Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: People matter more than holy books

Both sides appear to care little about the torture of human beings in the new wars of this century

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A brief news item appeared in Newsweek magazine claiming that a military investigation had confirmed that the Koran had been defiled in Guantanamo Bay. Prior to publication, the journalist, John Barry, showed his copy to senior Pentagon officials who got some parts of the report edited out (this is the free press in the US), but were untroubled by the bit about the Koranic desecration. Imran Khan, the Pakistani ex-cricket hero turned politician, denounced this abomination. Riots flared up in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, leaving about 20 people dead.

A brief news item appeared in Newsweek magazine claiming that a military investigation had confirmed that the Koran had been defiled in Guantanamo Bay. Prior to publication, the journalist, John Barry, showed his copy to senior Pentagon officials who got some parts of the report edited out (this is the free press in the US), but were untroubled by the bit about the Koranic desecration. Imran Khan, the Pakistani ex-cricket hero turned politician, denounced this abomination. Riots flared up in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, leaving about 20 people dead.

Suddenly awake, the US authorities then forced Newsweek to retract the story because the source was shaky - an unforgivable transgression in American journalism, much worse, apparently, than partisan reporting or the acquiescence of much of the US media in neo-con power. In fact there is documentation by independent sources of this use of Koranic despoliation during interrogations by Americans, but that was not the point. Americans are enraged that the magazine was "unpatriotic" and "irresponsible"; Muslims worldwide are furious that copies of their most precious book were thrown into toilets.

In this world, which I no longer comprehend, great emotions rise on one side because a reputable magazine did not pay due attention to ensure that its sources were impeccable, and on the other because the Koran was debased. Of course the page, the book, the word matters. Sacrilege of the Koran is hurtful to the many faithful, including myself. But is it not utterly depressing that so many died, that Muslims killed Muslims because they could not control their grief? And that both sides in this latest flare-up appear to care so little about what is being done to human beings across the world in the new wars of this century?

Where is the world-wide uproar that should stop the systematic, sanctioned, well-tooled torture that is now spreading fast around the globe? Guantanamo Bay holds hundreds of young men - guilty and innocent - who are being broken, punished and tortured without due process and justice. A new psychiatric facility is being built in that hellhole. Do these men really matter less than their holy book?

Perhaps the reason Khan and others haven't raised similar hell on behalf of such victims is that torture is now so commonplace, that there is an acceptance that these things happen, indeed must happen to ensure the security and wellbeing of thousands more who would perish unless we find out the secret plots and plotters.

The Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz argues that in extreme situations, in order to prevent a tragedy, a "torture warrant" should be issued by US courts to use hot needles under the nails, for example. This would make the use open to scrutiny, even though it would be against the Geneva convention.

This utilitarian position is both contemptible and persuasive - it has doubtlessly drawn in champions who, but a decade ago, would have been dedicated members of Amnesty - perhaps they still are. Today, though, when you meet them, a number of good little liberals will try to tell you that this "war against terror" is so extraordinarily dangerous (more than the Cold War or nuclear confrontations?) that reluctantly they have had to let go of ethical considerations.

Bush and Blair and Straw would understand their pain and sacrifice completely. Against their own noble natures, they too (sigh) have had to learn to deal with the real and cruel world, using methods which are hateful but essential to keep us safe. Cofer Black, erstwhile head of the CIA counter-terrorism operation, put it clearly:

"There was a before 9/11 and there was an after 9/11 policy. After 9/11 the gloves came off." But in their election manifestos, US and UK politicians never told their electorates that they were now working with torturers and executioners as part of a national security strategy.

Torture is now used in 150 countries and is tacitly approved of by more democracies than ever before, all of which have signed up to the Geneva Convention. In Bagram in Afghanistan and prisons in Iraq, British and American personnel stand accused of sadistic acts against prisoners, and murders of captives. A number have already been found guilty. Today President Karzai condemns the US interrogators who killed a young Afghan man after days of humiliation and physical abuse which had turned his legs to pulp.

Karzai says he is going to get the US to hand over all prisoners to the Afghan government. But as a "friend" of the allies, he has colluded in the violation of human rights in his country, and it is Afghanis who torture Afghanis most of the time. Same story in China, now such a booming economy, and Pakistan, our ally, and all those friendly nations whose oil we must have.

We can't be too cross with Uzbekistan's killer autocrat, Islam Karimov, because he has been an efficient extractor of important information from "terrorist" prisoners, who can expect to be boiled to death unless they comply. Egyptian, Syrian, Saudi, Jordanian torturers are among the best in the world, which is why we outsource (or "render") suspects to them. (Remember when we "rendered" carcases of cows during the foot and mouth crisis?)

Now there is no moral, internationalist imperative to keep to those promises made after the Second World War. The Human Rights Report 2005 makes unbearable reading if you are still old-fashioned enough to believe that the West - for all its devilish foreign policies - did once confront the evil of torture and government censorship.

In the late Seventies, I worked with young men and women who had escaped the tyrannies spread across South America and the Middle East. I taught them English and about life in Britain. Jehan was a 20-year-old Iranian who would suddenly start shaking; his eyes rolled, babble and dribble flowed out of his mouth, and he wet himself. He never described the treatment he had received in prison in Tehran, before his parents bribed the guards and got him out. Maria, also 20, from Chile, would hold him, rock him, and help him out of the room to save face. She had had clumps of hair torn out of her scalp, which had been burned with cigarettes; she said men had inserted metal objects into her vagina.

There are more Jehans in Iran today than ever, but you no longer hear many stories like Maria's coming out of South America. Torture can never be eradicated, but you can make it shameful enough so its use is cut down. Recently I keep dreaming about these broken young adults. They haunt me, remind me what torture does to the human soul. And perhaps ask me to remind others, too, which I am doing today.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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