The recent release of films “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” and the success of Showtime’s “Homeland,” underscore the unresolved and bitter conflict between Washington and the wider Muslim world.  The question rages, Why are many Muslim majority populations opposed to the United States Government?  As George W. Bush asked after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Why is there such hatred of America in some Islamic countries?  Bush said that many Muslims abhor the United States because of our elected form of government and the many constitutional freedoms it provides.  My response is different.  They hate us, to use this phrase, because the United States is an imperial empire that occupies, abuses, and humiliates – either directly or by proxy – people in the Muslim world.  America is a place of democratic institutions and genuine promise for many of its citizens.  But America is also a bully country that uses military bases, contract mercenaries, black site prisons, drone killings and occasional Qur’an desecrations to enforce its will and degrade the humanity of Muslim populations throughout the world.

The United States’ occupation of Muslim majority countries creates a powder keg of anger in the Islamic world.  Anti-Western resentment plays out against a backdrop of America’s direct military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan; military bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt; long-standing economic support of Israel’s occupation of Palestine; deployment of the Navy’s 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf and surrounding waters; and escalating drone strikes in the Middle East, Asia and Northern Africa.  This climate of American control creates the conditions for deep-felt hostility toward the US.  It is the seedbed of reactionary terrorism against Western interests.

American power foments systemic indifference toward the humanity of other people, even to the point of assigning less value to the life of say, a Yemeni or Sudanese person, than an American citizen.  It is impossible to get a reliable count of the war dead and civilian casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters.  The US military doesn’t keep these statistics.  The daily loss of life and so-called collateral damage to families and children appears irrelevant to our war efforts.  Moreover, as Judith Butler writes, “There are no obituaries of the war casualties that the United States inflicts, and there cannot be.  If there were to be an obituary, there would have had to have been a life, a life worth noting, a life worth valuing and preserving, a life that qualifies for recognition.”[1] The lives lost to America’s war machine do not count.  These foreign dead persons are not “grievable,” as Butler argues, because their lives are not human lives for whom public mourning and sympathy are expected emotions.

Black site and indefinite detention prisons add more fuel to the time bomb of anti-American distrust and humiliation.  Dehumanizing interrogation techniques, harsh imprisonment without legal representation, and the absence of judicial review have made American war prisons abroad a source of ongoing shame and outrage.  Once a beacon of international standards for wartime incarceration, now the American military penal system is known worldwide for its abject sadism.

In the early 2000s, Abu Ghraib was the notorious US Iraqi prison where the army used torture, chainings, handcuffing, rape, hooding, forced nudity, temperature extremes, corpse desecration, sleep and food deprivation, solitary confinement, hangings, electrocution, acid pours, absence of sanitation, and genital mutilation to dehumanize and emasculate detainees in the US-Iraq War.  In this same period and continuing into the present, Afghan militants have been held at the Bagram Air Base where similar atrocities have occurred, including beatings, sleep deprivation, sexual assault, shackling, sensory disorientation, stress positioning, and guard dog threats.  The same horrors have also been perpetrated against inmates at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp at the US Naval Base in Cuba, where torture has been confirmed, even by US Government officials, including forced drug injections, water boarding, exposure to the elements, and blows to the head.

Black site prisons round out the extra-legal extremes that have rendered the United States an object of opprobrium.  In the early 2000s the CIA used a policy of kidnapping without trial (so-called extraordinary renditions) to detain and hold incommunicado suspected enemies of US interests.  These vanishing individuals were deposited at black site detention facilities, often administered by CIA contractors, who used torture to get information.  The black sites were a nightmare world where people were taken off the street and dumped into oblivion.  In this world, no charges were filed against detainees, no legal representation was offered to them, and no forms of legal redress were possible on their behalf.  Habeas corpus, one of the hallmarks of Western jurisprudence that insures that a detainee has the right to publicly appear in court, was specifically disallowed.  Dozens of such black hole sites were located throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Georgio Agamben analyzes how the United States now functions in a state of “permanent exception and emergency” where the suspension of fair and humane treatment of detained persons has become the new normal.[2] Barak Obama’s decision in 2009 to close CIA black sites may have appeared to lift the state of emergency, but as recently as 2011 the US military was compelled to admit that it had detained incommunicado a Somali man for two months aboard a navy vessel.  As last reported, the Obama administration was trying to decide whether and how to prosecute the man in a military or civilian court.[3] In a period of sustained crisis where non-state global actors are viewed as hell-bent on destroying America, international treaties for the just treatment of prisoners continue to be set aside in favor of extra-judicial renditions and disappearances.

