The new pictures from Abu Ghraib provide the most recent evidence: America's moral bank account is empty -- and it has lost the image wars. The entire Muslim world no longer trusts the world's most powerful nation.
They are photos that make your blood run cold. They take your breath away. They turn your stomach. They are photos that make you wonder what kinds of human beings would do these things to other human beings. They trigger anger, disgust and shame.
One photo shows a prisoner being sandwiched between two stretchers, like some perverse ad for a burger. In another, a disoriented detainee, his body smeared with an unidentified substance, stumbles down a prison corridor. A third image depicts a hooded man waiting helplessly on a stool, with electric cables attached to his body. There are many more -- and they all show prisoners being deliberately humiliated for their captors' amusement, men stripped naked and forced into submission. But it's not just humiliation -- the photos also depict physical pain. In one photo, an American soldier kneels on the back of a naked Iraqi prisoner, a puddle of blood indicating rough treatment. In another, a prisoner bows deeply, servant-like, in front of an American military officer: Uncle Tom's Cabin in the Middle East.
Once again, images from Abu Ghraib will burn themselves into the world's collective memory, the shocking legacy of a superpower gone astray -- icons of America's shame. They will become the images future generations most associate with the war in Iraq, just as the photo of a pro-US Saigon police chief holding his pistol to a Vietcong guerilla's temple, his finger about to pull the trigger, has become a symbol of the Vietnam War.
It's hardly relevant that the previously unpublished Abu Ghraib photos taken in 2003 -- about two dozen of them -- are merely variations on familiar themes. It also doesn't matter that at least some of the perpetrators -- absent higher-ranking officers -- have already been hauled before US military courts. Just as their predecessors, these new pictures have the power to generate a dynamic of their own -- making them the perfect propaganda tool for ideological adversaries.
Egging on the faithful
Muslims, particularly in Pakistan and Malaysia, are still incensed about the publishing of the Prophet Muhammad caricatures in European newspapers. Last Friday at least 10 people died in the Libyan city of Benghazi when police tried to stop them from storming the Italian consulate. Italian Reform Minister Roberto Calderoli had raised their ire by appearing on television in a T-shirt showing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed.
Governments in countries like Iran and Syria have egged on the faithful even further. Meanwhile, Europeans and Americans justifiably championed the freedom of the press as a value worth defending -- against agitators on both sides.
The impact of these new Abu Ghraib photos is only amplified by the fact that they coincide with the unrest triggered by the Danish Muhammad cartoons. In the Islamic world, the photos are seen as proof that the US military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are little more than thinly veiled colonial expeditions conducted in the name of democracy.
From the perspective of the Middle East, the freedom and human rights the Americans profess to be bringing to an oppressed world are nothing more than a front, Washington's false alibi in pushing its agenda of globalization. And for many in the Arab world, they are merely the sinister elements of a slick and even fraudulent marketing campaign aimed at humiliating Muslims.
The crimes committed by US soldiers in the name of freedom and human rights, documented in unalterable photographs, appear to confirm the suspicion that America's true aim is something entirely different -- that the US is primarily interested in imposing its own world order and preserving its dominance.
In short, for the United States, the most powerful and influential global power ever, the images from Abu Ghraib -- and the ongoing debate over the legality of its prison camp at Guantanamo -- have produced a moral catastrophe that's likely to endure for a very long time.
Victorious images quickly overshadowed
If Washington had had its way, entirely different images would have come to symbolize the US campaign against Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein. The image of the toppling of that giant statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, for example -- the ideal symbol of the dictator's downfall. And then there was the triumphant US President George W. Bush's televised appearance on the aircraft carrier "Abraham Lincoln," a banner emblazoned with the words "Mission Accomplished" proudly and telegenically hovering in the background.
But even as the president was announcing an end to hostilities in Iraq, a bitter and brutal Iraqi insurgency was just getting under way -- a resistance that brought together former officers in Saddam's army with foreign al-Qaida fighters. The victorious images were quickly overshadowed. Even the former dictator's trial comes across as a farce these days, despite all efforts to convey the impression of law and order.
The battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqis can likely already be penciled into the loss column -- the inability to provide such basic necessities as electricity and drinking water for everyone represents a major strike against the US military. The daily suicide bombings and kidnappings mostly hit ordinary Iraqis. For many of them, life is now more difficult than it was under Saddam. The American military, too, is suffering. Losses mount almost daily; the death toll had reached 2,272 by last Friday.
And now the Americans have also lost the battle of images.
Part II: The Moral Decline of "God's Own Country"
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has distanced himself from Washington, saying that the new Abu Ghraib photos are evidence of events "unworthy of a civilized society." Indeed, the new photos from Abu Ghraib are so horrific that the administration in Baghdad has opted not to reprint them in government-affiliated media. Outrage over the images seems to be developing in slow motion in Iraq and other Arab countries, almost as though they merely prove what Muslims already expect from America. The anger over the images reflected in the headlines of newspapers in the Middle East was still less vehement by the weekend than the still-raging furor over the Danish Muhammad cartoons.
Australia -- whose government is considered even more loyal to Bush than British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his cabinet -- was the source of the new images last Wednesday. Despite the fact that Australian Prime Minister John Howard has sent 460 troops to Iraq, the country has a number of press outlets often strongly critical of the government. The television network SBS, which published the images, is among them.
Reporter Olivia Rousset had researched a story about Abu Ghraib for the network's investigative program called "Dateline." As part of her reporting, she traveled to New York, where she met with two soldiers who had worked at Abu Ghraib and their attorneys. A DVD, produced by the US Army's Criminal Investigation Command and showing dozens of new images of prisoner abuse, eventually found its way into the reporter's hands.
Reprehensible level of brutality
Back in Sydney, Rousset discussed the DVD with her producer, Mike Carey, with fellow journalists and with the network's lawyers. The images clearly weren't fakes. The disk given to Rousset by her contact contained files that linked the pictures to a computer owned by Charles Graner, already in prison in the United States for his role in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.
Was showing these photos to the world the right thing to do? They depict a new, even more reprehensible level of brutality, including photos of dead prisoners and extreme abuse. In one image, a prisoner's tongue appears to have been cut out (although the event is so far unproven).
The network decided to broadcast all but the very worst of the images, and the images quickly circled the globe.
They appeared to be a part of unpublished documents that had already come to light during an investigation by the US military, but were then filed away. American media reportedly also had access to the material, but declined to publish it, either on the advice of the Pentagon or for reasons of self-censorship. Immediately after the SBS report, though, Salon.com, which received a similar DVD at virtually the same time SBS did, decided to publish 18 of the new photos.
US government officials reacted to the newly published photos with provocative indifference. According to a Pentagon spokesman, the images were regrettable but old news. The White House, for its part, expressed outrage over the decision to release the photos in what it called the current "heated mood."
This official US indifference is most likely a pretense. Ever since the Washington Post revealed that terrorism suspects have apparently been interrogated in special CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, the US Justice Department has been searching for whoever leaked the story and threatening journalists with coercive detention. The journalists, says Gary Wasserman, a professor at Washington's Georgetown University, could even end up facing stiffer penalties than the uniformed torturers. Nevertheless, CIA Director Porter Goss insists on continuing the program, saying that "we are at risk of losing a key battle -- the battle to protect our classified information."
Good news has become a rarity
At CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a special task force nicknamed "Leak Chasers" has been assembled to scan the media for leaked information. Last Wednesday, Republican politicians announced that they were considering new legislation that would strengthen prohibitions against publicly disclosing information deemed a threat to national security.
But the reality is that the White House, the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies are at a loss. Good news has become a rarity, bad news is beginning to pile up and the Bush administration's approval ratings have plunged to all-time lows. The cumulative effect of the recent spate of bad news is devastating -- even for a government so unwilling to admit shortcomings.
While many in the Muslim world rub their hands in glee, the West watches the moral decline of "God's own country" with painful astonishment. And it's a decline led by a president who, more than most of his predecessors, invokes his born-again Christianity and his desire to bring good into the world and to punish evil. Instead, the Bush Administration has become the picture of incompetence. The bad news continues to mount and America is growing impatient.
