Posts Tagged ‘al-Qaeda’

As America leaves Iraq, Human Rights questions remain – women, religious minorities at high risk

Friday, December 16th, 2011

The Iraq War ended yesterday.  At least it did for the US military.  American diplomatic and intelligence personnel and support military contractors are still there in Iraq, and number in the thousands.  But America’s war in Iraq has stopped and taking its place is a clumsy and confusing set of policies and programs to try to conserve American interests and influence there after the loss of so many lives and so much money.

As we leave Iraq, we should not forget that it was the site of terrible rights abuses committed by US personnel (Haditha, Abu Ghuraib, FOB Tiger).  Iraqis didn’t have to learn how to torture from Americans, they had plenty instruction in that during the rule of Saddam Hussein and his predecessors.  But as the torture and rape of Iraqi prisoners in Iraqi detention facilities and black sites has now become routine one wonders how much less bad it could be now had the US been more committed to human rights in the first years of the occupation?

But other question about Iraq’s human rights situation remain – especially as much of the early ex-post facto justification for the war turned on the liberation of the Iraqi people from a truly heinous and barbaric régime, that of Saddam Hussein and the ruling Baath Party.  It’s the height of historical revisionism to argue that the war was a human rights intervention, but the US occupation did create space for the emergence of Iraqi civil society, a vibrant and independent media and even governmental structures charged with the protection and promotion of human rights.  That said, in the period since 2006 and the Iraqi civil war, the human rights environment in Iraq has deteriorated sharply.

Human rights failures have been the most pronounced in Iraq, as one might expect, in the protection of the country’s most vulnerable: children, widows, as well as marginalized ethnic and religious minorities. And while these groups are often the victims of abuse in other times and places, the central truth of the Iraq War and its aftermath is how it has produced such vast numbers of vulnerable people: 1.3 million refugees, 2 million internally displaced peoples and 500,000 new poor, living in shanty towns without water or proper sanitation.  The Red Cross has estimated, for example, that between 1 and 3 million Iraqi households are headed by women, and the numbers of parentless children is similarly large.

But a more systemic problem faces women in Iraq, in that the kind of Iraqi state that has emerged after the war is one that is deeply committed to imposing a religious orthodoxy on society, and in fact wants to reverse any sort of secular gains by women and minorities that occurred in the pre-war period.  This has meant not just increasing restrictions of women’s participation in public life, education and commerce.  But it has also contributed to violence against women, in particular “honor killing,” a broader social acceptance of domestic abuse and abandonment of prohibitions of child marriage.  For Iraqi women the last 8 years have seen their rights in society and even their right to live diminish exponentially.

But perhaps the greatest human rights failure in Iraq is the collapse of state protection for religious minorities.  This is both a “security” problem, but also a problem of state will.  The case of the Sabian Mandaeans is perhaps the worst.  The Mandaeans are an Aramaic-speaking community of monotheists who predate Christianity and Islam in Iraq and live(d) in the major cities, but in particular near Basra in the south.  In 2003 there were between 50,000 and 60,000 Mandaeans living in Iraq, now there are perhaps 4,000.  Mandaeans have face systematic persecution by religious extremists and have had to flee Iraq.  Similar attacks have taken place against Iraq’s Christians and heterodox groups like the Shabaak and Yezidis.  Within a generation, most non-Muslims in Iraq will have emigrated, and with them a link to Iraq’s diverse and multi-ethnic past.

Mandaean Refugee Boy in Jordan

A photo from the remarkable work of Jiro Ose “Living in the Shadows: Iraqi Refugees”

As Iraqi politics begins to resemble less democracy and more a rehabilitated Arab authoritarianism, as press freedom evaporates and conservative Shiite political Islam dictates social and cultural norms, the nascent human rights régime in Iraq will be strangled.

Perhaps the only thing we have left to give the Iraqi people is integrating clearly concerns about Human Rights into the new bilateral “partnership” between the US and Iraq.

