Those in the Muslim world who hoped for higher Western standards are broken hearted

Despite the lies of Blair and Bush, millions still retained a faith that honour would prevail
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The Independent Online

Having spent nearly 20 years in the so-called third world, in a country where colonialism was replaced by independence only to be corrupted by vile leaders and interference by the west, I am always sceptical when our leaders glorify our history and values. Even more so today, as we are subjected to the repellent claims by Blair and Bush about freedom and ethics while they carry on with their illegal war and occupation.

Having spent nearly 20 years in the so-called third world, in a country where colonialism was replaced by independence only to be corrupted by vile leaders and interference by the west, I am always sceptical when our leaders glorify our history and values. Even more so today, as we are subjected to the repellent claims by Blair and Bush about freedom and ethics while they carry on with their illegal war and occupation.

So this latest evidence of torture and brutality by American and British soldiers didn't initially cause me undue consternation or disquiet. It is entirely to be expected, I thought, and we have known about worse for months. What I didn't expect was a tidal wave of e-mails from people in the Arab world who were freshly traumatised. Even though most of them live under autocratic regimes where much worse torture is commonplace, they write urgently expressing deep dread and panic.

Here is a small sample. (I have changed the language only where clarification helped with the meaning) One reader from Syria says: "What now, what now is waiting for us? We knew they were bad, but we knew also that the Americans cannot torture people because it is not normal in their country. My brother is a doctor in America and he is telling me that it is still better than living in the Middle East. Now what shall we do? Dictators have nobody to stop them."

A young Iraqi student in London who was a passionate supporter of the war writes: "My family, we really are very happy Saddam has gone. But now if they are torturing Iraqis, people will say Saddam was better, he was one of us. This is so terrible for democracy."

Samad from Pakistan is equally shaken up. "I have always wanted to live in the west, maybe you can be helping me because you can understand. You are free and you can't be killed for speaking out. Now my friends are saying, see, they are as bad as our rulers. They only better liars. Never trust those Americans and English, they are pigs. But I am very unhappy about this."

Amina, an archaeologist who works in the Middle East and Europe, says she feels utterly unsafe. "There is nobody who will at least try to promote fundamental human rights standards. The future is chaos. Those we had to trust to do a little better are completely worthless policemen. We knew the West has double standards and dishonesty, but their societies had better standards and they weren't as bad as the Soviet Union or our Muslim countries. So many good people from the West are trying to promote civil societies and democracy. First Guantanamo and now Fallujah and this torture. This is a tragedy for the whole world."

A Palestinian who was tortured by his own wrote: "I am not shocked when Arafat tortures or Sharon orders torture or Mubarak and his criminals do these things. That is our life. We also know that America allows its friends to torture. But to see an American woman doing these things? I cannot imagine this. I am very sad."

I think if these prisoners had been beaten up, it might have been less offensive and disheartening to Muslim eyes than to see proud, grown men stripped, emasculated, sexually humiliated and assaulted by people with guns, including an American woman with crazed eyes. I have said this before - we have never treated the monsters who massacred thousands in Bosnia in this bestial way. Nazis were treated with unexpected decorum (although there were breaches of the rules governing PoWs in some quarters). That helped to create expectations and some respect globally for the West. Even allowing for propaganda, it is indisputable that during and after major European wars, some basic principles remained steady guidelines for civilised behaviour. Slowly and irreversibly since this disastrous adventure began, we have betrayed ourselves, abandoned those values, and the world feels let down by civilisation as a result.

Among the e-mails I have received there were, predictably, many bitter denunciations too from the unforgiving, those who truly detest the US and now the UK, some of them expressing gleefully how they feel vindicated for believing what they do about the West. The pictures are good for their cause as is the carnage in Falluja and elsewhere. Images of Arabs dead and now humiliated draw more sympathisers into the ranks of the terrorists and suicide bombers. Some of these anti-Westerners do not resort to militancy but do defend the indefensible to feed their hatred and turn their backs on the values the world surely needs.

But it is the disappointed and disillusioned who are most worrying. In spite of all the lies that Blair and Bush have told the world, the obscene prevarications of Jack Straw, the hideous war with no proper rules of engagement, the treacherous betrayal of Palestinians, the unknown numbers killed in Iraq over the past decade by our policies, millions of Muslims still retained a faith that honour would prevail, that our laws and constitutions and democratic cultures would control the nefarious human impulses which always appear during terrible conflicts. The belief gave them a basis to make demands for reform; it gave them courage too that progressive politics are kept alive in the West by decent people who wish to see these spread across the world not for colonial reasons but because of our shared humanity and aspirations.

Increasing numbers can see and believe that a different life is possible, particularly after the fall of communism. Globalisation spreads many wicked ways, but it also carries information which opens up dreams and wakes people from the fatalistic stupor which helps them to survive dictatorships. Noam Chomsky writes in his book Hegemony or Survival (2003) that there is "a deepening global appreciation for human rights, as well as a broadening of their range... These are impressive developments, rich in opportunity." But every day that rich opportunity is wasted; these hopes crushed by our side, which should know better.

Since 11 September, US and New Labour leaders have worked ceaselessly to squander the goodwill of the non-occidental world. For that alone they should be indicted by their citizens. Today that alienation is helping to turn Iraq into a cauldron. Even the people who were unconditionally joyous that we went in, those who cheered to see the grotesque faces of Saddam's dead sons, exiles who were all too keen to regain their old paradise, these people today refrain from showing much enthusiasm for the post-war allies. It is, says Amina, like someone came to help you when you were being attacked in your home by a criminal and then, after getting rid of the assailant, your deliverer raped you and took your purse.

Nobody takes seriously anything we say we stand for. Since the Iraq fiasco, democracy and the rule of law lie in the gutter. Dictators and brutes are delighted by our failures and the people who once wistfully looked to the West have had their hearts broken.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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