Take the embarrassing story of Vice President Richard Cheney accidentally discharging a load of birdshot into a 78-year-old attorney instead a flock of quails. While his victim was rushed to the emergency room, Cheney apparently felt it unnecessary to notify the authorities -- or the media. He only submitted to police questioning 10 hours after the accident providing a growing number of government critics with yet more evidence of this government's arrogance.
Although Cheney's negligent hunting accident is unlikely to have legal repercussions, another affair is more ominous and could even lead to impeachment proceedings. A federal prosecutor has accused Cheney aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby of committing perjury and obstruction of justice over the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, whose husband accused the Bush administration of using false information to bolster its propaganda campaign leading up to the Iraq war. Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, has now told a special investigator, who was appointed by the president, that he acted on behalf of his superiors.
And then there is the issue of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has been accused of attempting to bribe influential Republicans with ties to the White House. Abramoff has already filed a guilty plea, although he has declined to identify those who accepted his bribes. Bush has claimed that he doesn't recall the man. Abramoff, however, says that he knows the president, and that Bush has even asked about his children. A photo showing the two men together has now surfaced calling Bush's honesty into question.
Bush's standing abroad couldn't be worse
In yet another setback for the Bush administration, a congressional investigation into government shortcomings during Hurricane Katrina reached devastating conclusions about the administration and officials at other levels of government. According to the report, Bush's response to catastrophic flooding in New Orleans came far too late and was indecisive, while his Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, was a complete failure.
Finally, the White House has come under fire over allegations of illegal wire-tapping without court approval, a practice that was secretly authorized by the president following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and remains in place today. Big Brother has been busy, at least according to the Washington Post, which reports that the government has already investigated 325,000 people as possible terrorism suspects in its secret program. The Democrats, seemingly paralyzed for so long, view the violation of fundamental civil rights stemming from the illegal wire-tapping program as so serious that they are considering filing impeachment charges against Bush in an attempt to drive him out of office.
That's unlikely to happen, and Bush will probably survive his second term. But a majority of Americans no longer trust the country's leader and commander-in-chief. In fact, 55 percent of Americans now believe that sending troops to Iraq was a mistake.
While Bush's reputation suffers at home, his standing abroad couldn't be worse. In some countries in the Muslim world, Bush is viewed as even more dangerous than terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Of course, a self-righteous distortion of reality plays an important role here, especially in the Arab world. In many of those countries where there has been such a public outcry over American human rights violations, human rights are systematically trampled upon.
Unlike Saddam Hussein's thugs and the current al-Qaida terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Americans haven't committed thousands of murders or cold-bloodedly beheaded innocent hostages. But the moral masters of the universe, these self-proclaimed forces of good so intent on bringing freedom and democracy to the world, have betrayed their own ideals and lost their credibility. And their troops aren't the only ones to blame.
Americans don't see themselves as fighting to capture strategic bases or gain control over new oil wells, but rather as missionaries out to make the world a better place, one endowed with freedom and human rights. Gradually, though, it's not just the Muslim world which no longer believes such claims.
Two names are especially emblematic for America's disgrace: Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
Part III: "The Repertoire of Classic Torture States"
Only very few people are familiar with the full scope of American prisoner transports in connection with the so-called war on terror. Vice President Cheney has seen to it that even many within the US government remain uninformed, and that only the heads and deputy heads of the Senate and House intelligence committees are kept in the loop. In September 2002, then CIA counterterrorism director Cofer Black told a group of members of Congress that the reason for this extraordinary level of secrecy was that everything was "strictly confidential." "All you have to know," he said, "is that there is a pre-9/11 and a post-9/11 era. The gloves came off after 9/11." The camp at Guantanamo, a US military base on the Cuban coast, became the government's preferred detention center for what it calls "enemy combatants."
It remains unknown as to whether CIA interrogators at Guantanamo are still permitted to employ six notorious methods to extract information from prisoners. The "attention slap" involves hitting the prisoner in the face with the edge of the hand. "Long time standing" means forcing a prisoner to stand uninterrupted for up to 40 hours, a practice that prompted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to remark that his job also requires that he spend hours on his feet. In another technique, "waterboarding," the prisoner is repeatedly doused with water until he believes he is drowning.