See: HRW’s Iraq at the Crossroads

Human Rights Organizations in Iraq

Reflections on the Teaching of Human Rights at Ten Years After 9/11

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

There was something missing, something just not right…

Spring Qtr. ’11. A student in my “Human Rights” introductory course was at my office hours to talk. In class we had discussed the human rights implications of the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden, something that had just happened that week, breaking off from the syllabus to think about terrorism as a crime against humanity and revisiting a discussion we had had earlier about how Islamism (like most religious ideologies) tends to deny the very existence of human rights in favor of a more divinely ordained code of ethics and behaviors.

The classroom conversation turned to the question of whether bin Laden’s human rights had been violated or what we had been told had happened was a justifiable and legitimate use of deadly force? I then asked my students to think about what could have been gained by putting him on trial? We had been studying the concept of crimes against humanity trials and I observed that Nazis, Rwandan Genocidaires, and Serbian ultra-nationalists who had done similar or even worse crimes than bin Laden (but not to Americans) had been successfully captured, tried and even some executed. Think “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

Nazi war criminals in the dock at Nuremberg, 1946

My student had come to talk more about that last question. She had lost someone in the Pentagon, and told me that ever since the killing of bin Laden “there was something missing, something just not right,” and when we talked about putting him on trial that that was it.

Human rights undergraduates tend to have this kind of thoughtful and reflective approach to history and the present, which is one of the more rewarding aspects of teaching in that field. But her response was particularly so and made me remember something from the very beginning of my career as a teacher.

I am suddenly the expert because I’m the only historian of the Modern Middle East for three Upstate New York counties. A colleague in my department has asked me to lecture at the Elderhostel. Sixty senior citizens sit at circular banquet tables. It’s three weeks since the Events and a few days after George W. Bush first used the phrase “war on terror” in a speech. It was a speech that also included the word “crusade.” I’m giving a talk on popular culture in the Arab world: Umm Kulthum, Rai music, Palestinian graffiti. That’s not what they want to talk about. They want to know about Them, the Muslims, the Arabs, the Enemy who wants to kill Us.

I try to tell them a different story, one about what a marginal figure bin Laden is and how radical Islamism is a cancer over there, too. Then I tell them that we’re not at war. Those who brought down the towers are criminals, mass murderers, who should face the full force of the American justice system. I ask them to remember Timothy McVeigh who was from another Upstate city and how he was caught, tried and convicted. Al-Qaeda is a criminal enterprise, it’s run and funded like one and it can be dismantled like one, it might take time. But just imagine what an elegant statement of what-makes-us-different it would be to perp-walk bin Laden and his crew into the Daniel Patrick Moynihan federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan and have him judged by a jury of 12 tough New Yorkers, convict them and then let them rot at the supermax in Florence, Colorado? Let the world see them for the pathetic, spineless, petty mobsters they are, let them descend into the hell of their own obscurity and be denied the martyrdom they crave, don’t even sentence them to die, just lock the door and throw away the goddamn key.

In 2001 this didn’t go over so well.

Moynihan Court House – site of successful criminal prosecutions of terrorists

I think I was asking too much of them at the time. That moment was infused with panic and fear, and inflamed by an administration that could invoke Pearl Harbor, the Old West and the Clash of Civilizations in a single breath. What I was asking them to consider seemed weak, effete, intellectual and ineffectual. It was us-or-them and some pointy-headed, tweedy moonlighting assistant professor wasn’t going to persuade them to entrust their desire for revenge to the CIA, FBI, lawyers and judges. That any reaction other than war was possible had been crowded out of public consciousness and it is important to recall today how harshly any dissent was dealt with at the time: it was labeled unpatriotic, it was heresy against the memory of the heroes of 9/11; are you one of them?

