As has probably been the case since the beginning of human existence, groups under threat tend to impute all manner of strange and frightening characteristics to their enemies. The Greeks told scary, fantastic stories about the vile Persians, as did the Ottomans about the hated, unwashed European barbarians. Allied soldiers and citizens during the First World War were taught to fear the uniquely barbarous German Hun. During the Cold War, Americans were raised to believe that, in the immortal words of Gen. Jack D. Ripper, “your Commie has no regard for human life, not even his own.”
Similar sorts of exceptionalist arguments have been a standard part of America’s post-9/11 political discourse, running the gamut from Michael Rubin’s theologically questionable presentation of the Iranian regime as “religiously sanctioned” liars to Marty Peretz’s outright racist assertion that the mass atrocities taking place in Iraq are “routine in their [Arab] cultures.”
One such example that has cropped up recently in relation to the torture debate is the idea that, in addition to being especially resistant to torture because of their religious commitment, Al Qaeda detainees actually require the application of torture in order to the help them fulfill their religious obligation to resist.
Pivoting off of a statement from Abu Zubaydah in the released CIA memos (“Brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardships”), former Bush administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen rationalized in the Washington Post that “the job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely.”
In Thiessen’s world, not only does torture help protect America, it helps our enemies to be better Muslims.
Cliff May picked up this argument today in NRO’s The Corner, writing that “Islamists [sic] believe their religion forbids them to cooperate with infidels — until they have reached the limit of their ability to endure the hardships the infidel is inflicting on them.”
In other words: Imagine an al-Qaeda member who would like to give his interrogators information, who does not want continue fighting, who would prefer not to see more innocent people slaughtered. He would need his interrogators to press him hard so he can feel that he has met his religious obligations — only then could he cooperate.
But just try to get anyone in the “anti-torture” camp to seriously debate any of this.
I think the reason why May is having trouble getting anyone in the anti-torture camp to seriously debate this is because it’s not a very serious argument. It’s pretty safe to say that a member of Al Qaeda “who does not want continue fighting and who would prefer not to see more innocent people slaughtered” has effectively given up his membership in Al Qaeda. The idea that such a person — having already abandoned the key tenets of Al Qaeda’s jihad — would then continue to hold out simply in order to be able to check the “resist torture” box is extraordinarily weak stuff. But then, so is the argument for torture.
The idea that Al Qaeda detainees pose some special interrogation challenge by virtue of their religious belief is likewise pretty weak. All detainees operate under a certain code governing what information they may and may not reveal (American servicemen are famously only allowed to reveal their name, rank, and serial number when captured) and I haven’t seen any evidence that Al Qaeda members are any more or less resistant to interrogation simply on the basis of their faith. And certainly not to the extent that would justify the United States’ violating its prohibition on torture.