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Guantanamo Controversies by Juan Cole

Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan Monday, May 16, 2005

The Bible and the Koran

The report in Newsweek that the US military desecrated the Koran as part of an attempt to break the Muslim prisoners there with humiliation techniques has provoked demonstrations, angry sermons, riots, and over a dozen deaths in Afghanistan, with demonstrations also in Gaza, Pakistan, Indonesia, and now Yemen. Both the chief Sunni Muslim cleric in Lebanon and its Shiite Grand Ayatollah, Muhammad Husain Fadlallah have now condemned it. The former threatened jihad or holy war. The latter said, “The desecration of the holy Koran in the terrifying Guantanamo detention center that America created under the title of fighting terrorism against the Muslims who have been arbitrarily rounded up there, is one of the American methods of torture . . . This is not an isolated act carried out by an American soldier but is part of an American program…of contempt for Islam, to disfigure its image in the minds of American.” Shaikh Muhammad Sayyid al-Tantawi, the rector of al-Azhar seminary and the chief Sunni authority in Egypt, called the desecration of the Koran “a great crime.” But he dismissed it as the work of “a bunch of kids, criminals . . .”

The Pentagon has claimed that the incident did not occur. Although the corporate media are now reporting that Newsweek had “backed off” the report, that isn’t true.

Newsweek explains that in response to Pentagon queries,

“On Saturday, Isikoff spoke to his original source, the senior government official, who said that he clearly recalled reading investigative reports about mishandling the Qur’an, including a toilet incident. But the official, still speaking anonymously, could no longer be sure that these concerns had surfaced in the SouthCom report.”

Isikoff’s source, in other words, stands by his report of the incident, but is merely tracing it to other paperwork. What difference does that make? Although Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita angrily denounced the source as no longer credible, in the real world you can’t just get rid of a witness because the person made a minor mistake with regard to a text citation. It is like saying that we can’t be sure someone has really read the Gospels because he said he read about Caiaphas in the Gospel of Mark rather than in the Gospel of John.

Newsweek has, in other words, confirmed that the source did read a US government account of the desecration of the Koran.

Nor is this the first such indication of this sort of incident. On August 18, 2004, ANSA, the Italian news agency, wrote of the families of detainees from Bahrain at Guantanamo:

“The families’ anxiety grew after the publication of a report by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), which contained information about tortures and maltreatment of prisoners. The report, based on testimony by three former Guantanamo prisoners, Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmad, defines as brutal the methods of the U.S. jailers. According to the report, prisoners were brutally beaten and compelled to watch other prisoners sodomising each other by force. The 150-page document says reptiles were taken to the cells in an attempt to force prisoner confessions, while the Koran was thrown into the toilets before the eyes of the detained.”

This diary and discussion at Daily Kos gives a number of other newspaper and other citations for the practice of Koran desecration.

Of course, one can hardly take the word of jihadis reporting on the United States, which they hate and would be happy to defame. But Newsweek had an independent source for the incident, a US government official, who continues to maintain that he saw documentation of it.

Moreover, Guantanamo translator Erik Saar, in his co-authored Inside the Wire indicates that techniques of religious humiliation were used at Guantanamo. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

‘In his book, Saar describes a tumultuous atmosphere made more intense than usual because of religious tensions. US personnel, he wrote, routinely tempted detainees to look at pornographic magazines and videos, which Islam forbids. Female interrogators, sometimes dressed provocatively, violated Islamic strictures by rubbing against detainees and even leading one to believe he was being wiped with menstrual blood. “Had someone come to me before I left for Gitmo and told me we would use women to sexually torment detainees to try to sever their relationships with God, I probably would have thought that sounded fine,” writes Saar. “But I hated myself when I walked out of that room… We lost the high road… There wasn’t enough hot water in all of Cuba to make me feel clean.” The Army, which cleared Saar’s book for publication, says the policy is to treat detainees humanely, and an investigation into his allegations is under way. ‘

As a professional historian, I would say we still do not have enough to be sure that the Koran desecration incident took place. We have enough to consider it plausible. Anyway, the important thing politically is that some Muslims have found it plausible, and their outrage cannot be effectively dealt with by simple denial. That is why I say that Bush should just come out and say we can’t be sure that it happened, but if it did it was an excess, and he apologizes if it did happen, and will make sure it doesn’t happen again (if it did).

