RALEIGH, NC — Americans have watched in shock and perplexity as a wave of anti-US outrage sweeps the Muslim world. It behooves us to reflect on the reasons for such widespread Muslim anger – reasons that go deeper than a trashy anti-Islamic film.
The causes of Muslim resentment toward the US and its allies are complicated and vary by locale. However, there is at least one grim common denominator in the global map of Muslim rage.
In country after country where anti-US protests have broken out recently, the CIA has collaborated with brutal governments. For years following Sept. 11, “War on Terror” detainees were handed over to these governments, not out of ignorance regarding local human rights practices, but precisely because their security forces were infamous for abusing prisoners during interrogations.
Egypt, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, and Malaysia are countries where US symbols are attracting wrath. In all of them, security officials worked systematically with US agents on the secret transfer and torture of prisoners. And in all these nations, America’s recent history of abusing Muslim captives is well known.
Take Libya. A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report reveals that the US detained leading opponents of former Libyan dictator Gaddafi and subjected them to terrible abuses. The CIA then secretly transferred these detainees to Libya, handing them to Gaddafi “on a silver platter.”
Five former members of the anti-Gaddafi organization LIFG told HRW they were each detained in secret US-run prisons in Afghanistan for eight months to two years. They said they were stripped naked and chained to the walls of dark, windowless cells for weeks on end; restrained in painful stress positions; and slammed into walls. One of them, Mohammed Shoroeiya, said he was repeatedly water boarded during US interrogations in Afghanistan – a case of water torture not previously admitted by US officials.
At least two LIFG members were delivered to Libya aboard planes based in North Carolina and operated by the CIA-affiliated company Aero Contractors, according to HRW. One of these men, Abdul Hakim Belhadj, said he was tortured in a CIA “black site” in Thailand, before being secretly passed, along with his pregnant wife, into the hands of Gaddafi’s intelligence chief. Mr. Belhadj was held for five years in solitary confinement in Libya. He was deprived of sleep, forced to stand for long periods, and interrogated by US and British agents.
In 2011, Mr. Belhadj played a significant role in the liberation of Tripoli from Gaddafi’s forces. He says, “All we seek is justice…. Only by admitting and apologizing for past mistakes…can we move forward together as friends.”
Some of the Muslim men swept up in the global system of “black sites” and third-country proxy prisons were plotters of terrible crimes against the US, and should be prosecuted. But dozens were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those who survived to be released, almost all without criminal charges, have received no acknowledgement and no restitution from the US. This absence of official acknowledgement makes it impossible for the survivors to heal, and helps preserve a cloud of suspicion over them.
Other democracies that secretly supported the CIA’s rendition program are facing their responsibility. On September 19, the Italian Supreme Court issued a historic decision that the CIA-led rendition of a Muslim cleric from Italy to Egypt was illegal, and that complicit Italian security agents are not shielded by claims of a “state secrets” privilege.
Recognition of harm done and apology are essential in order to right a grievous wrong that explains part of our unpopularity in the Muslim world. Aero Contractors, based at North Carolina airports, has been a major provider of rendition flights for the CIA.
In October 2010, North Carolina Stop Torture Now, collected more than 800 signatures from residents of 80 North Carolina communities on a letter of apology to survivors of US-ordered torture. Omar Deghayes, a Libyan whose eye was put out by a guard at Guantanamo, responded: “It is difficult to express my heartfelt gratitude for such a gesture, but I hope my words will go some way to convey the immense appreciation I feel… I was particularly moved by the acute sense of responsibility you all appear to have felt for the crimes committed by the US administration.”
The US government bears no responsibility for the anti-Islamic film that issued from California and has sparked fiery outbursts in the Muslim world. However, our government is responsible for a major source of tinder for that fire. The US has directed the secret detention and torture of men from many countries where hostility toward US symbols is now breaking out – Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, even Australia. If our government sought justice for its abuse of Muslim prisoners, the widespread blowback we are witnessing just might diminish.
Christina Cowger is a founding member of North Carolina Stop Torture Now, which is an award-winning grassroots organization. NCSTN has done groundbreaking research and advocacy for accountability in North Carolina’s role in enforced disappearance and torture.