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.
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?Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.