In Fünf Jahre meines Lebens (“Five Years of My Life”), the most powerful memoir yet published by a former Guantánamo detainee, the German Murat Kurnaz remembers an especially disturbing episode that took place while he was in a cage at Camp X-Ray: “One time there was a long, tortured cry. I turned around. There was a second and then a third cry, but they sounded different from the cries of people being beaten. It was the long and frightening wail of death. Through the chain-link fencing I could see a guard in the cage of one of the Arab prisoners. I immediately knew what had happened.”

Reading these lines for the first time, you might imagine, as I did, that these cries signaled some extreme form of physical abuse—electrocution, waterboarding, or rape, something reserved for Donald Rumsfeld’s “worst of the worst.” I certainly couldn’t have guessed what Murnaz actually saw that day:

We were searched every day. They even searched the Qur’ans. The guards grabbed the books by their spines and shook them to see if anything was concealed in the pages. This guard must have thrown the Qur’an on the ground—otherwise the prisoner wouldn’t have howled like that. I saw the guard trampling on something. Some of the prisoners sprang to their feet. A terrible wailing arose. One by one, all the prisoners were losing their cool. “Allahu akbar!” they yelled. “Don’t do that!” I screamed. The guard continued trampling on the Qur’an. It was as though lightning had struck in a zoo.

This story and similar ones now emerging from Guantánamo and other detention facilities should highlight a crucial problem in the torture debate in the United States. Amid pyramids of naked bodies, Jack Bauer hypotheticals, and a national debate on waterboarding, we have overlooked the deliberate desecration used to torture devout Muslim detainees. From the perspective of many detainees, this has been the worst kind of torture.

At Guantánamo, lightning strikes twice. And more. When I first read about the incident reported in the infamous May 1, 2005 Newsweek exposé—a Qur’an in the toilet!—I assumed it was a one-time offense, and I was not surprised when Newsweek later retracted the report. But according to the detainees’ own accounts, before 2005 almost everyone from Kandahar, Bagram, or Guantánamo had witnessed desecration of the Qur’an. The U.S. inspector general’s own May 2008 report on FBI involvement in detainee interrogations found that abuse of the Qur’an was one of the most frequently reported offenses. Thirty-one FBI agents claimed to be aware of it.

The issue resurfaced recently in Iraq, when news broke that the Qur’an was used by a Marine in Fallujah for target practice. The military was commendably swift with its public apology for that abuse. But desecration of the Qur’an is alleged to have taken many other forms in U.S. detention facilities. Former detainees say it has been handled with disrespect by guards and interrogators—written in, ripped or cut with scissors, squatted over, trampled, kicked, urinated and defecated on, picked up by a dog, tossed around like a ball, used to clean soldiers’ boots, and thrown in a bucket of excrement. A Russian ex-detainee, Timur Ishmuratov, remembers how it would be laid on the back of a handcuffed, bent-over prisoner, so that it would fall to the ground if he stood up. With just a Qur’an and a pair of handcuffs, a Muslim detainee could in this way be made to torture himself.

Perhaps the word “torture” seems too strong for these offenses. Could they really be as bad as what happened at Abu Ghraib, as bad as waterboarding or sexual violation? The Moroccan ex-detainee Mohamed Mazouz answers clearly and plaintively in an interview with La Gazette du Maroc: “I regretted the fact that they gave us the holy Book to read. Because they used it as a means of torture afterwards. The same way they used it at Bagram, to push us to madness. For them, it was a game.... We told them, ‘Torture us physically, but do not touch the Qur’an,’ but it was no use. Their objective was to get at us with the most precious thing we had.”

But doesn’t the very existence of the Qur’an in U.S. detention facilities attest to our scrupulous respect for religious rights? So Charles Krauthammer argued in a December 2005 Weekly Standard article. Three years later, we know that the opinion expressed by Mazouz is widespread among former detainees: for them, the Qur’an’s presence was at best a mixed blessing.

Most Americans have interpreted reports of Qur’an desecration by analogy with the Christian Bible. In certain contexts, the Bible is revered as a holy object. But most American Christians do not handle the Bible with delicate devotion. We see careless or even rough treatment of the Bible every week at church. Bibles get tossed around, slid across dirty floors. Covers get damaged, pages torn. The wear-and-tear can even become a proof of piety.