The controversy, however, seems to me to have focused on all the wrong things. The question is why all those prisoners are still being held at Guantanamo. Saar makes clear that the majority of them just had the misfortune to be dragooned onto the battlefield by the Taliban, and aren’t dangerous terrorists. There are very bad characters among them, who should be tried and kept behind bars.

A reader with military experience in this area wrote me his own experience, with the Bible being trashed in a similar way. I was able to google this reader in such a way as to compare autobiographical statements and dates (stripped from the below) to the Web record, and they all check out. Even the history of attitudes, as revealed in letters to the editor, are confirmatory. So I’m sure of the authenticity of these comments:

“I’m a former US [military officer], and had the ‘pleasure’ of attending SERE school—Search, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape.

The course I attended . . . [had] a mock POW camp, where we had a chance to be prisoners for 2-3 days. The camp is also used as a training tool for CI [counter-intelligence], interrogators, etc for those running the camp.

One of the most memorable parts of the camp experience was when one of the camp leaders trashed a Bible on the ground, kicking it around, etc. It was a crushing blow, even though this was just a school.

I have no doubt the stories about trashing the Koran are true.

I’m sure you must also realize that Gitmo must be being used as a “laboratory” for all these psychological manipulation techniques by the CI guys. Absolutely sickening . . .

1. My gut feeling tells me that the SERE camps were ‘laboratories’ and part of the training program for military counter-intelligence and interrogator personnel. I heard this anecdotally as far as the training goes, but have not dug into it. This is pretty much common sense.

2. Looking at Gitmo in the ‘big picture’, you have to wonder why it is still in operation though they know so many are innocent of major charges. A look through history at the various ‘experimentation’ programs of the DOD gives a ready answer. The camp provides a major opportunity to expose a population to various psychological control techniques. Look at some of the stuff that has become public, and this becomes even more apparent. Especially the sensory deprivation—not only sleep, but there are the photos of inmates in gas masks or sight/hearing/smell deprivation setups. There has already been voluminous research into sensory deprivation, and it seems this is another good opportunity for more. One note is that sensory deprivation is used to some degree in military basic training and to a greater sense in the advanced training courses—Rangers, SEALS, etc. All part of the ‘breakdown’ process before recruits are ‘remade’.

3. This incident with the bible trashing. Camp was [in the late 1990s]. It was towards the end of the camp experience, which was 2-3 days of captivity. We were penned in concrete cell blocks about 4' x 4' x 4'—told to kneel, but allowed to squat or sit. There was no door, just a flap that could be let down if it was too cold outside (which it was—actually light snow fell). Each trainee was interrogated to some extent, all experienced some physical interrogation such as pushing, shoving, getting slammed against a wall (usually a large metal sheet set up so that it would not seriously injure trainees) with some actually water-boarded (not me).

The bible trashing was done by one of the top-ranked leaders of the camp, who was always giving us speeches—sort of ‘making it real’ so to speak, because it is a pretty contrived environment. But by the end it almost seemed real. Guards spoke English with a Russian accent, wore Russian-looking uniforms. So the bible trashing happened when this guy had us all in the courtyard sitting for one of his speeches. They were tempting us with a big pot of soup that was boiling—we were all starving from a few days of chow deprivation. He brought out the bible and started going off on it verbally—how it was worthless, we were forsaken by this God, etc. Then he threw it on the ground and kicked it around. It was definitely the climax of his speech. Then he kicked over the soup pot, and threw us back in the cells. Big climax. And psychologically it was crushing and heartbreaking, and then we were left isolated to contemplate this.

And all of these moods and thoughts were created in this fake camp—just imagine how it is for these guys at Gitmo.

So many have tried to commit suicide…by now they all must have some serious psychological problems. This is without a doubt torture. Premeditated, planned…a fine lot of criminals we have in charge of the USA these days. Gitmo is so Orwellian—so Room 101. They are playing on the deepest feelings and fears.”

This informed former officer has suggested the real reason for which some in the Pentagon are so angry about the Newsweek story. It may well so focus international outrage on Guantanamo that Rumsfeld will lose his little psych lab.

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