Thursday, May 20, 2004

Orientalist Torture

Seymour M. Hersh mentions in his article "The Gray Zone" that an orientalist fantasy, particularly one based on Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind, may have underwritten the photographing of sexual torture at Abu Ghraib:
The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. One book that was frequently cited was “The Arab Mind,” a study of Arab culture and psychology, first published in 1973, by Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist who taught at, among other universities, Columbia and Princeton, and who died in 1996. The book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. “The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,” Patai wrote. Homosexual activity, “or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private.” The Patai book, an academic told me, was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged—“one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.”

The government consultant said that there may have been a serious goal, in the beginning, behind the sexual humiliation and the posed photographs. It was thought that some prisoners would do anything —- including spying on their associates —- to avoid dissemination of the shameful photos to family and friends. The government consultant said, “I was told that the purpose of the photographs was to create an army of informants, people you could insert back in the population.” The idea was that they would be motivated by fear of exposure, and gather information about pending insurgency action, the consultant said. If so, it wasn’t effective; the insurgency continued to grow. (The New Yorker, May 24, 2004)
The book The Arab Mind is one of the examples that Edward Said used to critique "Orientalism Now." See Said's Orientalism (NY: Vintage, 1978): pp. 308-9, 311, 312, 349. If the photographs of sexual torture at Abu Ghraib were indeed used as a tool of blackmail, based on the orientalist conception of "the Arab Mind" that authors such as Patai had expounded, the blackmail evidently failed to work, as Hersh notes. The failure, I submit, is not only evidence of torture's uselessness as an instrument of gathering information from the tortured that Darius Rejali documents but also proof that orientalism says more about phantasmagoric images of the "Western Self" and the "Oriental Other" that orientalists create as statically diametrical opposites than about objective and subjective lives of the Arabs and other so-called orientals which are as variegated as objective and subjective lives of any people anywhere else -- a confirmation of Edward Said's thesis.

1 comment:

Urs said...

Excellent analysis