For Muslims, the Qur’an is the Word of God, but not in the same way the Bible is for Christians. In fact, the best Christian analogy to the Qur’an is not a book at all; it is the person of Jesus Christ. For Christians, the Word became flesh: in Jesus Christ, God is encountered. For Muslims, the Word became text. In early Christianity, a major theological debate concerned the unity of Jesus Christ with God: Was Jesus Christ eternally one with God, or was he created by God? In early Islamic thought, there were strikingly similar debates about the Qur’an’s divine status: Was the Qur’an created, and thus separate from God, or uncreated—the eternal divine Word? In the course of that debate, the reigning Muslim caliph used an inquisition to force his subjects to adopt the view that the Qur’an was not itself divine. Most prominent Muslims capitulated, but one theologian and jurist, Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780–855 CE), remains a hero to this day for refusing to recant his teaching that the Qur’an is indeed divine. For several years, this “imam of Baghdad” was imprisoned and tortured. Today, his influence is most prominent in Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, but his ideas have been adopted by Sunni Muslims throughout the world.

This history should give Americans pause. The United States has used the Qur’an as an instrument of torture. One of the most celebrated figures in the history of Islam is famous for defending the Qur’an—even when this meant imprisonment and torture. If we wanted to inflame hostility to the United States among Muslims, we could hardly have chosen a more effective tactic.

Abuse of the Qur’an had already begun at the Kandahar detention facility in early 2002, before the permanent facilities at Guantánamo were ready to receive prisoners. The Jordanian Khalid al-Asmr reports what happened there “when no visitors were present.” In an interview with Roger Willemsen for the recent German book Hier Spricht Guantánamo (“Here Guantánamo Speaks”), al-Asmr says he witnessed the Qur’an “desecrated, thrown to the ground, so that the pages were strewn everywhere in the camp,” “kicked with [the guards’] feet,” and “thrown in the bucket for excrement.” Because of these events, the detainees at Kandahar tried to give their Qur’ans back to the Red Cross, which had distributed them. But the U.S. officers kept promising the abuses would stop. The Qur’ans remained, and the desecration continued.

The effect of similar episodes at Guantánamo cannot be overstated. Kurnaz, al-Asmr, and Asif Iqbal (one of the “Tipton Three” later repatriated to Britain from Guantánamo) all use instances of Qur’an abuse as time markers in their accounts. The public desecrations became a calendar of collective memory. They occasioned protests—suicide attempts and hunger strikes. “The strikes and all other forms of resistance that took place at Guantánamo originated because they had desecrated our faith and our religious rituals,” al-Asmr says.

Several detainee accounts agree that the demonstrations of religious disrespect were worst under Major General Geoffrey D. Miller. Gen. Miller took over for Brigadier General Rick Baccus in November 2002, and later became famous for recommending the “Gitmo-izing” of the Abu Ghraib detention facility. The first Qur’an desecration, described by Kurnaz above, had happened while Gen. Baccus was in charge, and Kurnaz reports Baccus’s swift response to the incident. He visited the detainee, took off his cap, sat on the ground next to him, and promised it would not happen again, exhibiting the kind of leadership—and decency—most Americans expect from military officers. He later negotiated with detainees on religious issues and, according to Kurnaz, “he kept his word. But this general was replaced, and everything changed overnight.”

Under Gen. Miller, desecration of the Qur’an and other forms of disrespect allegedly became routine—though not sanctioned in the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). In his book For God and Country, Capt. James Yee, the Muslim chaplain assigned to Guantánamo under Gen. Miller’s leadership, describes the religious faith of the detainees as “Gitmo’s secret weapon.” Yee was tasked with developing SOPs for the handling and searching of the Qur’an, and he had these new rules read over the camp’s loudspeakers and simultaneously translated in the various cellblocks. But Qur’an abuse continued, unabated and unpunished. At the time, British detainee Shaker Aamer told Yee, “General Miller is only playing a game with us. It’s clear they hate us and our religion.”

