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Dehumanisation in the Middle East: A Continued Legacy

Opinion Piece

Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, November 2003 | Wikimedia Commons

Content Advisory: This article contains graphic language about sensitive topics, relating to torture and human rights abuses in the Middle East.


Last month in Gaza, images depicting semi-naked Palestinian men being paraded by the Israeli military began to circulate, raising international concern and drawing parallels to the infamous prisoner abuse documented at Abu Ghraib. In a digital age where graphic and disturbing material is available at the click of a button, what exactly is it about the nature of these images that continues to generate shock? And to what extent do sadistic humiliation rituals continue to be used as a psychological tool in modern warfare?


Amid a backdrop of electrical wires, a hooded, robed figure stands on top of a box with his arms outstretched in a pose that mimics crucifixion. In another image, a female soldier leads a naked man on a leash. The next picture shows a cluster of naked men kneeling in a clumsy pyramid formation, as soldiers Specialist Charles Graner and PFC Lynndie England stand behind them grinning. With each photograph, more disturbing details emerge - one detainee is photographed handcuffed in the nude to a bed with underwear covering his face, while another is pictured with human faeces smeared across his face and body. Perhaps most harrowing of all is an empty room, splattered with blood. These scenes define years of torture and brutality at Abu Ghraib military prison, where a relentless campaign of targeted depravity would go on to become an international scandal. Detainees, who ranged from those accused of petty crimes to suspected insurgency leaders, were subject to torture, weekly executions and a heightened climate of cruelty. While the Bush administration was quick to dismiss the perpetrators as a few bad apples, it was clear that this abuse was symptomatic of a wider environment where systemic racial violence was left unchallenged and brown bodies were homogeneously labelled as barbaric terrorists.


In the years following the invasion of Iraq, evidence emerged that would increasingly tarnish the liberal reputation of the coalition powers and discredit the positioning of the West as a tool of moral authority in the world. Cases such as the Mahmudiyah rape and killings, in which a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl was gang-raped by US marines and murdered alongside her family before their house was set alight, made it increasingly difficult to justify military intervention in Iraq as a noble fight against insurgency, radicalism and weapons of mass destruction. Another notable incident that was flagged as a grave violation of international law was the Nisour Square massacre, where private military contractors shot dead fourteen Iraqi civilians in central Baghdad. Referred to by FBI investigators as the My Lai massacre of Iraq, the killings were a further indicator of a binary environment which distinctly split white and brown as good and evil. Yet despite the horrific nature of these crimes, it was Abu Ghraib that became the figurehead for human rights abuses perpetrated by US-led coalition forces in the country.


As politicians, scholars and psychiatrists scrambled to explain the unexplainable, it became apparent that the sexualised element of the torture caused the highest degree of moral outrage as the scandal came to light in the public eye. Prisoners were raped, sodomised, and forced to self-masturbate and simulate or perform sexual acts on fellow male detainees, with many crimes captured on film. The levels of cruelty and sadism exhibited were intensified by the public perception of sexuality within the Arab world, particularly the concept that homosexuality is taboo in Islamic cultures. With many scholars citing the overriding factor that sexual humiliation is perhaps the worst form of torture for any Muslim, as Jasbir K. Puar mentions in her work covering the war on terror, the abuse appeared inherently racist, misogynistic and homophobic. Arguing that the simulated sex focused primarily on gender roles rather than sexual orientation, with the forced positions the prisoners placed in symbolising emasculation and effeminisation, she claimed the perversion of gender-based norms prevailed in causing the most humiliation as part of sexualised torture. The involvement of a female soldier was a further way of contributing to the racialised sexual stereotype of a repressed Muslim terrorist, while the documentation of the abuse prolonged the suffering of survivors by threatening to ruin their reputations and livelihood. By stripping detainees of their dignity and mocking their cultural and religious beliefs, this sadistic form of torture crossed physical and psychological lines to create an environment in which through violence the US soldier became what it is said to condemn: the manifestation of animalistic impulses and brute force.


In the modern day, the recent images and footage of Palestinian men stripped to their underwear, forced to kneel, some bound and some blindfolded in the custody of Israeli soldiers echo the ritualistic degradation that occurred twenty years ago in Iraq. The photographs, which have been verified by Reuters, invoke similar feelings of shame and voyeurism that arise when consuming the sordid visuals of Abu Ghraib. While Israeli media initially suggested the photos showed the surrender of Hamas fighters, friends and relatives of detainees were quick to identify them as civilians - including Al-Araby Al-Jadeed (The New Arab) correspondent Diaa al-Kahlout. According to the news organisation, Kahlout had been rounded up along with his brothers, relatives and other civilians at the market street in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza. Detainees were then strip-searched and humiliated before they were taken to an unknown location. Just as it had done decades prior, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a statement expressing concern at the treatment of prisoners, with ICRC spokesperson Jessica Moussan stressing the “importance of treating all those detained with humanity and dignity, in accordance with international humanitarian law”. Questions were raised about the intention of the release of the images, with their existence purported as a form of psychological warfare designed to threaten and humiliate Gazan citizens. Israel appeared to largely brush aside growing concern for the welfare of the detainees, with Mark Regev, a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, remarking "It's the Middle East, and it's warmer here" - a sentiment that is likely to anger human rights groups and activists.


While Israel received widespread global backing in the direct aftermath of the October 7th massacre, incidents like this can hamper support from even its closest allies. The US, undoubtedly reminded of the foreign and domestic implications of the Abu Ghraib scandal, labelled the images “deeply disturbing” - and as global pressure for a ceasefire mounts, the conduct of the Israeli military is under more scrutiny than ever. Although the consumption of violent imagery runs the risk of framing the dehumanisation of non-white bodies as a cultural spectacle, it also exposes the international community to the dangers of repeating history. Amid a digital age in which online platforms are often used as meaningful tools for social change, there is hope that this exposure can help challenge human rights abuses committed by all sides during the ongoing war. Decades since the hooded man photograph triggered shockwaves around the world, a picture can still paint a thousand words.





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