Menu

Abuse Pictures Hit Arab Cultural Sore Spots

Iraqis extol what they see as their ancient Arab traditions, projecting the image of a society living by a code of honor steeped in Islamic tenets and tribal customs: the sanctity of homes, protection of women, male domination, swift justice and deep suspicion of outsiders.

That mind-set accounts for some of the shock and anger Iraqis expressed at the widely publicized photos of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison (search) being brutalized and sexually humiliated by smiling American soldiers.

In a wider context, some Iraqis claim the U.S. military knows but intentionally ignores local traditions, swelling the ranks of insurgents and deepening distrust of the occupation.

"The occupiers know the Iraqi psyche and that's why they are determined to humiliate us and undermine our self-confidence," said Khawla Abdel-Wahab al-Qaisi, director of the Center of Psychological and Education Studies (search), a Baghdad University think-tank. "They've succeeded. The Abu Ghraib photos have thrown us into acute self-doubt and frustration."

Issues related to Iraqi cultural sensitivities have been at the heart of anti-U.S. sentiments well before the Abu Ghraib scandal.

For example, Marines who took charge of the restive Anbar province in March are receiving training in Arabic and Islamic culture, the idea being some understanding of local traditions is needed to win the trust of Iraqis.

However, as a people whose nation is occupied by a superpower they had been taught to hate for decades under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis tend to exaggerate the "excesses" of the U.S. military as well as their own sense of cultural superiority.

It is not uncommon, for example, for Iraqis to refer to U.S. soldiers as "pigs," "Jews" or "infidels." They also accuse them of corrupting Iraqi youths, distributing pornographic material and seducing Iraqi women.

Ironically, the U.S. occupation and the freedoms that came with it have inspired a greater awareness of the country's Arab and Islamic roots, casting off vestiges of secularism promoted by Saddam's Baath Party (search).

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, acknowledges that cultural "insensitivity" exists among American troops but denies that it is deliberate or systematic.

"It's simply a matter of the differences between each of our cultures, and the fact that no matter how much training one does before arriving in Iraq, it still requires 'on the ground' experience to fully appreciate the proud culture the people of Iraq enjoy," Kimmitt told The Associated Press in an e-mail.

The Coalition Provisional Authority (search), the occupation's civilian arm, has sought out Arabic speakers to work in Iraq to improve dealings with Iraqis. The coalition's second-in-command, career U.S. diplomat Richard Jones, is a fluent Arabic speaker. His boss, L. Paul Bremer, isn't, but he tries to endear himself to Iraqis by learning some Arabic phrases.

"Ash al-Iraq. Mabrouk al-Iraq al-jadid," or "long live Iraq, congratulations on the new Iraq," are the words Bremer often uses to conclude his official speeches.

Many in Iraq trace the start of the year-old insurgency in Sunni areas to an incident that had a clear cultural dimension — a rumor last year that U.S. paratroopers were using special glasses to see through the clothes of women in Fallujah, an ultraconservative city west of Baghdad.

Two days of street protests in the city left 18 Iraqis dead and scores injured when the soldiers opened fire. U.S. forces said they were fired at first but later agreed to follow the tribal custom of paying "blood money" to victims' families.

House raids have been particularly hurtful to Iraqis who maintain that the practice violates the sanctity of their homes, exposes their women to strangers and, in some cases, subjects men to the humiliation of being handcuffed and thrown to the ground by soldiers.

Whenever women have been arrested, which is not often, angry protests have occurred.

The participation of female soldiers in security raids or in searching cars at checkpoints is demeaning to Iraqi men who aren't used to taking orders from women. The occasional damage to mosques in clashes with insurgents is routinely blamed on the Americans.

Incidents in which troops enter mosques without taking off their shoes as is custom for Muslims cause deep offense and often lead to accusations that the Americans are crusaders trying to destroy Islam.

Ghassan Hussein Salem, a psychology lecturer at Baghdad University, believes the humiliation of Iraqis by the U.S. military is feeding violence.

"It will add to the violence on the streets and will target Iraqis or Americans," he said.

The perception that the American occupation is undermining Iraqi values has found its way to a poem available in flyers circulating in Baghdad this week. In the poem, by the famous poet Abdela'al Maamoun, a fictional U.S.-backed Iraqi politician addresses an American general.

"You sir, you've fed me dollars, you are my new father, take whatever you need and want from Iraq. Take my wife, my baby girl, or my dark-skinned neighbor," writes Maamoun. "Every one is chanting your name and because of your largesse we are able to eat and drink."

The poem is accompanied by the notorious picture of Pfc. Lynndie England holding a leash around the neck of a naked Iraqi man.