"These are all methods in the repertoire of the classic torture states," says Austrian United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak. In a letter published last Wednesday, Nowak and four of his counterparts sharply denounced the US for continuing to maintain the prison at Guantanamo.
"Serious, objective, independent fact-finders"
With his bushy moustache and the air of a benevolent uncle, Nowak, a law professor at the University of Vienna, would normally be considered a good-natured man. But nowadays he has trouble containing his rage. The Bush administration dismissed his report as "useless," accusing him of partisanship because he turned down an invitation to visit Guantanamo. Nowak, though, countered that the invitation was useless because he was denied permission to interview prisoners -- though US Defense Secretary made it clear that Nowak and his team were welcome to come inspect empty cells.
"We are serious, objective, independent fact-finders," Nowak said in response. "We would undermine the UN's fact-finding capacities if we were to accept an invitation that we are not accepting from any other state in the world."
Nowak has been in office since December 2004, in a position that requires him to scrutinize the world's torture chambers. But he has rarely received such treatment, even in the People's Republic of China, where he conducted an investigation last November. His conclusion on the matter of Guantanamo is that the American government has gradually begun chipping away at the prohibition on torture.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan hasn't been the only one to call for the closing of Guantanamo. The German chancellor, the European Parliament and even the British government, America's loyal ally and frequently derided as a "poodle" to its masters in Washington, have all called for shutting down the detention camp. Washington, they say, should either release the 490 prisoners currently being held at Guantanamo or it should allow them to stand trial before regular courts. Many of them are not accused of hostilities against the United States or its allies. "Most, when captured, were innocent of any terrorist activity, were Taliban foot soldiers at worst, and were often far less than that. And some, perhaps many, are guilty only of being foreigners in Afghanistan or Pakistan at the wrong time," writes the weekly politics magazine National Journal.
The Washington Post is of the opinion that Rumsfeld established the foundation for the crimes in Abu Ghraib at Guantanamo, when it "swept aside the Geneva Convention." It's a claim that is difficult to refute, especially in light of the fact that, from August to early September 2003, a team from Guantanamo trained the guards at Abu Ghraib.
No compunctions about torture
No one has claimed that the military leadership at the prison, or even the Pentagon, approved or even ordered the grisly excesses. But the atmosphere was clearly such that lower-ranking soldiers felt no compunctions about implementing "torture-like interrogation methods." They committed torture with a good conscience, torturing for freedom, for the superiority of the West -- at least as they saw it.
The idea that a few bad apples were responsible for the Abu Ghraib torture scandal has been reflected in the US's legal treatment of the affair, one in which not a single politician has been called to account. Six suspects were named in the torture investigation headed by Major General Antonio Taguba. None of them had climbed higher than the rank of sergeant on the military career ladder. Sergeant Charles Graner began serving a 10-year prison sentence for a series of criminal acts against Iraqi prisoners on January 15, 2005.
On October 20, 2004, Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick filed a plea of guilty on all charges. Frederick, who has since been given a dishonorable discharge from the military, was sentenced to eight years in prison. After confessing before a military court on May 19, 2004, Jeremy Sivits was demoted to the rank of private and sentenced to one year in prison. Armin Cruz, also demoted, was sentenced to eight months in prison.
The two female soldiers convicted to date came away with even lighter sentences. Sabrina Harman, declared guilty on six counts on May 17, 2005, received a six-month prison term. Megan Ambuhl was fined half a month's pay and demoted to the rank of private. On September 27, 2005, Lynndie England, whose name was not mentioned in Taguba's report but gained notoriety as a result of photos depicting her holding a leash attached to an Iraqi prisoner, was handed down a three-year prison sentence, much lighter than the 10-year sentence she had been expected to receive.
$6,000 fine for murder
When Iraqi Major General Abd al-Hamid Mauhush, viewed as a close associate of Saddam Hussein, was apprehended in November 2003, the Americans were keenly interested in getting him to talk. He was considered one of the leaders of the Iraqi insurgency against the US military. His interrogator, Corporal Lewis Welshofer, resorted to a number of excesses in an attempt to extract information from Mauhush. According to a military prosecutor, the captured Iraqi was treated "worse than a dog." Welshofer finally stuffed the prisoner into a sleeping bag and Mauhush died. In January, the US soldier was sentenced to a $6,000 fine and was restricted to his home, office and church for a period of two months.
Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, head of Abu Ghraib Prison at the time of the prisoner abuses, was demoted. Karpinski, now a colonel, sees herself as a "scapegoat" for her superiors, including then US military commander in Iraq Ricardo Sanchez, who is expected to retire from the military this summer and receive a generous government pension.
Those with political responsibility for the affair have fared even better. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claims that he offered his resignation twice -- in vain. Instead of being dismissed, he was appointed to Bush's second-term cabinet.
Far from being held accountable, those who helped pave the legal way for a policy that essentially deprived prisoners in the war on terror of all rights and gave the president carte blanche to issue orders that in some cases violated international law have even experienced career advances. Former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales was promoted to Attorney General. Michael Chertoff, previously the CIA's chief counsel, is now Secretary of Homeland Security. And Jay Bybee, a lawyer and author of the notorious memo that declares legal any interrogation method that does not end in death or lasting physical damage, was even rewarded with a federal judgeship by President Bush.
Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have since been incorporated into the vernacular as cautionary examples of what happens when the end justifies the means. Books have been written about the issue, and the ever-escalating battle of cultures has even found its way into films.
The clash of cultures on the big screen
The cinema has turned into a new forum for revenge, for the uninhibited expression of opposition to the images from Abu Ghraib. The Turkish film "Valley of the Wolves," for example, is a pure cinematic slap in the face against Hollywood and Bush administration propaganda, an angry indictment of America and the west that's as naïve as it is perfidious.
The technically complex action film simply reverses the perspective, turning American heroes into thugs, while Muslim patriots heroically defend their homeland, their culture and their honor. The "Axis of Evil" no longer lies in the Orient, but in the West. A mirror is held up to the United States that projects a cleverly distorted image: good versus evil, the noble versus the lowly, the honorable versus the underhanded, Islam versus Christianity and Judaism.
The latest round in the battle over images and cultures begins with a bloodbath. The location is a village somewhere in northern Iraq where a wedding is being celebrated, a peaceful gathering of Turks, Kurds and Arabs. The men dance and the women look on, while children play in their midst. But then some of the men, in a burst of enthusiasm not uncommon in the region, raise their weapons and shoot into the sky.
Part IV: Anti-Americanism on the Silver Screen
This is the signal US soldiers who have been hiding nearby have been waiting for. "Okay, now they're terrorists," says an officer, commenting on the celebratory gunfire. Then his group of Rambo-like warriors storms the village, threatening the guests and assaulting the women. When a young boy shyly touches an American soldier's gun, the soldier shoots the boy, triggering a massacre in which dozens of wedding guests are killed. The groom is executed with a gunshot to his head.
The film, which cost €10 million to produce, making it the most expensive Turkish production of all time, has already brought record numbers of viewers into cinemas since it was first released in early February: more than 2 million in Turkey, but also hundreds of thousands in England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland. In Germany, where "Valley of the Wolves" is being shown in Turkish with German subtitles, 236,000 people, mainly Turks, saw the film in the first week following its Feb. 9 premiere. Whenever American villains and sadists die in the film, enthusiastic audiences applaud.
The protagonist in "Valley of the Wolves," already made popular in Turkey by the eponymous television series, is intelligence agent Polat Alemdar, played by popular Turkish actor Necati Sasmaz. The actor plays a sort of Turkish James Bond, but unlike the dapper Briton, who often shows complete disregard for rules, procedures and his superiors, Alemdar is a loyal nationalist whose only obligation is to his fatherland.
Alemdar's mission is to restore Turkish honor, a sentiment triggered by a real-life incident. In July 2003, American troops in northern Iraq detained four Turkish officers and, like terrorists, took them away with bags placed over their heads. The "bag affair" dealt a sensitive blow to the Turk's chronically low self-esteem and to this day is viewed as a national disgrace.
In the film, one of the humiliated officers commits suicide, shouting "Long live the fatherland!" before taking a pistol to his head. Intelligence agent Alemdar goes into battle to avenge the officer's death. "I am a Turk, and I will kill anyone who places a bag over the head of a Turk," the agent announces on the screen, to the cheers of many viewers. In the end, Alemdar plunges a dagger into the heart of the despised American.
