine thing. The subject of human rights, freedom, and the state of the prisons has taken over every conversation [in the Arab world], after many years when the Arabs talked little about the value of the individual and the severity of the torture and killing. The Arabs became accustomed to not dwelling on things that do not concern them.

"Accordingly, millions of Arabs do not know about the mass graves of Saddam's Iraq, and about the state of the prisons and detention centers in their countries. Only rarely do we hear of an Arab group demanding the release of prisoners arrested for expressing an opinion, or of an association that wants to visit an [Arab] prison. Furthermore, this is the first time that the Arabs have seen television cameras inside the prisons.

"Thank you to the American ABC television station that exposed the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghureib. The Arab television stations are busy at the battle of Al-Fallujah, following Al-Sadr's militias, and with bin Laden's and Al-Zarqawi's films…

"The one who built Abu Ghureib prison is the dictatorship of the Arab leader named Saddam Hussein; the one who exposed this prison is an American television station. Had [these secrets] been exposed, we could [also] have known about the thousands tortured and killed in Abu Ghureib over the past 30 years, about whom no one knew or asked.

"I remember that after the liberation of Kuwait [in 1991], the torture instruments used by Saddam's army were collected in one place and pictures of them were published. We tried to cry to some of the Arabs: 'Look, [this is] a serious crime!' But no one listened. It would be interesting to know how many Abu Ghureibs exist the length and breadth of the Arab world. [It would also be] interesting to know the number of people tortured and killed in secret, and the number of those who left prison with the marks of torture on every corner of their bodies, but who preferred to hold their tongues out of fear of death." [13]

Syrian columnist Hayan Nayouf wrote in the liberal Internet daily Elaph: "After the scandal of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American and British soldiers, the Arab media handled this affair in a way arousing ridicule, proving that the Arab media and intellectuals possess everything but objectivity, transparency, and disclosure of the truth and the facts.

"There is no one who does not condemn this damage to prisoners' rights. There are international agreements that the Americans and others must honor. But in this article, I want to talk about the American president's apology, and about how this apology was treated by the Arab media and intellectuals.

"The American president, the president of the most powerful country in the world and the most developed with regard to science, art, culture, and democracy, apologized for the deeds of the American soldiers, and all the Americans also apologized for this shameful deed. And then the Arab intellectuals came, with their mocking, idiotic, and illogical media, and ridiculed this apology.

"The question arises whether Saddam or any other Arab leader [ever] apologized. Did Saddam apologize to the Iraqi people for burying a million Iraqis in the ground, for expelling millions of Iraqis, for murdering innocents in his prisons, for his crimes in neighboring countries, for invading Kuwait, and for murdering the Kuwaiti prisoners?

"Enough of your foolishness, Arabs! Hundreds of Kuwaiti prisoners fell victim to Saddam's crimes. Where were the Arab satellite channels, and why did no Iraqi official apologize?…

"Anyone who reads the Arab media [can get] an attack of madness. Had it not been for American democracy and the uncovering of the torture scandal by the American media, would the Arab media [ever] had heard about it? [Why?] Because [the Arab media] is preoccupied [with encouraging] ethnic [discord] and incitement to violence and terrorism!" [14]


[1] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 14, 2004.

[2] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 2, 2004.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 10, 2004.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 9, 2004.

[5] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 2, 2004.

[6] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 2, 2004.

[7] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), May 7, 2004.

[8] Kul Al-Arab (Israel), May 14, 2004.

[9] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), May 13, 2004.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 4, 2004.

[11] Former Jordanian Information Minister and known columnist.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 12, 2004.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 10, 2004.

[14] www.elaph.com, May 9, 2004.

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