Fånge På Guantánamo (“Prisoner at Guantánamo”) is the Swedish memoir of Mehdi Ghezali, another former detainee. Ghezali describes the American treatment of the Qur’an as “a great psychological torture,” so that most of the detainees “wished they had never accepted [copies of the Qur’an] in the first place.” Finally, the detainees tried to return their Qur’ans, but that was not allowed. Religious freedom at Guantánamo did not include the freedom not to possess a Qur’an in one’s cell. Capt. Yee does not believe that the policy of forcing prisoners to keep Qur’ans was conceived maliciously, but ex-detainee Ishmuratov describes how it seemed to him and others: “At the moment [when we tried to give back the Qur’ans], the soldiers realized that they had lost a means of influence and had the Qur’an distributed again, whether we wanted it or not.” Mandatory possession of the Qur’an meant that detainees could be tortured at any time without even being touched.

In A Question of Torture, historian Alfred McCoy has chronicled how such “no-touch torture” techniques have been rigorously developed by U.S. interrogators, especially in the CIA. The power to torment Muslims by abusing the Qur’an was not discovered accidentally by Gen. Miller or a clumsy guard at Guantánamo. Bill Dedman of MSNBC has reported how the Qur’an has been used by the U.S. Army as a tool for intelligence gathering. When asked about an “interrogation scenario” called “Fear Up,” one intelligence officer offered Dedman this example of the technique: “Disrespect for the Qur’an.” Middle East historian Juan Cole has argued, using the testimony of a former U.S. military officer, that desecration of the Qur’an was modeled on the kind of desecration of the Bible anticipated in the U.S. military’s SERE training program (SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). SERE prepares U.S. personnel to withstand torture in case they are captured by an enemy. The reverse-engineering of SERE methods for use at Guantánamo was later confirmed in Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side and by governmental sources, such as retired Rear Admiral Don Guter, judge advocate general of the Navy from 2000 to 2002. This real-life enactment of SERE scenarios—with U.S. personnel in the role of the torturers rather than the tortured—was a foolish policy with disastrous effects.

Why have Americans missed these stories? Most are scattered in legal motions, government reports, or long narratives, and many of them come only from foreign media outlets. But we have also been misled. We have been told by our elected officials that religion is respected in U.S. detention facilities, and this reinforces our self-image as the world’s great hope for religious freedom. In some ways, we still are that hope, but Guantánamo is where hope goes to die. Even seasoned prisoners found Guantánamo’s treatment of religion to be uniquely bad. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Russian ex-detainee Airat Vakhitov said, “Guantánamo Bay was not the first prison in my life,” but “I haven’t seen this any other place...namely, the kind of purposeful humiliation of human dignity, mocking religious feelings and the Qur’an.”

Congressional hearings presented a very different picture. On June 2, 2004, Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), a member of the bipartisan delegation from the House Armed Services Committee, described Guantánamo as “a detention facility that took into consideration the prayer activities of the detainees from Afghanistan.”

Indeed, in each and every cell, there was an arrow pointing to Mecca, to the east. There were prayer beads, there were prayer caps, there was a Qur’an, and each of these detainees was treated in a very humane fashion. So I would say this to my colleagues, that, indeed, if we are “Gitmo-izing” the operation in Iraq, amen.

Of course, official visitors saw only what they were allowed to see. From backstage, Kurnaz was furious at the elaborate mise en scène:

Nothing is the way the U.S. Army says it is and as it has been reported, filmed, and photographed by journalists. There are cages and interrogation rooms specially constructed for the media.... The fake cells were their attempt to convince people that they respected our faith.

The media have not been allowed to see what Kurnaz calls a “fantasy paradise” room, to which he was once taken. It had “carpeted walls covered with Qur’anic verses. There was even a prayer rug on the floor,” in addition to comfortable seats and tasty treats—everything a detainee wanted. It was a trick, designed to build rapport for interrogation, and Kurnaz sniffed it out right away. Yet another way to use the faith of the detainees against them.

Another common form of abuse has been the interruption or prevention of prayer and other observances. This kind of technique began as an accident. Or so it seemed to Adil Kamil al-Wadi, from Bahrain, who was one of the first detainees at Kandahar in December 2001. In a recent interview with McClatchy Newspapers, al-Wadi said that many of the American soldiers guarding him had never seen a Muslim pray. The soldiers merely smirked at first. But later they laughed, heckled, shouted obscenities, and sometimes punched the detainees as they were praying in their cages.