Director Serdar Akar cleverly intermingles reality and fiction in the film. One scene is a re-enactment of the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, including a female guard beating a prisoner and threatening him with a vicious German Shepherd. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called it "a hateful cinematic sermon," while the influential weekly Die Zeit described the film as a "battle of cultures in cinemascope."
Anil Sahin, managing director of Maxximum Film und Kunst GmbH, which distributes the film in German theaters, sees these reviews as excessive. "Finally we have a film that shows the ugly face of war in Iraq and of America," says Sahin, whose company touts itself as forming "an effective cultural bridge between Europe and Turkey."
In fact, "Valley of the Wolves" uses the same approach with which the American cinema reacted to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and intensification of the Cold War. In films like "The Red Tide" (1983), the Red Army marches through the United States like some marauding force, challenging the country and its inhabitants to defend themselves unconditionally. And in other revenge-oriented Hollywood action films, the villain is often an ugly Arab.
The "Road to Guantanamo"
Of course, "Valley of the Wolves" is a malicious caricature. But, like any caricature, its core is very real. This reality is also denounced in a far more serious film titled "The Road to Guantanamo," which proved to be an audience favorite when it premiered at last week's Berlin Film Festival. In a mixture of interviews, documentary footage and recreated scenes, British director Michael Winterbottom ("In This World") tells the story of a handful of British Muslims who were taken to the US detainee camp in Cuba two years ago and were not released until March 2004. "The Road to Guantanamo" is a furious indictment of the United States from the perspective of its victims.
In September 2001, a few days after the attacks on New York and Washington, four friends -- Ruhel Ahmed, then 19, Asif Iqbal, also 19, Shafiq Rasul, 23 and Monir Ali, 22, all "completely ordinary English youth" (to quote Winterbottom), travel from their homes in the town of Tipton near Birmingham to the land of their ancestors, Pakistan. Asif is traveling there to meet the bride his mother has selected for him. The others follow him to attend the wedding. Only later in his film does Winterbottom reveal that two of the men have prior records for minor offences, and all survive on part-time jobs.
But nothing comes of the wedding. At the suggestion of an imam, the four young men, accompanied by Shafiq's local cousin, travel to Afghanistan to provide humanitarian assistance, but they're also seeking adventure. Director Winterbottom sees the journey to Afghanistan as a "voyage of self-discovery" although, he adds, "we weren't interested in attempting, from a nonpartisan standpoints, to examine or prove everything they told us."
Following a week-long odyssey, during which US forces bomb the Taliban regime, Ruhel, Asif and Shafiq fall into the hands of Northern Alliance troops on the road to Kandahar, and are eventually turned over to the Americans. In early 2002, after countless interrogations, the three Britons are loaded onto a plane and flown to Guantanamo.
Winterbottom and Assistant Director Mat Whitecross re-enacted all the torture scenes with actors, filmed with handheld cameras and interspersed interviews with the real prisoners. As a result, "Road to Guantanamo" comes across as incredibly authentic. Winterbottom's images will likely shape our image of Guantanamo more than the few original photographs from the camp. The viewer himself is practically held hostage.
Winterbottom's film is completely devoid of any suggestion that the Taliban were bloody tyrants. The fact that the director shot numerous scenes in Iran, which meant that the film had to be approved by the Iranian government -- a regime with an established, quasi-official policy of torture and murder -- raises some doubts as to its educational intentions.
Blow meets blow in this cinematic battle of images, which portrays and dangerously emotionalizes the clash of two cultures -- despite the fact that it is apparently described simply and objectively. In his film "Hamburger Lektionen" ("Hamburg Lectures"), which just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, director Romuald Karmakar reconstructs two meetings between Mohammed al-Fasasi, the former imam at Hamburg's Al-Kuds mosque, and the faithful in January 2000, meetings that were filmed by an unknown person. Three of the suicide pilots of Sep. 11, 2001 apparently attended this mosque regularly and may have been in contact with Fasasi.
Karmakar had the meetings in which Fasasi answered the attending Muslims' questions translated verbatim into German and recited by actor Manfred Zapatka. The outcome is a nightmarish document of political indoctrination and systematic recruitment for jihad.
