Tweeting torture in Arabic

Tweeting torture in Arabic
5 min read
14 Dec, 2014
The admission of US complicity in torture shocked many in the Arab world, but the report is itself an example of democracy in action.
The CIA torture report shocked some, but was old news to many [Getty]

It's a bright Tuesday morning, but I am still in bed planning my day. I grab my phone to check Twitter feed and find out that today Congress will release its report into torture by United States and allied personnel.

I don't think much about it. Since the early days of the US-led occupation of Iraq, I and many other American Muslims have seen mention in Arabic media about abuse by American soldiers and others. It was almost taboo then to talk about such a "claim", as America was not yet ready to talk about anything other than the heroism of its soldiers.

My Twitter feed is full of Arabic and English tweets from all sorts of people and from many different countries. I spent a few minutes reading the Arabic ones and decided to tweet the following in Arabic:

"Omar Sulaiman must be rolling in his grave today."

People started asking me why. Omar Sulaiman was Egypt's Head of Intelligence during the final few years of Mubarak's rule and was known to have been part of the rendition and torture programme.

So I tweeted the following: "The US Congress will release this morning the Torture Report." An avalanche of interesting questions started to fill my Twitter feed, so I finally decided to get out of bed and switch on TV.

I started tweeting in Arabic again, as soon as Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence  Committee, started speaking. I took a photo of her and tweeted that, too.

I did my best to capture the essence of what Senator Feinstein was saying and I think I tweeted about 45 times all in all. It was amazing how many hundreds of people were following every tweet, retweeting every tweet, and asking questions that I could not answer on the spot.

By the time the press conference was over, I had gained hundreds more followers huge by Twitter standards for an ordinary person like me. I was not part of any action. I was not a celebrity. I was simply translating into Arabic and condensing into 114-character chunks what a United States
senator, 6,000 miles away from my Arab followers, was saying.

Reactions to old news

I became very curious to know which chord this hearing had struck in the Arab world. Why was such old news about the CIA's involvement in torture of any interest to Arabs now?

So I went back to my Twitter feed and started reading every comment and question I had received. The reaction to the report and the retweets ran all night long and the flow of commentary continues.

     Why was such old news about the CIA's involvement in torture of any interest to Arabs now?

The question I was asked most often was if any US citizen was tortured too. This prompted me to tweet about the US Constitution and I linked to an article by Professor Juan Cole on why the Founding Fathers rejected torture. This garnered much angry reaction from my "followers".

Most expressed disgust at the hypocrisy of applying humane laws to US citizens but not to others. Several labelled the US as a racist country. One went as far as saying "US tortures Muslims only because her fight is with the Islamic faith."

Another wrote: "The US is a terrorist country and we would be at peace with it if it were at peace with us."

And further: "Yet again the US answers its own question: why do they hate us?"

Then I tweeted two maps that show the location of CIA torture sites, many of which were in the Arab world. This started an avalanche of disgust at Arab regimes for allowing such atrocities to take place on their own soil.

Many volunteered to write about "services" their countries performed to assist the CIA, but which were not mentioned in the report. A few in Tunisia and Oman were very pleased that their countries didn't participate, and few expressed bewilderment that Sweden was involved.

The Swedish authorities have an Arabic-language account on Twitter, which faced the brunt of thousands of infuriated Arabs who had thought of Sweden as a perfect country
 with a perfect society and system.

"How could Sweden be on the torture map? What a shock!"

"Why is India on the map too?" asked another.

"Amazing how South America and Africa - excluding Arab countries - came out clean."

Another asked: "Isn't it interesting that South America, which was notorious for torturing its citizens at one time in history, came out clean?"

Timing the release

Why did the Congress publish the report now? This was asked dozens of times.

"Can this have anything to do with 'Sisi', president of Egypt?" One volunteered an answer: "America does not care about our politics or our leaders. They all serve the US anyway."

     We know that Americans are not like the cowboys who rule them.
- Tweet

Several asked: "So what is the reaction of Americans now? Will they do anything about it? " Others wondered: "We have known this for years, so will publishing this report mean bringing those responsible to justice?" And: "How is the US different from ISIS? You know what, I am now a potential ISIS recruit and write down my name."

I am still receiving comments from Arabs which follow the same theme.

Yet none appreciated that the fact that the report was published at all is testament to what it means to have democratic institutions, regardless of their deficiencies. 

I tweeted that this was democratic practice in action. When it was retweeted more than a hundred times, I was encouraged to ask: "How many Arab countries would investigate their own human rights abuses in prisons?" and, as I expected, this was also retweeted more than a hundred times, and shows to what degree Arabs and their regimes are disconnected.

This separation was noted in one tweet that read: "We know that Americans are not like the cowboys who rule them."

Let's hope that the majority of Arabs still clearly see this separation between the elite who commit crimes in the name of America and those Americans who are ruled by them.