Islam as interrogation tool: need for limits?

There's a right way and a wrong way to use suspects' religion to extract information, experts say.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Army Sgt. Erik Saar couldn't wait to get to Guantánamo Bay to help ferret information from the terrorists being held there. When the intelligence linguist arrived, however, he was startled to hear the Muslim call to prayer. Why, he wondered, would America make such a "concession to the religious zealotry" of the detainees?

Yet as he worked as an interpreter in the cell blocks and interrogation rooms, Sergeant Saar's attitude changed. Methods that demeaned Islamic beliefs and tried to make detainees feel separate from God struck him as counterproductive. They not only failed to produce information, he says, but also fueled the sense there and abroad that the US is at war with Islam.

"We say we're trying to win the hearts and minds of Muslim people around the world, yet they can see we are using their religion against them," says Saar in a phone interview. "I don't think that's in line with our values."

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Religious disrespect - or even a perception of disrespect - can be an explosive matter in Islamic countries. In recent days, thousands took to the streets in violent protests in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and at least three other nations, reacting to a news report, not yet substantiated, that American personnel desecrated the Koran during interrogations at Guantánamo. The US has promised an investigation and insists disrespect for the Koran will not be tolerated.

Such reports dismay many Americans, too. Among them are former military intelligence officers who object to certain interrogation techniques that have come to light in reports from people posted at Guantánamo, which they say exploit religion. Recently released FBI memos called some of these methods "torture." Saar and Time correspondent Viveca Novak, too, relay Saar's eyewitness account of life at Guantánamo in 2003 in their new book "Inside the Wire."

How America employs religion in interrogation strategy holds long-term consequences for its struggle against terrorism and for relations with the Muslim world, critics say. "The people doing the interrogating [at Guantánamo] know nothing about Islam and not much about interrogation.... You couldn't have a greater recipe for failure," says Col. Patrick Lang, former head of military intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency, and an expert on the Middle East.

At Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere, interrogators' use of dogs and nudity - and allegations that detainees were forced to consume pork and liquor in violation of their religious beliefs - all play as disrespect for Islam. British detainees released from "Gitmo" claim that guards there mocked their faith, cursing Allah and the prophet Muhammad and mistreating the Koran.

At Guantánamo, detainees are allowed to have the Koran and to perform daily prayers, in keeping with international law. Some military personnel at the base say the US makes too many concessions to detainees' faith, creating a more favorable environment than exists in some American prisons.

In his book, Saar describes a tumultuous atmosphere made more intense than usual because of religious tensions. US personnel, he wrote, routinely tempted detainees to look at pornographic magazines and videos, which Islam forbids. Female interrogators, sometimes dressed provocatively, violated Islamic strictures by rubbing against detainees and even leading one to believe he was being wiped with menstrual blood.

"Had someone come to me before I left for Gitmo and told me we would use women to sexually torment detainees to try to sever their relationships with God, I probably would have thought that sounded fine," writes Saar. "But I hated myself when I walked out of that room.... We lost the high road.... There wasn't enough hot water in all of Cuba to make me feel clean."

The Army, which cleared Saar's book for publication, says the policy is to treat detainees humanely, and an investigation into his allegations is under way.

Experienced military interrogators - and military manuals - have long emphasized that effective interrogation involves building a relationship with the prisoner, even the most fanatical.

Instead, says Colonel Lang, "you now have hardened jihadis being subjected to simpleminded assaults on their religion ... and you've ensured that these people will hate you forever, including the many who were picked up for no reason other than being a private in the Taliban infantry."

Lang, whose long career includes "turning" some fanatical prisoners to the US side, says the US must emphasize treating Islam with respect and must train interrogators who have knowledge of the faith.

"The best way to build a relationship is to speak to that person's identity and values," says Chris Seiple, who heads the Institute for Global Engagement, a think tank dealing with faith and international security. "Instead of using Islamic culture to demean them, take Islam as a faith to defang the principles that condone terrorism. Islamic theology must be a component in building the relationship."

Saar tells of an interrogator from a nonmilitary agency who engaged a detainee on that basis. While the detainee refused to talk about Islam with the woman, he responded to questions put through Saar, eager to discuss his beliefs and where they led him. From then on, he talked more readily.

The linguist lost his enthusiasm for the Guantánamo mission, he says, because the situation was in sharp contrast to public perception. "I thought these were 'the worst of the worst' hardened terrorists, but I soon realized many didn't fit that category, not only by talking to detainees, but by having access to intelligence which said that," he says. Saar was a supervisor in the interrogation group and reviewed files. He estimates that dozens among the 600 or so fit that category.

A conservative Evangelical, Saar says he can't reconcile what he's seen with his own faith. Others in that Christian community, however, have called him unpatriotic for criticizing US interrogation practices.

As with Abu Ghraib, many critics ask whether superiors at Guantánamo knew about these alleged practices. Lang, for his part, suspects it may be a situation of poorly trained people working in a permissive atmosphere. Saar writes of attending the meeting in which staff were told the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the detainees, which he says "blurred the lines."

The next-generation interrogation manual is expected to be more restrictive. "The old manual gave 17 [interrogation] techniques, but didn't give right and left boundaries, so to speak," says Army Lt. Col. Gerard Healy. The new manual will put limits on each technique, and will prohibit actions such as dietary manipulations and the use of dogs. But, he adds, "I have not seen religion addressed - it came to the surface recently and is being looked into in the Guantánamo investigation."

The manual does include a "caution" about taking the Koran from a detainee. Removing it will have to be approved by the secretary of Defense.

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