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Our Soldiers, Ourselves

I’m writing on Monday afternoon with the full awareness that everything might be different by Thursday, when Metroland comes out on newsstands. The story of the Iraqi prison abuses will unfold slowly, probably in fits and starts as the administration scrambles to do damage control.

But one thing won’t have changed by Thursday, and that is the collective navel-gazing that we, as a nation, have engaged in since these photos became a matter of public concern.

Since their release last Tuesday, the media have been busy analyzing how these abuses could have happened. Were they isolated or systemic? How far up the chain of command does the responsibility go? Should Rumsfeld resign? Should more photos and reports be released? How much will these events endanger the lives of service men and women deployed in Iraq? And what does it take to turn an average citizen into a torturer?

All of these angles are important to consider. They reflect the stomach-turning shock these photos and allegations make us feel. They reflect our incredulity and our moral outrage.

But I’m afraid that even with all this analysis, a dangerous myopia remains.

With 97 percent of the population either Shiite, Arab Sunni or Kurd Sunni, it’s not inaccurate to say that Iraq is an Islamic nation. I think it’s easy to underestimate the significance of that.

Americans have no firsthand understanding of what it means to live in a nation defined by its religious identity, as Iraq is. (Our one real go at a theocracy—the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony—failed miserably.)

Despite the efforts of the religious right, we remain a nation that takes as normal and desirable the separation of church and state. Religion is a matter of private concern, guaranteed by our Constitution. We value the right of individuals to worship God as they please, if they choose to worship God at all.

These are all desirable conditions. But they set a frame of reference for us that is essentially secular and individualistic.

This works well for how we run our government and vouchsafe our civil rights. But it creates a big blind spot as we try to fully grasp the scope and seriousness of these abuses.

Because it’s not too much of a stretch to see these abuses not only as a matter of harm done to individual Iraqis, but as a wholesale persecution of Islam by “Christian” America.

No, of course we are not a Christian nation. As a nation we’re not inclined to see ourselves as having a religious identity at all; but that doesn’t mean we are not seen that way by people who fear their own religious identity is on the line. We may not have a self-defined religious identity, but we may be ascribed one. We may be viewed by Muslims as a nation of Christian aggressors.

In ignoring that likelihood we develop a blind spot.

We keep putting the focus on ourselves. We keep engaging in a kind of national introspection: How could Americans do this? What does it take to make a torturer?

We need to shift our focus and ask what these abuses really mean to people whose worldview is essentially religious and corporate.

We’re not geared for thinking that way. We think in terms of individual violation and individual human rights. We recognize the humiliation in these photos. We recognize the abuse. What we fail to see is the blasphemy against Islam.

Perhaps it was not intended blasphemy. But what is perceived always has more power than what is intended. Right now we are treating these abuses as if they were part of a systemic problem or as the actions of an aberrant few. We seem to be overlooking the fact that, in a nation defined by its religious identity, these actions were not merely assaults on individual prisoners, but assaults on Islam, heinous religious persecution.

And my best guess is that, though we are not, in fact, a Christian nation, our actions are perceived as more of the age-old aggression that Christians have perpetrated against Islam.

It’s easy for us to forget all about that, especially since our historical frame of reference is secular and our society is pluralistic. But for a country that is predominantly Muslim, the Christian Crusades of the early Middle Ages are atrocities still alive in the collective memory.

Murder, looting, bloodshed and forced conversion were the Crusaders’ preferred methods. The tactics of war have changed. But how we are perceived may not have.

True, we don’t deploy “Christian” soldiers; but they may still be perceived as such. We don’t consider this a holy war; but the country on whose soil this war is being fought does. We don’t doubt our role as a helper to Iraq; but we don’t live in a country whose infrastructure has been shattered twice in the past 13 years by American intervention and whose people suffered miserably from American economic sanctions.

I can’t imagine how our administration can rectify this. Rumsfeld’s resignation can’t undo the long-term damage these photos have wrought. Awarding compensation to the abused prisoners is like trying to open a bank vault with a skeleton key.

Now more than ever, those of us who opposed the war in Iraq before it began would love to dissociate ourselves from the perception of Americans as interlopers and thugs and religious persecutors. But it’s too late for that.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at

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