The strange and disturbing case of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif illustrates the far reach of America’s state of emergency regarding foreign terrorism suspects.  In 2001, Latif was picked up in Afghanistan for a $5,000.00 bounty and sent to Guantanamo soon after the US invasion of Iraq in response to the 9/11 attacks.  Originally from Yemen, Latif claimed to be in the region to seek medical treatment after a car accident.  The US said he was a Taliban sympathizer, a claim based on an alleged confession he made during an interrogation.  Latif then languished at Guantanamo for ten years, only recently being given access to counsel in a disputed habeas corpus lawsuit against the US government.  Latif said he was initially placed in solitary confinement for years, pepper sprayed, beaten, subjected to stress positions and extreme temperature variations, denied access to medical care, and at times stripped of clothing or a mattress to sleep on.  Latif died in September 2012.  His death was ruled a suicide based on what appeared to be a self-administered medication overdose – even though, apparently, he was regularly surveilled by cameras and guards throughout his detention.  The Department of Defense, military tribunals under the Bush and Obama administrations, and a US District Court justice had ordered Latif’s release form Guantanamo, but a three judge Court of Appeals panel overturned these decisions and Latif was kept locked up indefinitely.[4] Latif’s decade of incarceration, for reasons many in the US government and judiciary admitted were unsubstantiated, underscores the arbitrary and capricious nature of American military justice.

Other provocations and injuries to Muslim communities continue apace.  Desecrations of the Qur’an – American soldiers defiled copies of the Qur’an in front of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo in 2005, and again thoughtlessly burned copies at a trash dump at Bagram in 2012 – and Drone strikes against suspected militants – targeted killings, without judicial review, that kill scores of civilians as well – have further filled the swamp of anti-American hostilities.  In response, anti-Western terrorism continues to grow out of this toxic mix – from the suicide plot against the USS Cole in 2000, and the September 11, 2001 attacks, to the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi last year.

One wonders, What if this situation of American imperialism were reversed?  What if a Pax Arabia or Pax Islamica were to triumph on the world stage, instead of the Pax Americana that is regnant today? How would Americans feel if the Muslim world engaged in systematic and illegal practices to subjugate US citizens through force and humiliation?  How would Americans react if Muslim-identified countries, for decades, had occupied American soil through military interventions and forward military bases; instituted a structural system of illegal and black site prisons where torture and the degrading treatment of inmates were regularly practiced; championed the occasional desecration of sacred objects; and spearheaded the regular invasion of the physical and psychic space of US population centers through drone strikes, invasion threats, foreign military and industrial contractors, navy surveillance, economic blockades and the like?

If the tables were turned, if the United States, to be graphic, had suffered through regular, high-casualty ground wars in Los Angeles and New York; if occupying forces were now stationed in Seattle, Wichita, Chicago, and Providence; if torture chambers were set up in Cleveland and Raleigh to beat and dehumanize American detainees; if an Arab client state, say the Philippines, was given control of the Western seaboard or “West Bank” of the states of Washington and Oregon; if across the US, drone attacks, on the one hand, and seizure of US financial and material assets, on the other, were used to terrorize and marginalize American citizens; and, perhaps most ominously, if military bases were set up just outside the capital to guard Washington’s cultural patrimony, and occasional burnings of the Bible and the US constitution were an ugly ritual practice taking place at these bases, then how would Americans feel?  Would they not feel brutalized and victimized by this sort of daily, soul-killing abuse and humiliation?  And, as such, would not many Americans consider it justified for their fellow countrymen to take up the cause of freedom and employ by any means necessary the lethal means to liberate their own homeland?

Military occupation of other countries, and the systemic employment of torture to dehumanize foreign detainees, is a spreading stain on the conscience of the American body politic.  Illegal wars and inmate abuse is toxic to the soul of any country.  As a people who espouse an ethical foreign policy focused on human rights, America and its leaders have lost their moral compass.

Arundhati Roy says that bin Laden was “sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid waste by America’s foreign policy.”[5] The truth of this statement speaks to many people in the Muslim world, and helps to explain their anger toward the US.  America’s scorched earth policy in war, detention, and occupation has created a breeding ground of resentment.  Bin Laden, and, by extension, anti-American terrorism, is the disfigured “spare rib” that has grown out of this breeding ground.  But if the situation were reversed – if the Middle East were to lay waste to US sovereignty, human rights, and even sacred symbols – I argue that many Americans themselves would feel justified in striking back, even in terror, to reclaim their territorial integrity and national pride.  Washington must now face its own time of reckoning.  Until and when the United States learns to treat all people, even those it deems its enemies, as bearers of inherent worth and dignity, this country will not find common ground in its relations with Muslim populations at home and abroad.

[1] Judith Butler Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso) 34

[2] Giorgio Agamben The Church and the Kingdom (London: Seagull) 40

[3] Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt “U.S. to Prosecute a Somali Suspect in Civilian Court” The New York Times July 5, 2011

[4] Charlie Savage “Investigators Said to Question How Detainee Died of Overdose” The New York Times November 29, 2012

[5] Quoted in Butler Precarious Life 10



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