Guantanamo Comes to Define U.S. to Muslims

NEW DELHI, May 20 – In one of Pakistan’s most exclusive private schools for boys, the annual play this year was “Guantánamo,” a docudrama based on testimonies of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, the United States naval base in Cuba.

The cast was made up of students between 16 and 18 years old, each playing the role of a prisoner being held on suspicion of terrorism. To deepen their understanding of their characters, the boys pored through articles in Pakistani newspapers, studied the international press and surfed Web sites, including one that described itself as a nonsectarian Islamic human rights portal and is called

It didn’t matter that the boys at the Lahore Grammar School, an elite academy that has sent many of its graduates to study in American universities, lived in a world quite removed from that known by most prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. The more they explored, the more the play resonated, the director of the school’s production, Omair Rana, recalled Friday in a telephone interview. The detainees were Muslim, many were Pakistani and one had been arrested in Islamabad, the country’s capital.

“It was something we all could relate to,” Mr. Rana said of “Guantánamo,” a play created “from spoken evidence” by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, a Briton and a South African, that was staged in London and in New York last year. “All that seemed very relevant, very nearby – in fact, too close for comfort.”

Accounts of abuses at the actual American detention center at Guantánamo Bay, including Newsweek magazine’s now-retracted article on the desecration of the Koran, ricochet around the world, instilling ideas about American power and justice, and sowing distrust of the United States. Even more than the written accounts are the images that flash on television screens throughout the Muslim world: caged men, in orange prison jumpsuits, on their knees. On Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, two satellite networks, images of the prisoners appear in station promos.

For many Muslims, Guantánamo stands as a confirmation of the low regard in which they believe the United States holds them. For many non-Muslims, regardless of their feelings toward the United States, it has emerged as a symbol of American hypocrisy.

“The cages, the orange suits, the shackles – it’s as if they’re dealing with something that’s like a germ they don’t want to touch,” said Daoud Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah, in the West Bank. “That’s the nastiness of it.”

The Bush administration’s response to the Newsweek article – a general condemnation of prison abuses, coupled with an attack on the magazine – apparently did little to allay the concerns of many Muslims. Then on Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a report detailing the many complaints from detainees at Guantánamo about desecrations of the Koran between early 2002 and mid-2003.

In India, a secular country by law whose people and government are growing increasingly close to the United States, a cartoon appeared in Midday, an afternoon tabloid, on Friday showing a panic-stricken Uncle Sam flushing copies of Newsweek magazine down a toilet.

To the cartoonist, Hemant Morparia, it appeared as though the Bush administration’s answer to the problem was to bury the truth.

“People suspect American intentions,” Mr. Morparia, a Mumbai-based radiologist who doubles as a cartoonist, said. “It has nothing to do with being Muslim.”

From Mumbai, India, to Amman, Jordan, to London, Guantánamo is a continuing subject for discussion, from television talk shows to sermons to everyday conversations. In countries like Afghanistan, Britain and Pakistan, released detainees often return home and relate their experiences on television news programs. Accusations of egregious abuse sometimes prompt violence, as in last week’s demonstrations in Afghanistan.

Guantánamo provides rhetorical fodder for politicians seeking to bring down United States-allied rulers in their own countries, and it offers a ready rallying point against American dominance, even in countries whose own police and military have been known for severe violations of human rights.

“Even illiterate people pronounce it in a perfect manner, which surprises me a bit, quite frankly,” said Irfan Siddiqui, a columnist for Pakistan’s popular Urdu-language daily, Nawa-i-Waqt. “But it shows the significance this issue has attained.”

In Europe, accusations of abuse at Guantánamo, as much as the war in Iraq, have become a symbol of what many see as America’s dangerous drift away from the ideals that made it a moral beacon in the post-World War II era. There is a persistent and uneasy sense that the United States fundamentally changed after September 11, and not for the better.

“The simple truth is that America’s leaders have constructed at Guantánamo Bay a legal monster,” the French daily, Le Monde, said in a January editorial.

The United States opened the naval base at Guantánamo Bay, on the eastern end of Cuba, two years ago as a detention center for suspected terrorists from the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It houses about 680 prisoners, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also some from Britain.