At Gen. Miller’s Guantánamo, expressions of disrespect for religious practices grew into a kind of regimen. To interrupt prayers, guards made noise by striking things against the holding cages or playing loud rock music. Every morning and evening, just as the detainees were being called to pray, “The Star-Spangled Banner” blared over the loud speaker. Observance of Ramadan was respected somewhat, but other Muslim holidays were not to be celebrated. On the contrary, they became an occasion for taunting. Eid, the Muslim holiday that concludes Ramadan, is a festive time of gift-giving, unity, and abundance. In Mahvish Rukhsana Khan’s My Guantánamo Diary, Abdullah Wazir Zadran, an ex-detainee from Afghanistan, reports that on this day guards put up two posters around the camp. One poster showed “beautiful, happy, Muslim children,” who were “laughing, wearing new clothes, and holding gifts and money.” The other one showed Muslim children “wearing tattered, dirty clothing, crying, with no gifts or money.” With this image appeared the sentence, “These are your children on Eid day.”

In addition to mockery and systematic distraction, professional interrogators used grotesque methods of sexual harassment to impede religious observances. For Muslims, impurity prevents prayer. In Inside the Wire, former Army translator Erik Saar recounts a shocking exploitation of Islamic rules about ritual impurity. Saar was translating for a female Army interrogator who was having trouble getting information out of a young Saudi detainee named Fareek. She told Saar that she wanted to break the strength of Fareek’s relationship with God: “I think we should make him feel so fucking dirty that he can’t go back to his cell and spend the night praying. We have to put up a barrier between him and his God.” So she did a striptease. When Fareek wouldn’t look at her, she walked behind him and “began rubbing her breasts against his back.” According to Saar, she told Fareek that his sexual arousal offended God. Then she told him that she was having her period, and showed him her hand covered in what he thought was menstrual blood (it was red ink). She cursed him and wiped it on his face. As she and Saar left the room, she informed Fareek that the water to his cell would be shut off that night. Even if he managed to calm himself down, he would be too defiled to pray. As for Saar himself, he writes that “there wasn’t enough hot water in all of Cuba to make me feel clean.”

That episode is not the only documented example of such torture. The Bahraini detainee Jumah al-Dossari suffered a darker, more explicitly religious adaptation of the method in late 2002, according to a legal motion filed in U.S. District Court (District of Columbia) by Joshua Colangelo-Bryan and others on his behalf. During al-Dossari’s torture, a female interrogator had his clothing cut off, then removed her own and stood over him. Just before wiping what she said was menstrual blood on his face, she kissed the crucifix on her necklace and said, “This is a gift from Christ for you Muslims.”

According to a 2005 Department of Defense report, “lap dances” and the smearing of fake “menstrual blood” were “authorized” interrogation techniques that only required “advanced approval.” The military brass would no doubt prefer their interrogators to avoid allusions to the blood of Christ, but they did not have a problem with the fake menstrual blood. The official purpose of such techniques is “to highlight futility of the detainee’s situation.”

Many detainees perceived their incarceration as a general attack on Islam. Al-Wadi said that the early days at Kandahar were “like a religious war between Muslim prisoners and American soldiers who seemed to hate Islam.” The sense of a religious war intensified at Guantánamo, where the Bahraini detainee Abdulla Majid al-Noaimi wrote these lines: “The book of God consoles me, / And dulls the pains I have suffered. / The book of God assuages my misery, / Even though they declared war against it.” Other events have bolstered this perception. During the trial of Abu Ghraib’s Specialist Charles Graner, ex-detainee Amin al-Sheikh reported that he had been compelled to eat pork and curse Allah. A Guantánamo detainee informed Capt. Yee that a group of prisoners had been forced to “bow down and prostrate” themselves inside a makeshift “satanic” shrine, where interrogators made them repeat that Satan, not Allah, was their God. Others told of being draped in Israeli flags during interrogation, a claim corroborated by the FBI, while one interrogator explicitly told al-Dossari that “a holy war was occurring, between the Cross and the Star of David on the one hand, and the Crescent on the other.”

