May 02, 2004

the counter Enlightenment

The contradictions abound. And I struggle with them.

The image below is of an Iraqi person being tortured by the US in the Abu Ghraib Prison in western Baghdad, Iraq. The Americans are discovered to be torturing the Iraqi people in the same place that Saddam tortured them.

It's an image that links back to mediaeval times and it has traces of the images of the Spanish Inquistion.


The image is a screen capture taken from the 60 Minutes II broadcast. There were others.

What do these images mean?

This is not the practice of a few out-of-control army privates who've lost their way and wandered over to the dark side. It is a practise of the military-intelligence arm of an imperial nation-state, which says it embodies the enlightenment, that now justifies its invasion of Iraq by saying the country was under a dictatorship, and that it is out to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi Arab public.

Juan Cole reports that the Arab mediais interpreting the photos in a religious way. He says "Al-Wafd's (Cairo) headline referred to the American prison guards at Abu Ghurayb as Zabaniyat al-Ihtilal, the Punishing Angels of Occupation. The zabaniyah in Islamic lore are the angels who "thrust the damned into Hell" and then torture them. Actually I suppose we might call them dark angels or even demons in the West. "

There are other ways to interpet the images. One suggestion is along the lines of democracy plus torture within an apocalyptic framework. This apocalyptic framework traditionally reads like a morality play that calls on heavenly powers ( the US) to judge the (Iraqi) people, reveal the future (of Iraq) and offer the ultimate salvation (of liberal democratic and market freedom). This traditional moral formula (the US as messiah) is inverted as the only reward for piety and sacrifice is pestilence, torture and death.

The images do bring life to the thoughts many think but would never dare to say. If the Enlightenment is embodied in the Geneva Conventions, then the US is breaking them. No question. John Quiggin says demolish the Abu Ghraib Prison.

And the unspoken thought? The images look more like the counter enlightenment than the enlightenment.

Riverbend's reaction. The background on the systematic prison practices are here.

How can we make sense of the contradictions? There are deeper layers than Margo Kingston's bringing the troops home.

My suggestion is that we have the marriage of religion and politics. I cannot but help be reminded of Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor" scene that exposed the corruptive powers of the church as well as the twisted, irony of human nature.

That scene is one where the flames were crackling round the heretics being burned by the Inquisition in Seville, Spain. The Catholic Church had asserted its divine rule over the people, and it maintained this power by burning its opposition, the Protestants, at the stake.

Instead of the Church we have the violent Republican US asserting its rule in the Middle East, and maintaining its power by torturing its opposition.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at May 2, 2004 09:26 AM | TrackBack

I reacted angrily to these same stories on my blog, but the image you included does a much better job of making the argument than anything I wrote.

Posted by: loren on May 3, 2004 02:12 AM

and what of the British soldier urinating on an Iraqi prisoner?

Posted by: Jaytee on May 3, 2004 09:08 AM

yes that image shocks.

It forces us to come to grips with it to try and make sense of it.

And we struggle to do so. The image has deep roots. It reaches a long back into our historical memory.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on May 3, 2004 10:05 AM

I've been puzzling about the image of the British soldier urinating on an Iraqi prisoner since yesterday.

I haven't got very far. At the moment I reckon it has different resonances to the one here. It is more about orientalism. This one is a religious image.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on May 3, 2004 10:16 AM

Instead of the Church we have the violent Republican US asserting its rule in the Middle East, and maintaining its power by torturing its opposition.

Your generalizations are distressing. Are you implying that all Republicans, or that Republicans in general are sadists who use torture to maintain power abroad? No Republican I know endorses these images or the behaviour depicted therein.

The soldiers in the photos are neither Republican nor Democrat, since they have given up the right to civilized politics.

Posted by: Jeremiah on May 8, 2004 12:25 AM


the post was an attempt to account for the trace of religious imagery in the way the Iraqi's were treated in the prison no the politics per se.

How do we understand that powerful image? I say traces of Spanish Inquistion, you say barbarism.

How is it a barbaric image? Where does it come from? What does it mean? You do owe us an account.

My analogy with the Spanish Church and the Republican administration suggests that these actions were not isolated examples of a few rogue soldiers but the standard practices of state power.

However, it is the image and its meaning that is of import not the straight politics. That image has deep roots.

Is it connected to the imagery of Klu Klux Klan? I can read the image asan Iraqi body forced to stand on a block with electrical wires attached to his body, clothed only in a Ku Klux Klan-style hood.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on May 8, 2004 07:55 AM

Secrecy, hubris and the "Will to Power" are the key tools of every fascist or bolshevik or the sitting "republican" administration. Your political party matters not -- only that you are willing to condone such behavior in the quest/"crusade" for what you define as "a 'higher' good".

Worst of all are those who work to claim their 'good' to come from "God". Even to the point of "revisionism" to state that some great evil 'monster' of the past was never trained nor brought up in 'their' religious tradition -- just like Hitler or PolPot or "Uncle Joe" Stalin. The great errors are: (1) to claim that you are "entitled" to a "victory" in a world where life is not fair (to be blunt); (2) to claim that you are "the 'truth'" or "the 'future'" or (name your 'science'/belief/'truth'); (3) to claim 'special "authority" or "knowledge" or "power" to 'speak for God'; or (4) that you are to be considered as 'god' from this moment forward. We now have "Republicans" who claim #1 because they are 'social and political conservatives' who are allied with "Republicans" who claim #2 who attack the "'religion-free' public square (ignoring the explicit and 'literal' words of Jesus)". We also have "Republicans" who follow #3 -- but following #4 appears to be only a matter of time, based upon the trajectory of the 'conservative' "zeitgheist" in vogue today. Since the "zeitgheist" purportedly "LOVES" what is erroneously called "tough 'love'", how much "tough love" is suitable before the entire world is both blind and toothless? All because the 'conservatives' fail to read anything more than their "cafeteria" of Romans, Revelations, Corinthinians, Genesis and selected 'biblical' passages.

The issue here is "truth". Emanuel Kant claimed that 'truth' and 'fact' like 'beauty' is in the eye of the beholder (whose eye may be clouded by relativistic things). Francis Bacon took this argument farther in his writings to look at the question of "objective 'truth'" which could be defined and tested by "objective" means. We now consider Bacon's methods to be at the foundation of modern Science. From the cynical statement of Pontius Pilate, you can see that the "truth/belief" question is what is the difference between point-of-view, faith and objective&factual reality is actually all about. To see one of the most (by historical accounts) vicious, brutal and ruthless Procureators of the Roman Empire have any type of concept of what to do when the "ultimate manipulator" was "outmanipulated by 'his' subjects" was quite out of character. To have Pilate removed while he had Jerusalem under siege was an insult to him -- one of the goals of his manipulators. Pilate would have hated the images and ignored or "spun" the stores. How much like Pontius Pilate are all of your "republican" 'friends'?

Posted by: Diddicus Didymus on May 11, 2004 05:14 PM
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