I don’t claim to have had any idea at the time what would unfold because of the former administration’s decision to invent the “war on terror.” But that choice to do so — and here I want to distinguish between the Events and the American (over)reaction to them — changed the field of Middle East History, my area of expertise, and altered the environment in which the teaching of and research on human rights takes place.

The extent of shared humanity

The starting point for my “Human Rights” course is a close examination of the framing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the wake of World War II. The framers of the UDHR — including Eleanor Roosevelt, for whom this blog is named — insisted that the declaration was an expansion to all of humanity of the kinds of rights established in various national compacts and constitutions including the US Bill of Rights.

The reaction to 9/11 called into question how committed Americans are to the universal nature of human rights. This is of course the question raised by the elaboration of a separate legal system outside of US law for the men held at Guantanamo Bay. In the words of Navy lawyer Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, who argued the Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld case: “All men have rights, including the right to a trial — a regular trial! The abuse of prisoners indicates that we don’t think detainees are human.” How then to reconcile the preeminent role of American political thought on the universality of human rights with the application of those rights in practice only to US citizens on US soil? As in other historical fields is there an American human rights exceptionalism?

As I teach human rights, I’ve found that it’s easy to get students to support the human rights claims of a Nelson Mandela or a nameless middle-class college student facing a truncheon in Tahrir Square. The true test of our humanity is seeing that humanity in those monsters that live in our midst. In making war, we are asked to temporarily forget the humanity of the enemy; the overreaction to the Events that led us into wars of our own choosing made that forgetting simple and without cost.

Cultures of Impunity

In the Middle East of today or the South America of the late-20th century when those who abuse human rights under the color of authority routinely get away with it, it is said to have created a “culture of impunity.” As we examine how cultures of impunity are addressed and ended, my students can’t help but see clear echoes of that culture in post-9/11 euphemisms like “extreme rendition” and “enhanced interrogation.” As word comes that the CIA rendered suspects unto Libya and a former US vice-president fears arrest as a war criminal, connecting foreign cultures of impunity to a domestic one doesn’t evoke their outrage but reinforces a creeping cynicism. This cynicism is a pendulum swing away from the too credulous attitudes towards authority and the military solution of a half-generation ago among students who were older when 9/11 took place. This cynicism concerns me inasmuch as it doesn’t enjoin action, but rather its reverse and reinforces an even more dangerous sense of alienation from our political structures.

This last year, for the first time I found myself having to tell the history of 9/11 to my students in my giant freshman course, “Fundamentalism.” Before then, I had assumed that they “knew” what had happened. When I began teaching that class, my freshmen were 12 years old when 9/11 took place and many do remember it, or at least think they do and could tell stories about watching the towers collapse on televisions rolled into their junior high classrooms. This year’s freshmen were 8 years old when it happened and their memory of the events, if they have any at all, is mediated by what happened after: the Iraq War, the financial collapse, the election of Barack Obama.

Historians sometimes use (and abuse) the concept of historical interruption. The idea is that a society is evolving or moving a certain direction and some event or war or social or economic collapse sidetracks it onto a course (usually bad) it wouldn’t have taken otherwise. The United States and its relationship to human rights seemed to have been moving in a different historical direction before 9/11. The question we’ll need to answer and what I’ll pose to my students for the rest of my career is whether America and Americans are now back on that path?

Further Readings:

Human Rights Watch: United States: Investigate Bush, Other Top Officials for Torture

American Civil Liberties Union: A Call to Courage: Reclaiming our Liberties Ten Years after 9/11

When do terrorists become terrorists and do they still have human rights?

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Flagg Miller

Le roi est mort; vive le roi! So might go one reading of a paper I am presenting at the upcoming conference “Ten Years Later: Insights on al-Qa`ida’s Past & Future through Captured Records” at the National Defense University at Washington D.C. To be held in the wake of 9/11’s tenth-year memorial events, the conference promises to be an intriguing one, especially since Bin Ladin is dead. My paper, entitled “Revisiting the Origins of al-Qa`ida through Usama Bin Ladin’s Former Audiocassette Collection,” explores the ways his influence as a leader and world-wide terrorist has been a subject of creative animation for some time, however, no more so than in Western narratives focusing on the organization widely thought to be his brainchild: al-Qa`ida itself.

