Understanding Iraqi prisoner
abuse in an Islamic context
By Abdul Malik Mujahid
The photos of American soldiers
abusing Iraqi prisoners have stunned and disgusted the world. But it
is their sexual humiliation that is garnering much of the attention.
While such images shocked America, most Americans may not be able to
comprehend what type of cultural threshold has been crossed in terms
of dealing with Islam and Muslims.
In a culture that sometimes
values life less than honor, we have done the ultimate act of dishonoring
people. May God forgive us.
Most of the Muslim world sees
America through the eyes of Hollywood movies, which is far from an accurate
portrayal of American morality. Nonetheless, there certainly is a big
cultural gap in the way people in the West deal with modesty and privacy
of the body, and the way individuals in the Muslim world do, regardless
of their level of Islamic practice.
This Islamic sensibility of
considering the human body part of a very personal realm is connected
to the concept of honor, dignity and privacy. This is not limited to
Muslim countries. In fact, it is found in many Eastern cultures as well,
such as in India and China, at a far higher level than in the West.
What American soldiers have done in Iraq plays right into the hands
of the stereotypical Muslim image of Americans as immoral people or
What is Haya? Haya, Satr,
Nikah, and Hijab are four important concepts that will help explain
the deep pain the Muslim world is facing while watching the nightmare
of sexual torture in Iraqi prisons.
Concept of Haya
Ask anyone in the Muslim world,
whether Muslim or not, he or she will know what Haya is. But if you
ask them to define it, they will be hard pressed to do so. Haya is in
the grain of personal and social morality, values and behavior. The
concept of Haya is considered a major Islamic virtue and an integral
part of human character.
There is no exact English
word which can convey the whole meaning of the Arabic term Haya. Most
people translate it as modesty, shamefulness, and shyness. But all these
words have negative connotations that Haya does not have. Haya, unlike
shyness and bashfulness, does not indicate that a person lacks self-confidence.
In fact, in Islamic history, the person most noted for Haya was the
third Khalifa Othman, may God be pleased with him.
A person with Haya is not a shameless person. He or she is chaste,
and virtuous. He or she is not immodest, immoral, indecent, lewd, unabashed,
unashamed, unblushing, and unchaste. No, we are not talking about angels
here. A Muslim goes up and down in his or her faith and practice, but
the ideals of Haya are such.
Prophet Muhammad, peace and
blessings be upon him, said that every way of life has its distinct
character and for Islam it is Haya (Muwatta). He also said Haya is the
fruit of faith. (Bukhari, Muslim).
Haya is not morality to be
imposed, but something that must arise from within a people. But at
the same time, it is not a private affair. It is an established and
accepted social morality which members of society collectively regard
A state, therefore, is expected
to be the organ through which any society mediates its moral values.
This is the reason we find that the Malaysian government asked for the
removal of nude scenes from the movie Schindler's List. It's ironic
that many television stations in the Muslim world look for Christian-themed
films from America to run on their stations because they feel these
come close to the Haya standards of their societies.
Public Haya is also the reason
that even in secular Muslim countries you will not find collective shower
rooms in school dorms, community gyms, or army barracks where persons
of the same gender freely undress and shower in front of each other.
I remember choosing not to stay in a dorm in Chicago at a high cost
to me because of this common shower area issue.
Haya is the reason many Muslim
men and women prefer to be seen and treated by a doctor of the same
gender. Haya is also the reason that Muslim men and women avoid situations
where they will be alone with a non-related member of the opposite sex.
It is also because of Haya
that you will not find the demonstration of public affection between
spouses in public. That loving relationship is considered a private
It is due to Haya that while
romance is there, even in the secularist-run television stations of
the Muslim world, bedroom scenes, explicit language, and sexual innuendo
are not part of the shows. Of course, all of that is being challenged
by satellite TV, which brings the Hollywood version of America to Muslim
homes around the world.
While Haya is an expected
norm of personal behavior defining social morality, the basic Islamic
personal law taught to Muslim children in homes or weekend schools around
the world, from the United States to the United Arab Emirates includes
the following concepts of Satr, Hijab and Nikah.
The code of Satr
Satr is another important
code to understand when considering the implications of the prison abuse
scandal. Muslim men and women are asked by Prophet Muhammad, peace and
blessings be upon him, to observe Satr. This means Muslims must keep
their bodies from the navel to the knees covered in front of others.
The only exception to this rule is one's spouse.
Satr explains why in the dress
of Muslim countries, there is no exposure of the human body. Muslims
will go to great lengths to avoid this. In many villages, people have
refused to see physicians if they needed to undress for them. This prompted
Imams to preach that a Muslim can undress in front of a physician if
this is required for treatment.
The horrific images from Abu
Ghraib prison are probably the first time so much nudity has been revealed
on public television in the Muslim world.
The Etiquettes of Hijab
"Tell the believing men
to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer
for them. Lo! God is aware of what they do..." (Quran 24:30-31)
Due to the secular fundamentalists
who have banned the "headscarf" in Turkey and France, many people in
the world now think Hijab means headscarf. In the fight for the hearts
and minds of Muslim women, the headscarf has become a symbol of assertion
for Muslim feminists as well as a symbol of women's oppression for most
Western feminists. However, the concept of Hijab has a much broader
meaning than a piece of cloth on a woman's head.
The etiquettes of Hijab go
beyond a dress code. It defines the relationship that men and women
in a Muslim society maintain with each other. It lays out the guidelines
for interaction between the sexes, particularly those not related to
each other by marriage or blood. In essence, it is a set of legal and
social norms that define gender relations in the public and private
space in the Muslim world.
Even Muslim architecture incorporates
the element of Hijab in defining public and private place within one's
The Institution of Nikah
Nikah means marriage in Arabic.
This is the only relationship in which an adult man and a woman can
see each other's bodies. It is not surprising, therefore, to note that
dating still remains unheard of in the Muslim world, despite the practice's
introduction through Western television programs in the region.
Extramarital sex is considered
a major sin in Islam, and Muslims are encouraged to marry. This is why
in several Muslim countries, governments offer a stipend for eligible
couples to get married if they cannot afford to.
Of course, there are people
who do have affairs in the Muslim world. But this is considered a serious
crime against one's family, the community, and a major sin from a spiritual
The institution of marriage
in the Muslim world has been seriously challenged by the cultural imports
from the West. However, its strength despite these pressures, prompted
former US President Jimmy Carter to note that the only countries in
Africa where AIDS has not become an epidemic are Muslim countries.
The concepts of Haya, Satr,
Nikah, and Hijab are Islamic values, norms, and etiquettes. Although
not all Muslims may live up to these ideals, social morality is still
defined by these norms in the Muslim world. And nudity is nothing but
the antithesis of Haya, even by those who may not be living by these
ideals in the Muslim world.
It is bad enough when men
are involved in violating any of the above concepts. But when Muslim
women are violated based on these ideals, it serves as further fuel
Breaking these norms is taken
extremely seriously in Muslim societies. Many states treat crimes against
these norms so seriously that they use capital punishment.
Unlike what some in America
lead us to believe, no one hates America in the Muslim world because
of democracy and freedom. It is the immorality of America (championed
by Hollywood), along with American foreign policy which defines the
conflict between the Westernized elite and religious elements in Muslim
While many countries in the
Muslim world have mastered the art of torture and killing, the wholesale
onslaught on Muslim cultural sensibilities has never been observed in
the public square before the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. Graphic
images of this criminal behavior by some members of the most organized
and educated army of the only superpower in the world are bound to become
the most dominant images of this new "Crusade" in the collective
psyche of Muslims.