Haunting America for decades to come
Both lessons begin quite harmlessly with questions of general conduct and religious discipline. But then Fasasi begins appealing to his listeners' feelings of inferiority. Where does Islam's dignity go, he asks, when Muslims are forced to sweep the streets in western countries? The West, he later adds, has robbed Islam of everything, and it's about time to strike back.
Fasasi claims that the West's wealth is based on exploitation of Islam. Anyone who insults Islam, he says, is an enemy and must be killed. Non-Muslim women and children lose their inviolability the minute they hold a weapon in their hands, and the populations of Western countries must be viewed as enemies, as are their governments, and therefore destroyed. In essence, Fasasi is calling for total war without regard for culpability, one in which the media and educators should play a key role.
Our media-based society, no longer a monopoly of the West, is hungry for images and produces them nonstop. To ensure that images do not fade all too quickly, and in fact give off their own energy, they must document something significant -- and then they'll endure.
The images from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib will endure, and they will haunt America for decades to come. A global power can make mistakes and give in to folly, but when its moral foundation begins to crumble, it is constantly forced to deal with the images of its own humiliation and disgrace.
Anything goes once islands have been created outside the rule of law. If Guantanamo is elevated to the status of acceptability -- if those in detention are granted neither the presumption of innocence nor the protections of the Vienna Convention -- isn't Abu Ghraib simply the logical and foreseeable end of this long chain? Does it not become the innate product of a new system the government has inaugurated in its war against terror?
Abu Ghraib represents a substantial moral burden, but the Pentagon is hesitant to turn over the prison on the outskirts of Baghdad to the Iraqi government, as Minister of Human Rights Suher al-Chulabo has demanded. Guantanamo is a scandal, but this government is unlikely to shutter the camp, because it could very well be interpreted as a sign of weakness. The camp's elimination will be up to the next US president.
What remains is cynicism. One of Egypt's leading newspapers summarized it nicely last Friday with the headline to its lead story: "Freedom! Democracy! Torture!" Two of the new prisoner abuse images are on page nine of the paper. Sensational presentation and whipping the public into a frenzy are no longer needed. After all, why break down open doors?
Even Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based network, simply broadcast the images as little more than news. They speak for themselves and, in their unparalleled drastic nature, cement in place an idea that has become the core of the Arab world view: The West lies.
It touts human rights, and yet it rolls our sons in blood and dirt. It complains about the excesses of Saddam Hussein, but it also forces Iraqi men to masturbate on camera. It expresses outrage over our primitiveness, and yet it films a man banging his head against a prison door until blood finally gushes from his forehead.
Nowhere is the fallout from the images more dramatic, the resignation greater, than among those in the Islamic world who had disdained the extremists and had truly believed that the Islamic world stands a chance of being reformed.
There are those in the Arab world who have welcomed the Iraq war and America's project of democratizing the Middle East. "The fall of Saddam established a fundamental moral concept in our political culture," says Egyptian telephone magnate Naguib Sawiris: "responsibility." Despite its many shortcomings, says Shibli Mallat, a Beirut attorney and democratic challenger of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, the war in Iraq did put an end to appeasement in dealing with the despots.
But who wants to listen to it anymore?
"The second group of Abu Ghraib images spells the preliminary end to liberalism in the Arab world, " says Mohammed al-Sayyid Said of the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo. The secular, leftist and moderate wings of all political groups, Said believes, launched a faint-hearted attempt to take advantage of the new freedom last fall. But, he adds, "it's over."
There is some reason to believe that this justification for the withdrawal is little more than an excuse. President Hosni Mubarak is an autocratic ruler who brutally suppresses any opposition. The "Movement for Change," or Kifaya, has disappeared into oblivion, and the Islamists have benefited.
America has forfeited its aura as a global power. It will be a long time before the United States will be able once again to claim moral superiority. America has inadvertently, but consistently, inflamed the clash of cultures.
The great Winston Churchill once said that America had the habit of committing every possible mistake to ultimately arrive at the right decision. The first part of the Churchill quote is proving to be reality, while the redemptive second part has yet to materialize.