Al-Qa`ida, I argue, transcends the man, as evident in much cited documents that I examine with fresh eyes. Standard accounts of al-Qa`ida’s formation, reported by scholars, journalists and others, are based principally on court documents related to the U.S. government’s prosecutions of bin Laden and one of his associates, Enaam Arnaout, in the early 2000s. Together, these documents indicate that bin Laden and others met in Afghanistan in August 1988 to form al-Qa`ida, or “the base,” that went on to plan and approve major terrorist operations. Other documents, said to corroborate this formation of al-Qa`ida, were released by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The West Point papers are thought to be founding charter papers obtained by U.S. military or intelligence personnel.

These documents all raise questions, however. Although court papers suggest that al-Qa`ida was a world-wide terrorist organization under bin Ladin’s leadership, a closer reading suggests that bin Ladin’s efforts were far more restricted and focused on working with more prominent leaders at the time to set up a specific training camp in Afghanistan. Charter documents reveal that despite his efforts, bin Ladin was quickly marginalized at the camp. Oaths to the “amir” were mentioned as being required of recruits, but I have found no correlation to the “amir” or leader as being bin Laden. Most curious is a stipulation that none of the amir’s security guards can be from Yemen, Saudi Arabia or any of the other Arab Gulf states, countries supplying bin Laden’s most vehement supporters. Some of the confusion may relate to problems with translating the meaning of “the base” (al-qa`ida). “Al-Qa`ida” can refer, of course, to Bin Ladin’s worldwide terrorist organization, but so too can it simply mean a “base” of operations, as was the case for a host of training camps from the 1980s-2000s in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond that had no significant connection to Bin Ladin or his ideology. So too can “al-qaida” be a general rule for legal reasoning, theological inference or speaking well. My analysis suggests the need to revisit arguments made by prosecutors [in the Arnaout trial] and conclusions drawn from them by wider audiences.

Do terrorists get human rights? By what rationale? The answer to these questions require a lengthier investigation into the ways individuals and social groups become identified with terrorism and, as a consequence, become exceptional targets for disciplinary action. At their best, such investigations produce messy questions about exactly when individuals become terrorists and how their status and power as terror-brokers emerges through competition between diverse communities as they compete for influence. Terrorists are not born lobbing bombs from the crib, of course; their eventual designation as terrorists by international legal institutions is perceived as no less self-evident. As a religious studies professor and anthropologist who has studied and lived in the Arab world for over twenty years, I like to think of myself as fairly open to the possibility that our views of the world reflect our backgrounds and that cross-cultural comparison can promote healthy and ethical engagement with others. The paper I am presenting in Washington D.C. is part of a larger book project that examines the figuration Bin Ladin’s leadership in a set of over 1500 audiotapes that were acquired from Bin Ladin’s former residence in Qandahar, Afghanistan. These tapes were acquired by the Cable News Network after the fall of the Taliban in December 2001 and are currently being digitalized for public research by Yale University. Organized chronologically, my book considers discrepencies between our own narratives of Bin Ladin’s identity and those employed by speakers of the tapes. The lessons of the book, much like my upcoming paper, emerge from recognizing the ways in which complex histories, including our own, are elided in the interest of oversimplified and ethnocentric narratives of Muslims violence and its perpetrators. The United States’ post-9/11 rationale for invading Iraq on the pretext that overthrowing Saddam would strike a blow against al-Qa`ida proves only the most egregious case; links between al-Qa`ida and Saddam proved as tenuous as Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Human rights discourses, including those advanced through American institutions of criminal law, special grand juries and military tribunals, are unfortunately not immune to distortions introduced by such narratives. Especially when Al-Qa`ida is involved.