How Arab Media Portrays U.S. Abuse of Detainees

Ramez Maalouf, journalism professor at the Lebanese American University, discusses how allegations of Quran desecration and detainee abuse at Guantanamo are depicted in the Arab media. Critics want the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, citing disclosures that guards and interrogators have abused prisoners.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. President Bush is on the defensive since the Pentagon has confirmed cases of mishandling of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay. Yesterday, a Fox News interviewer asked the president about calls to shut down the detention center amid charges of abuse.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're exploring all alternatives as to how best to do the main objective, which is to protect America. I mean, what we don't want to do is let somebody out that comes back and harms us, and so we're looking at all alternatives, and have been.

MONTAGNE: At the same time, the president said prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are being treated, quote, "in accordance with international standards." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also weighed in. He said the interrogations of prisoners at Guantanamo are critical.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Department of Defense): Information that has been gained from the detainees there has saved lives of people from our country and other countries to our certain knowledge.

MONTAGNE: Rumsfeld said that at Guantanamo prisoners from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere are being held in a, quote, "stable and secure and safe environment." And he said he knows of no one inside the administration who is thinking of closing the center.

INSKEEP: People outside the administration are thinking just that. This week, former President Jimmy Carter spoke at a human rights conference.

Former President JIMMY CARTER: The United States continues to suffer terrible embarrassment and a blow to our reputation as a champion of human rights because of constant reports concerning abuses of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo.

INSKEEP: President Carter spoke after a Newsweek report that interrogators put a Koran in a toilet at Guantanamo as a way of pressuring detainees. Newsweek retracted that story but the Pentagon later disclosed that American guards did kick, step on or splash urine on the Koran. And Senator Joe Biden, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told ABC the facility should be closed.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): Because this has become the greatest propaganda tool that exists for recruiting of terrorists around the world. More Americans are in jeopardy as a consequence of the perception that exists worldwide with its existence than if there were no Gitmo.

INSKEEP: To find out just how this issue looks and sounds in the Arab world, we've consulted a journalism professor who sees many channels from his home and office in Beirut.

Professor RAMEZ MALUF (Lebanese American University): You know, I make a point of watching a large number of these stations--al-Arabiya, Al-Jazeera, al-Hurrah, Abu Dhabi TV, Dubai TV, all of the stations.

INSKEEP: Ramez Maluf is a professor of journalism at the Lebanese American University.

Prof. MALUF: Well, the report by Newsweek was a turning point because people had heard about these abuses from Arab sources or Islamic sources. The detainees at Guantanamo have been on TV. But as long as these reports came through former detainees, they didn't really have a substantial impact. But when Newsweek reported it, the reports gained greater credibility, and it really made it very difficult for moderate Arabs, who are trying to find a way of building better relations with the United States to do so, because the respectable American magazines were saying that the Koran was being desecrated. That's the effect that happened.

INSKEEP: And has that reaction changed at all since Newsweek was compelled to retract its story?

Prof. MALUF: Well, I think, first of all, no one believed the retraction. People expect American soldiers to do that. I think that's the key thing here. People think it's just a fact that American soldiers are ill-treating their prisoners. And this came about after Abu Ghraib in Iraq. You know, people expect that to be standard procedure inside American prisons.

INSKEEP: There's no really delicate way to put this next question. When we're talking about people in the Arab world reading or consuming reports about the abuse of detainees--while I think it's widely assumed that a great many of those people live under governments that also torture their own prisoners, murder their own prisoners from time to time, do people really summon up that much outrage about what the United States might or might not do?

Prof. MALUF: You know, the United States is a common enemy of a lot of regimes, and, certainly, perceived as a common enemy of the people. So granted that, you know, they are allowed to speak about that in a way that they're not allowed to speak about their own governments, although they know that that happens in their own prisons. But often they identify those governments with the United States. They think those governments are in place because of the United States. Certainly, they feel this way about governments in the Gulf and the governments in North Africa, which are also very brutal; that's one thing. The other thing is that the reason people in the Arab world became very irate about all of this was not about physical abuse or torture, but it was about the desecration of the Koran and Islam.

INSKEEP: What have you read and seen?

Prof. MALUF: There is a program on Al-Jazeera, a very popular program, called "Open Dialogue," and it's hosted by a well-liked host. And he had two guests. He had somebody who argued that this was to be seen as a West who has lost all sense of value for the sacred; in other words, not a Christian West fighting Islam but rather a secular West who has little respect for religion as a whole, and this is translated by the desecration of the Koran. It could have easily been any other holy book. Another guest argued that that was not the case at all, that this was a very clear case for crusaders, war against Islam by the Christian West. Everyone that called during that program agreed with the second guy, the guy that had said that this was a war by Christianity against Islam.

INSKEEP: What about when you go into specific countries, look on the Web sites for what's happening in newspapers in Cairo or Beirut? How does the coverage vary from country to country?

Prof. MALUF: No one wants to apologize for it. No one wants to seem to be saying that, `Look, guys, you know, this happens at home as well.' And this is aggravated, you know, by things people say, like, certainly statements like Senator Biden saying that Guantanamo should be closed down because it's bad publicity, is also derided and, you know, poked fun at, that the idea was not that he was against it because it was bad but that it was bad publicity.

INSKEEP: Even Senator Biden's warning about bad propaganda becomes bad propaganda.

Prof. MALUF: Well, obviously, if he says something like that, I mean, you know, the idea that people are more concerned about the images rather than the, you know, the fact of the matter.

INSKEEP: When the Guantanamo Bay story gets laid out in the Arab world and the media, do people discuss at all how that detention center got started in the first place, that it was a response to an attack on the US and our war on Afghanistan?

Prof. MALUF: Well, the people feel irate at what happened in the World Trade Center and so forth, of course, you know. The majority of people saw it, as the rest of the world did, as a tragedy. But that didn't last long given the American reaction to it. Now rightly or wrongly--I'm not saying that that was right. The Arabs are not going to, you know, resort to thinking of themselves as evil people. They're going to resort to thinking, `Well, you know, we've been done wrong.' And that is the attitude.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that before the Newsweek report, people were generally somewhat reluctant to credit the claims of abuse by former detainees at Guantanamo. It sounds like a lot of people in the Arab world did accept the idea that many or most of the detainees at Guantanamo were not nice people.

Prof. MALUF: I think that that's maybe not something that's spoken but accepted. Maybe people feel that way. These are a bunch of, you know, jihadists, you know, are zealots and fundamentalists. We're not going to go out on a limb and defend them. And then the Newsweek story came shortly after that.

INSKEEP: And that changed the story...

Prof. MALUF: Well, I mean, even somebody...

INSKEEP: ...into something else and that's what it's remained.

Prof. MALUF: ...you know, who's a professor at an American university in Lebanon, like myself, is going to have a very hard time defending that behavior.

INSKEEP: Ramez Maluf is a professor of journalism at the Lebanese American University. Thanks very much.

Prof. MALUF: It was my pleasure.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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