Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Preconceived Notions

I sat down this evening, intending to bang out a quick post about the latest Abu Ghraib report whitewash. Though still somewhat Abu Ghraib-ish, this isn't the article that regular ASZ readers think it's going to be - in fact, it's nothing like a typical Abu Ghraib rant that you'd expect from me. Because I ran into Matt Chandler.

Matt Chandler is a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. He recently returned from the Baghdad area after an extended stint in the country. Almost by chance, I came across an interview with Matt at the Barclay Press website. And silly me - I started reading this interview with a totally preconceived notion (which was almost validated in the first part of the interview; more about that in a second), but refreshingly, I came out of the other end with a totally different perception of Matt and his important work.

It turns out that the story hasn't been completely written just yet, either. While Matt came back from Iraq this summer, he's returning shortly for another "tour of duty" in Baghdad, even though there's no question that Matt saw some nasty things during his first trip to Iraq:

"I was in the hotel directly across the street from the shrine when three bombs went off in the shrine plaza. We ran up to the roof immediately. I started taking digital pictures and one of my teammates had a video camera. It was a huge mess with blood, bodies, and body parts. There was an immediate response from the local security force and from local people. They quickly began taking out injured people and driving them in their own cars to the hospital. The Iraqi police and the Red Crescent got involved and they were handling the situation pretty well.

"But the scariest part was when a coalition military convoy of 6-10 vehicles drove right up to the shrine and immediately people started shouting at them to go away. It wasn’t long before people started throwing things. At first it was just little things and then shoes—which is a big insult in the Arab culture. At that point the soldiers got back into their vehicles and now the crowd was throwing rocks and bricks. The soldiers began to fire warning shots over the crowd in the direction of the shrine. This enraged the crowd even more. The soldiers could only exit the way they had come in and it took time for them to get turned around. People were pounding the vehicles with all kinds of stuff as they were trying to turn around."

When I told you in the first paragraph that Matt was a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), what was your immediate reaction? [pause...insert Jeopardy! theme music and Jerry Falwell's picture in your mental image here...]

You would probably be wrong.

CPT is a Mennonite-based organization that has been in Iraq since late 2002 providing humanitarian aid to Iraqis. The goal wasn't to convert Iraqis or prostylize "the good word" - CPT's mission is to provide help, promote peaceful resolutions to conflicts, and act as intermediaries between the locals and their occupiers. In that regard, they've more than met their mission, living in and among the people of Iraq. Their teams rode out the initial phases of the war, and began investigating (at the behest of their local hosts) charges of detainee abuse in August of 2003. When the International Committee of Red Cross closed up shop in Iraq due to security concerns in December of 2003, it was CPT that took up the mantle of human rights initiatives in Iraq, and in particular, investigation of detainee abuse in various camps and prisons around the country. It was CPT's report in January, 2004 that formed the basis of the February report and complaint by the ICRC.

With this background, I present you the alternate update to the Abu Ghraib report, CPT's Situation Report on Iraqi Detainees, compiled in July and released in August. Couched in very politically correct words, here's a closing excerpt from the (relatively) short CPT update:

Breeding Resentment

Many released detainees and their families express particular bitterness that the United States, a country that speaks of bringing democracy to Iraq, did not follow democratic principles of justice by allowing them due legal process including a chance to defend themselves. It is not clear whether such resentment fosters armed resistance in Iraq. It is clear that hearts and minds are lost, and that some Iraqis who previously supported U.S. presence and actions in Iraq no longer do and may be more willing to support those who are involved in active resistance.


It is not evident to CPT that a transparent and efficient process for handling detainee issues, including full legal rights and representation for detainees, is fully in place at this time. Parts of the system have improved and CPT is encouraged by the improvements. We continue to urge the U.S.-led MNF-I that remains in charge of much of the Iraqi prison system to work towards full human rights for detainees and their families through a just and humane process in apprehension of suspects and their subsequent detention.
Translation: we've rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic.

There's so much in both Matt's recent interview and the CPT website that are worth further exploration. I almost feel like Mike Moore in this regard - I'm giving you the basics, enough to get you started, but it's absolutely worth the time to read Matt's interview, and then spend some time poking around the CPT website. God knows that progressive blogs (including this one) regularly bash the jeso-facist fundamental Christian right for its supremely negative impact on the U.S. political and cultural climate, so it's well worth noting a peace-oriented Christian organization that truly practices what it preaches.

I heard a report the other day (I believe it was on NPR, but I can't find it right now) that those of the Islamic faith in Iraq (and in truth, all of the Muslim world) very strongly believe that the current situation in Iraq has devolved into a holy war: Christianity against Islam. With the ongoing assault on the shrine in Najaf, the perception grows even stronger in the Shia' community.

It will take a concerted effort from people like Matt Chandler to dispel the notion - it's not the teachings of Jesus against the teachings of Mohammed - it's the George Bush End-of-Timers™ -vs- the Islamic world. There's a major difference.

From an avowed agnostic, thanks, Matt!