Here is a column by Alaa al Aswany written for the Los Angeles Times. A reminder of the power of words.
The justifications of the torturer
By Alaa Al-Aswany
May 31, 2009
Writing From Cairo —
Some years ago, I was invited to a relative’s wedding, and at the wedding, I sat next to one of the bridegroom’s relatives. He introduced himself to me by saying: “My name is such-and-such, police officer.”
The man was in his 40s, very elegant, polite and quiet. I noticed a prayer mark on his forehead. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, and I asked him, “In which department do you work?”
He hesitated for a second, then he replied: “State Security.”
We both kept silent, and he turned his face away from me and started to watch the other guests. My mind was torn between two conflicting options: Should I resume the previous polite conversation, or should I express my opinion candidly on the State Security Investigations department? In the end, I couldn’t help but challenge him, and I will reconstruct the conversation that followed to the best of my ability:
“Excuse me. You are religious, it seems,” I said.
“Don’t you see any contradiction between being religious and working in State Security?”
“Where would the contradiction arise?”
“People detained by State Security are beaten, tortured and raped, though all religions prohibit such practices.”
He started to get emotional and said: “First, those who are beaten deserve to be beaten. Second, if you study your religion thoroughly, you will find that what we do in the State Security department is fully compatible with Islamic teachings.”
“But Islam is a religion that safeguards human dignity.”
“That’s a generalization. I have read Islamic jurisprudence, and I am well aware of its provisions.”
“There’s nothing in Islamic jurisprudence that makes it legitimate to torture people.”
“Listen to me until I finish, please. Islam has nothing to do with democracy or elections. Obedience to a Muslim ruler is a duty for his subjects, even if he has usurped power, is corrupt or unjust. Do you know how Islam punishes those who rebel against their rulers?”
I kept silent.
He continued enthusiastically: “They face the haraba punishment, which is amputation of the left hand and the right foot. All those we detain at State Security have rebelled against the ruler, and by Islamic law we should cut off their limbs, but we do not do this. What we do is much less than the Islamic punishment.”
Our discussion went on for a long time. I told him that Islam was revealed essentially to defend truth, justice and freedom. I said that the haraba punishment was applicable only to armed groups that kill innocent people, steal their money or rape them. It should by no means be applied to Egyptian political dissidents.
He remained insistent on his opinion and ended the discussion by saying: “This is my understanding of Islam. I am convinced of it, and I will not change it. I will be responsible for it before God.”
After I left the wedding, I asked myself how this educated and intelligent officer could be convinced of such an erroneous interpretation of Islam. How did he extract from Islam such perverted ideas? How could he imagine for one moment that God approves of us torturing people? These questions remained without answers until, some months later, I read a paper titled “The Psychology of the Executioner.”
In it, the researcher argued that torturers can be divided into two groups. The first group are psychopaths, who behave aggressively without any moral restraints. The second group — and these are the majority — is made up of ordinary men who are psychologically normal and who, once they leave work, are upright and lovable, with good morals.
But to be able to torture people, two conditions are indispensable: submission and justification. Submission means the police officer carries out the torture in response to orders from his superior and convinces himself that he is compelled to obey. Justification comes about when the officer convinces himself that torture is ethically and religiously legitimate, usually because he believes his victims to be agents of the enemy or enemies of the nation, infidels or criminals. In his mind, that justifies torturing them to protect society and the country. Without this justification, the police officer would not be able to continue torturing his victims because, at some point, he would be unable to cope with his pangs of conscience.
I remembered this when I heard about the arrest in April of two university students, Omnia Taha and Sarah Mohammed Rezq. Campus security at Kafr El Sheikh University in the Nile Delta arrested the two young women and handed them over to State Security because they had incited their colleagues to go on strike. The prosecution accused them of plotting to overthrow the government and ordered that they be remanded in custody for 15 days for questioning. But honestly, how could two women less than 20 years old try to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak’s regime simply by talking to their colleagues?
Moreover, calling for a strike is not in itself a crime because Egypt has signed dozens of international conventions recognizing the right to strike as one of the basic rights of Egyptians. But what is really saddening is that I learned from colleagues of the two girls that at State Security they were violently beaten and tortured and that the man who beat them and ripped off their clothes was a senior officer. It’s not so terribly surprising — bloggers, leftists and Islamic activists are all arrested and tortured on a routine basis in Egypt, often spending years in prison without being charged — but it’s horrifying nevertheless.
How could a police officer, who was probably a husband and a father, beat with such brutality a student so like his own daughters? How could he face his conscience and look his wife and children in the eye? Didn’t this senior officer feel ashamed of himself as he beat a young woman who could not even defend herself?
As President Obama prepares for his trip to Egypt this week, the Mubarak regime is facing unprecedented waves of social protest because life here has become intolerable for millions of Egyptians, who now have no choice but to take to the streets to proclaim their demand for a life fit for humans. Today, between 40% and 50% of Egyptians live below the poverty line; Egypt has become two different countries — one for the poor and one for the rich.
As for the regime, it is now completely incapable of serious reform, so it pushes the police to confront, repress and torture people, overlooking the simple and important fact that police officers are, first and foremost, Egyptian citizens and that what applies to Egyptians in general applies to them too. Most of them suffer in the same way as other Egyptians.
I often recall the discussion I had with the State Security officer at the wedding. And I reflect that a political system that relies for its survival on repression always fails to see that the apparatus of repression, however mighty it may be, must be operated by individuals who are part of society and whose interests and opinions generally conform with those of the rest of the population. As repression increases, a day will come when those individuals can no longer justify to themselves the crimes they are committing against people. At that point the regime will lose its power to repress and will meet the fate it deserves. I believe that we in Egypt are approaching that day.
Alaa Al-Aswany is the author of the novels “The Yacoubian Building” and “Chicago.”
Here is an Arabic translation: