Abu Ghraib torture and the Orientalist Construction of the ‘Muslim body’: A Critique of US Exceptionalism

The disturbing images of torture in the US-led Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq sent shockwaves around the world as graphic photographs of US guards torturing and humiliating Iraqi detainees spread across cyberspace in 2004. The images displayed naked bodies heaped in piles, forced homosexual actions and masturbation, violent beatings, mutilated corpses, and blood soaked interrogation rooms. Yet the guards gleefully pose, smile, seemingly oblivious to the violence, pain, and terror that surrounds them.

How are we to make sense of the sadistic violence displayed in Abu Ghraib? With its emphasis on pains, pleasures, desires, fears and power, such queer moments, Puar would assert, require even queerer modalities of thought. Borrowing from Orientalism and Queer Theory, I aim to analyze how the Muslim body has been constructed as a homophobic ‘other,’ to exceptionalize Western identity as ‘tolerant’ yet sexually ‘normal.’

The scandal was originally framed as having been conducted by a handful of rogue guards, a terroristic ‘other’ working outside the bounds, laws and values of the US. Yet this narrative of US exceptionalism against these terroristic perversions of the prison guards, eventually came to crumble as it became evident that these were not rogue guards working outside their orders, but soldiers following orders.

The torture scheme was devised, drafted, and approved within the highest echelons of security and foreign policy making within the US government. Among the material which the Pentagon’s torture strategies drew from was the anthropological study, The Arab Mind, which included a chapter on the taboo and shame of homosexuality in the ‘Arab world.’ Despite occasionally being used by the US military, the text has been highly controversial. Theorizing an ‘Arab Mind’ from the outset is problematic as it assumes a homogenous, ahistorical, ‘Arab subject’ with a discernible mind, exists.


Prisoners forced to conduct homoerotic sexual actions

In response to the sexualized torture practices displayed in Abu Ghraib, LGBT communities widely condemned the use of same-sex sexual acts as a form of humiliation. Yet discourse surrounding this issue by liberal LGBT theorists continued to reiterate orientalist concepts of a sexually repressed homogenous ‘Arab,’ constructed against a more ‘tolerant’ Western identity.

Queer theorists Patrick Moore wrote “prisoners were not only physically abused but also accused of actually being homosexuals, which is a far greater degradation to them.”

Irene Monroe further stated “The sexual nature of many of the acts being homosexual, and therefore transgressive and disgusting among Iraqi men, clearly points to the homophobia in Islamic law.”

These readings are reminiscent of the homogenous ‘Arab mind.’ Such theorizing is problematic as it erodes the agency, diversity, humanity, gender and sexuality of Muslims. A Middle Eastern male becomes, in essence, a hyper-masculinized, homophobic and misogynistic body, impervious to pain and religiously motivated, yet hyper-sensitive to humiliation. Given the striking difficulty to believe anyone would prefer torture over being called homophobic slurs, Moore’s statement display’s how, despite the explicitly homophobic nature of the torture program (you are gay (bad) we are straight (good)), the US still emerge as exceptionally ‘tolerant’ of queerness.

In Monroe’s statement the photographs themselves served this image of US exceptionalism as they created preconceived assumptions of Muslim hyper-masculinity and heterosexuality. The practices of sexually degrading forms of torture become evidence itself of the homophobia and hyper-masculinity of those being tortured. Islamic law further becomes a single ideology guiding the orientations of the whole ‘Arab world.’

To move towards a truly emancipatory discourse of the queer subject, we should not be quick to assume an ahistorical and homogenous narrative of the repressed Muslim ‘other,’ yet analyse our current gender systems as historical conceptions themselves.

The Middle East has been assumed ‘stuck in time,’ as the West progressed and provided greater freedom’s to marginalized groups. This teleology of ‘freedoms’ are not only factually inaccurate but continue the logic of contrasting a conceptualized homophobic ‘other’ against a tolerant and progressive West.

It is also notable that the original depictions of the orient are sharply in contrast to current orientalist notions of the Middle East. The Middle East was originally seen by Europe as being more sexually tolerant, yet during this period homosexuality was equated with religious sin for European nation-states. Thus European religious piety was exceptionalized against an immoral ‘other.’ In the contemporary, however, there has been a shift from the Muslim subject being sexually deviant to sexually intolerant – a failed form of masculity and sexuality against the ‘proper’ form of masculity and heterosexuality of the West.

The Snake Charmer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Orientalist image of nude boy standing in front of older men in Mosque (The Snake Charmer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme)

Queer theory may be criticized for having nothing of importance to contribute to debates on torture and international relations. It may have been more worthwhile discussing political, geopolitical, or ethical implications of torture. Or examples of torture over the last two millennia to highlight it’s inefficiency in gathering intelligence. Or to question the perplexingly absurd notion of how and why torture is still practiced, particularly by nation-states of such (self-announced) exceptionalism. Yet as the Abu Ghraib torture scandal highlights, sexualized discourses and actions are underlying features of war and thus it would be irresponsible to ignore their impacts. By borrowing tools from critical International Relation’s theories, Queer Theory can be provide new paradigms for analysing how queerness disseminates within war, politics and public discourse and problematize the manner in which subjects are queered.

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Posted in All Posts, Postcolonialism, Poststructuralism, Queer Theory

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