America's gentler ally?

The Arab media's reaction to Britain's torture scandal is surprisingly subdued.

Published January 20, 2005 3:29PM (EST)

British diplomats in the Middle East were anxiously monitoring Arab reactions yesterday to the photographs that allegedly show British soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners. So far the response has been muted, but Dean McLoughlin, head of the Foreign Office's Islamic media unit, said: "My guess is that it will grow." The pictures were released too late on Tuesday to meet the deadlines of most newspapers in the Middle East, he said.

Arab satellite channels reported the story Wednesday, but not as the main item. It was overshadowed by the climax of the hajj -- the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca -- and the continuing violence in Iraq and Gaza. Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London daily al-Quds al-Arabi, said the story arrived about 8 p.m. and he immediately decided to splash it on the front page. Some of the other papers could have done the same, he said, but "sometimes they don't evaluate the importance of things as they should."

Arab news organizations have also held back the most graphic pictures of simulated sexual acts for reasons of decency and religious sensitivity. "We can't publish that," Atwan said. "People would say it's tasteless and accuse us of encouraging pornography. It's really awful because the pictures are very scandalous."

Yahya al-Aridi, head of the Syrian media center in London, disagreed. "Newspapers shouldn't shy away from publishing these things," he said. "I know it's insulting and humiliating, but I'm quite critical of why they didn't present that."

With most of the Arab world preoccupied for the next few days with Eid al-Adha, the main Muslim festival, assessing the damage to Britain's reputation in the region may take a while. "Britain is seen in the Arab world as a reluctant partner who was dragged into a war by a mighty ally with the consent of its government and against the best wishes of its people," columnist Khaled Batarfi wrote this week in the Saudi daily Arab News.

British troops in Iraq are generally regarded as more sensitive than the Americans to local culture, he continued. "Britain is an old imperial hand. Naturally, they understand their former colonies more than the new American empire. The problem with the new colonists is: They are ignorant and don't know it; they are arrogant and proud of it."

While many Arabs readily believe all kinds of atrocity stories about Americans, the Basra abuse case does not fit neatly into their stereotypes of the British character. "It wasn't really expected of the British forces," said Zaki Chehab, a journalist with al-Hayat and LBC television.

At the Foreign Office McLoughlin was hoping such perceptions would help to limit the damage. "Most of the commentators on Arab television are saying it won't majorly affect the reputation of Britain. They are seeing it as an isolated incident."

But Atwan thought the case would "play into the hands of those who say that they [the troops in Iraq] are all crusaders." Britain might be regarded as America's gentler ally, operating "gallows with silk material," but, he continued, "now I believe most of this is shattered."

Aridi, a former head of Syria's Channel 2 television, said the abuse case should be viewed within a larger picture. "What is happening in Iraq is really unbelievable, and torturing prisoners is part and parcel of the inhuman activity that is going on there." But he was impressed by the coverage in Britain "with regard to self-criticism," saying: "I look at the British media as a source for exposing what is happening, and this could give a lesson to other media."

There was little or no coverage in European newspapers Wednesday, probably because the story missed their deadlines.

By Brian Whitaker

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