On many Arab streets, there was as much conspiracy seen in the retraction of the Newsweek story as in the story itself.

“People already expect the U.S. to deny it, because it already has no credibility in the region,” said Mustafa al-Ani, director of the Security and Terrorism Studies Program at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. “So the initial story will have an impact, and the response simply will not.”

Or as a Jordanian pharmacist, Farouk Shoubaki, said of the original report, “It is something the Americans would do.”

As Mr. Shoubaki’s remark reflects, Guantánamo offers disconcerting testimony that for many Muslims, the America they used to admire has sunk to the level of their own repressive governments.

Najam Sethi, editor of The Daily Times, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan, said the Guantánamo accusations were seen in his country as “further proof” of hypocrisy and anti-Islamic sentiment in the government of the United States. To many, he said, it was taken “as evidence of how America and the West makes the war against terrorism synonymous with the war against Islam.”

“Everyone is focused on the desecration of the Koran and attempts to hurt the feelings of Muslims,” he said. “The tenor of the debate is acquiring ‘civilizational’ dimensions.”

Afghans, who have the largest number of citizens held at Guantánamo, with as many as 300 at its height, share the general dislike of the prison, but are generally practical and philosophical about it. They say they are used to people being thrown into prison, being tortured there and even dying.

But public anger has grown at the reports of sexual abuse and desecration of the Koran. Even a former Afghan commander, Abdul Khaliq, who said he was happy to see captured Taliban members sent to Guantánamo, is now upset by the stories of sexual abuse and insults to Islam reportedly perpetrated there.

“The Americans were good people before,” said Mr. Khaliq, who now works on a road construction project. “Definitely, people are changing their minds towards the Americans.”

In a country like Pakistan, the issue is especially vivid because Guantánamo prisoners who have been released are often interviewed by a local news organizations.

As far back as November 2003, a television talk show, modeled after “The O’Reilly Factor,” featured an interview with Mohammad Sagheer, the first Pakistani to be released from Guantánamo. And as recently as Friday, an Urdu-language television talk show taped interviews with two ex-prisoners who said they witnessed the desecration of the Koran there.

The latest issue of Newsline, a Karachi-based magazine, featured a story titled, “Back from Camp,” which chronicled the story of a former prisoner, Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, a poet who pleaded for the Americans to return his writing.

“These are issues that sink into people’s minds,” said Samina Ahmed, the Pakistani representative of the Brussels-based research and advocacy organization, International Crisis Group. “Their religion is being demeaned in the context of the war on terror. That’s an issue the U.S. is going to have to address.”

In Britain, Guantánamo has entered the political lexicon along with Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad as an emblem of American injustice and abuse. During the London marathon in April this year, David Nicholl, a neurologist, ran the race in an orange jumpsuit to protest the detention of five former British residents at Guantánamo.

“We are all against terrorism but we are not obliged to close our eyes to the excesses of our allies,” Chris Mullin, a former British Foreign Office minister told Parliament on Wednesday.

In India, one human rights advocate who routinely takes the Indian military to task for its alleged abuses against insurgents in Kashmir and the northeast, said the United States stance on things like torture and interrogation of suspects at Guantánamo signaled what he called “a human rights disaster” for everyone.

On Friday afternoon in an Islamabad bookshop, Maheen Asif, 33, leafed through a women’s magazine, and paused for only a moment when asked for her impression of Guantánamo Bay.

“Torture,” she said, as her daughters, 8 and 5, scampered through the stalls. “The first word that comes to my mind is ‘torture’ – a place where Americans lock up and torture Muslims in the name of terrorism.”

Reporting for this article was contributed by Craig S. Smith and Ariane Bernard in Paris; Alan Cowell in London; Hassan Fattah in Amman, Jordan; Carlotta Gall in Kabul, Afghanistan; Salman Masood in Islamabad, Pakistan; and Somini Sengupta in New Delhi.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
New York Times, USA
May 20, 2005
Somini Sengupta and Salman Masood
, , ,

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday May 21, 2005.
Last updated if a date shows here:


More About This Subject


Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission -- at no additional cost to you -- for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate, Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this research service free of charge.

Speaking of which: One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at