Sometimes the defamation of Islam has seemed to slide into Christian proselytism. Capt. Yee has described his struggle to remove an anti-Muslim missionary tract from the Sunday service for personnel at Guantánamo. According to a January 2007 FBI report, one interrogator even bragged that he had “dressed as a Catholic priest and baptized [a] detainee in order to save him.” Earlier this year in Fallujah, a U.S. Marine was caught handing out coins with texts from the Gospel of John translated into Arabic. The front read, “Where will you spend eternity?” On the back appeared the famous verse of John 3:16. Mohammed Jassim al-Dulaimi, a resident of Fallujah, summed up the coins’ effect: “The claims that the occupation is a Crusader War make sense now.”

Apologists for U.S. personnel, including President George W. Bush, have used the term “bad apples” to explain away the various abuses. It is perhaps not the best choice of expressions: bad apples, after all, “spoil the bunch.” But however U.S. officials justify these actions to themselves, the judgment of the Muslim detainees will be more important in the future. Even isolated instances of religious torture can have a profound effect on collective memory. Does it really matter how many soldiers used the Qur’an for target practice? Such events are iconic. What is important to the Muslim detainees themselves and the global audience that hears their reports is that a clear pattern of disrespect for Islam has emerged. The United States has desecrated what most Muslims consider God’s presence on earth (the Qur’an), drowned out the call to prayer with the American anthem and rock songs, used grotesque sexual assaults to undermine piety, mocked religious holidays, and engaged in freelance proselytism.

How long can we expect the memory of such abuse to endure? Does it qualify as torture according to the definition offered in John Yoo’s famous Justice Department memo—“significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years”? History suggests that the collective memory of this abuse will last far longer than that. Millenia ago, another religious group with strict codes of ritual purity and devotion to God underwent physical and religious torture at the hands of occupying forces, prompting insurrection. More than two thousand years later, the events accompanying that revolt are still commemorated annually. The people are the Jews, and the holiday is Hanukkah.

At the end of the Hellenistic era, the inhabitants of Judea were occupied by the Seleucids. There was internal strife within the Jewish community between traditionalist conservatives and moderate assimilators. One Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BCE), forced the issue by interrupting or forbidding Jewish religious practices. He profaned the Jewish Temple—the place of God’s presence on earth—with an altar to a foreign god. He filled its courts with non-Jewish women. Jews could not observe their religious holidays or even confess themselves to be Jews. The second book of Maccabees includes two martyrdom narratives from this era, in which the protagonists, later called the “Maccabean Martyrs,” are compelled to eat pork. One of them replies, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” When they will not capitulate, they are tortured and killed. Finally, Judah the Maccabee leads a band of insurgents that liberates Jerusalem.

Behind Hanukkah, then, are stories of forced apostasy, religious torture, and guerrilla warfare. As Peter Steinfels suggested in a December 4, 2004, column in the New York Times (“The Truth about Torture”), these stories prefigure our current situation. The attitude of the Maccabean Martyrs was echoed by al-Wadi in his standoff with American soldiers at Kandahar. After interrupting the Muslim detainees’ prayers, the soldiers said, “We will teach you a lesson.” Al-Wadi responded, “If you want to do something, you will be sorry. We are not afraid to die for our religion. If you want to stop us from praying, we will fight you to the death.” Meanwhile, as American forces remain in Iraq, a guerrilla insurgency in Afghanistan has had some success. As in the Maccabean revolt, these insurgents are fighting against moderates of their own religion as well as the occupying forces.

The story of the Maccabees thus serves as a cautionary tale. Religious torture generates determined resistance and long-lasting resentments. What has been a mere footnote for us may be the main story for the Muslim world. The U.S. military knows that desecration of the Qur’an leads to hunger strikes and suicide attempts, that playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” over the call to prayer is demoralizing. But they seem not to have considered the long-term effects of such tactics. According to Professor Muqtedar Khan of the University of Delaware, the abuse at Guantánamo has been “far worse than Abu Ghraib”—because it affects the communal body of Islam. Such torture may break the will of one man, but it could also be turning thousands more against us.


Related: Disgrace, by Michael Peppard

Published in the 2008-12-05 issue: View Contents

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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