When they woke up to pictures of naked Iraqi prison inmates piled atop one another, some being held on a leash, others in a corner trying to shield themselves from growling dogs, some forced to masturbate—Arabs were infuriated and outraged. To many of them, the pictures from Abu Ghraib, uncovered by The New Yorker and CBS, were not just about pervasive abuse at its worst but also a visible affirmation of what America was about—a country with imperial designs that was on a crusade against the Muslim and Arab world.
The magnitude of the abuse suggested to many in the region that it was systemic and organized. The Arab media pounced on the scandal and the news frenzy heightened the vitriol against the United States. To many Arabs, the United States appeared to be implementing Israeli torture methods, and in the minds of some, such scenes tragically vindicated Osama Bin Laden’s and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s assertions that an imperialist America is bent on dominating and crushing Arabs.
Given the outrage six months ago, it would have been natural for the Arab media to fall over itself to provide extensive coverage of the sentencing of Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick, a central figure in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, last week. Yet his sentencing to eight years in prison Oct. 21 evoked very little comment. This can be attributed, on the one hand, to more pressing issues in the region and around the world, and on the other to an explainable indifference, given the prevalence of torture in Arab prisons and the deficiency of human rights in the Arab world.
“For most people in the region, Abu Ghraib was not a surprise because there is so much criticism of U.S. policy in Iraq and Palestine and other places—that anything the United States does that is seen to be bad is also seen to be normal or predictable,” Rami Khouri, executive editor of the Daily Star, told me. “People are not looking at the trials and sentencing as a significant issue because they are not seeing this as mainly a problem of abhorrent behavior of a few people. They are seen as part of a wider policy of the United States.”
Asharq Al Awsat, widely read by Arabs in the region and around the world, ran news of the sentencing on Page 2 rather than on the front page, as it did when the scandal broke. The five-line article was a condensed version of a wire story. On Page One, the paper led with the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, news of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi coming under attack while in Mosul, and U.S. intelligence sources claiming Iran had advanced its uranium enrichment capabilities and is now capable of producing a nuclear bomb. Editorial and opinion piece mentioned neither the sentencing of Sgt. Frederick nor Abu Ghraib.
Al Quds Al Arabi, another Pan-Arab paper, ran a four-paragraph Reuters piece on the sentencing on Page 3. Above it was a second story illustrated by the chilling and now infamous picture of an Iraqi prisoner on the floor of Abu Ghraib tied to a leash as Pfc. Lynndie England looks on. The headline read, “Witness: The CIA Oversaw the Torture of Prisoners in Abu Ghraib.”
The London based Al Hayatran a longer version of the wire story mentioned earlier, with a picture of Frederick, on Page 3. A spectacular picture of Fidel Castro falling and news of John Kerry’s progress in the U.S. presidential election race dominated the front page. The Qatar Peninsula and the Times of Omanalso published the wire story, with no further comment on the scandal. While it didn’t print any news regarding the trial or sentencing of Frederick, the Jordan Timesdid publish a long Associated Press feature under the headline, “For ex-prisoners who say they were abused in Iraq, the best recourse may be US civil suits.”
Asked what he thought of the sentencing, a Jordanian cab driver said, “It’s good. He deserves it, and so do the rest of them.”