In 2006, I visited the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta. Before you reach for your National Security Hotline fridge magnets and mobile handsets, I should disclose that I was on an exchange program organised by the Australia-Indonesia Institute and funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Like many others in Indonesia, this university campus had an “American Corner” — a largish classroom with wall-to-wall shelves containing a range of books, magazines and other publications about American life and culture in both English and Indonesian. Computer terminals offered free English-language multimedia materials. Copies of the glossy American Muslim magazines and books by Arab and Muslim Americans were prominently displayed.
Are such expensive public relations steps necessary? What do Indonesian and other non-Western Muslims think of the West? In their recently published book Who Speaks for Islam?: What A Billion Muslims Really Think, John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed analysed data from a mammoth multi-year Gallup study surveying a sample of tens of thousands of Muslims from more than 35 countries and representing more than 90% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims.
Their study found that non-Western Muslims tend not to see the West as a monolith, and Muslims criticised or praised Western countries based on their politics and not on culture and religion. By and large, non-Western Muslims respected and wished to enjoy the benefits of Western-style democracy and the rule of law.
Indonesian media aren’t rabidly anti-American. But the Indonesians from all walks of life I met in 2006 were united in their condemnation of one American policy: the continued detainment, often without charge, of hundreds of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay.
Despite attempts at opening communication channels across Indonesia, the White House’s reluctance to come clean on the extent of torture and mistreatment of Guantanamo prisoners is winning few friends even among otherwise friendlier Muslim communities. Upsetting Muslims even more are the lacklustre efforts by Western governments (apart from Britain) to make even the slightest fuss over the detention of their own nationals.
Consider Australia’s approach to the plight of David Hicks. Until prominent newspapers and personalities managed to sway public opinion, former Prime Minister John Howard (and indeed current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd) took for granted that Hicks was among “the worst of the worst”, a dangerous terrorist receiving his just deserts.
Of course, we now know that even the US Military Commission prosecutor assigned to Hicks’ case recently admitted that the evidence against him was weak at best, and that the decision to prosecute Hicks was based more on political considerations.
Now a 21-year-old Canadian citizen named Omar Khadr is to face an infamous military commission hearing. What makes Khadr’s case particularly stark is that he was a minor when arrested in Afghanistan.
Khadr is the Toronto-born son of Egyptian and Palestinian parents. US military prosecutors claim his father is believed to have been heavily involved in fund-raising for radical Islamist groups in Toronto and moved the family to Afghanistan. They claim Khadr had received military training — bomb making, combat tactics and rifle marksmanship — before reaching his teens. Much of Khadr’s adolescence was allegedly spent in al-Qaeda camps.
Khadr was allegedly captured in July 2002 during a raid on a small Taliban compound in south-east Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. After being shot in the back, he was taken to the notorious Bagram Air Base, where he was often brought to interrogation on a stretcher and denied pain medication. A 2006 investigation into Khadr’s treatment while in custody in Afghanistan was mysteriously halted. The Bush Administration has repeatedly refused to allow Khadr’s lawyers to view records of his treatment at Guantanamo.
Even if the allegations of US prosecutors against Khadr are true, the fact is that he hardly had a choice in growing up in a household where his father espoused radical views, even encouraging Khadr’s brother to become a suicide bomber. One can hardly expect a child to recognise his father’s charities were in fact funding extremist groups. No teenager should have to spend years in a steel mesh cage at Guantanamo Bay undergoing brutish forms of interrogation and detained without charge or trial until years have elapsed.
But Khadr isn’t the only detainee to have undergone inhumane treatment. Alex Gibney’s Academy Award winning 2007 film, Taxi To The Dark Side, to be screened at the Sydney Film Festival in June, tells the story of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar who was deemed a terrorist and who died after being repeatedly bashed during interrogation. The film also exposes torture and murder of alleged terrorists by US interrogators in other locations.
The mistreatment of the Canadian child soldier will be a powerful recruiting argument used by anti-Western and anti-democratic forces in the Muslim world. So often our leaders recite the mantra that extremists and terrorists hate us because of our freedoms and values. Given the silence of Western governments about the use of torture in prosecuting this “war on terror”, non-Western Muslims could be forgiven for thinking we hate our freedoms and values even more.
Associate Editor Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer whose work on young Muslims navigating into and out of political Islam was awarded the 2007 Allen & Unwin Iremonger Award for public affairs writing. This article previously appeared in The Age newspaper.