Welcome to the war on image

Posted: Jun 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Finally, our guards at Guantanamo Bay are getting the hang of showing "reverence and respect" toward that "fragile piece of delicate art" (military-speak for the Quran), and, wouldn't you know it, our politicians and pundits, from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to Tom Friedman and Bill Kristol, are angling to put a lock on Gitmo.

Why? It's an "international embarrassment," says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who should know. His colleague, Sen. Richard Durbin, (D-Ill.), is himself so internationally embarrassed that he compared the terrorist detainee facility to Nazi deaths camps, Communist gulags and Khmer Rouge killing fields.

And so what if closing Gitmo lets hundreds of jihadists out of their prison cages and into their terror cells? "Sure, a few may come back to haunt us," writes Friedman. But being haunted -- which presumably requires some additional number of American dead to do the haunting -- is apparently a risk worth taking in order to win the war.

I'm not talking about the so-called "war on terror." It seem there's been a change in focus. Islamic jihad is out. The war on "image" is in. And, according to the anti-Gitmo-nists, we're getting creamed. Go figure: "They" kill people over a soggy Quran, and "we" lose the image war -- and all over the world, according to Sen. Hagel. He thinks closing Guantanamo is the only way to win World Image War I. That's because closing the detention center would "give us a clean slate in the Muslim world," as Nancy Pelosi said, revealing an ignorance of history so vast and untamed that facts alone would perish there. Clean slate -- like on Sept. 10.

Projecting power is not the same thing as winning a popularity contest. Nor is winning a popularity contest the same thing as winning hearts and minds -- at home where it really counts, or abroad -- which seems to be another point of desperate confusion. But in our poll-driven age of celebrity worship, the popularity contest is becoming the preferred forum for geopolitics, a kind of "Survivor"-slash-"Who Wants to Be a Superpower?" reality show for world leaders. If this is the case, by all means go for that "clean slate" and close Gitmo. Miss Congeniality would do the same. But don't stop there.

After all, reverence and respect, even surrender, only go so far. More sensitivity is needed as well. In a recent meeting with Daniel Sutherland, head of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties division of the Department of Homeland Security, American University's Akbar Ahmed had some suggestions, beginning, according to an online report in the Pakistani Daily Times, with pretty much eliminating Muslim profiling at airports. This, of course, would do nothing to spare my own white-haired mother and white-haired mother-in-law from the next checkpoint body search, but the boost to world image would be colossal. "You simply cannot humiliate Muslims like this," Akbar said, describing a "peak level of anger" in "the young generation on the edge." Just one more pat-down and they'll blow. He also suggested "more social and cultural contacts" between government officials and American Muslims, and an unspecified reading list on Islam.

Maybe such a list would include one of his own books, "Islam Under Siege" (Polity Press, 2003). There, he describes the kind of gathering Homeland Security could really learn from -- roughly 60 Muslim-American professionals from Cleveland, Ohio, whom Ahmed addressed in October 2001.

"When I stated that Islam had suffered a major setback after Sept. 11 (for a grossly un-Islamic act of violence), that every Muslim was in the dock as a result ... I was challenged by some Arabs and Pakistanis," he writes. "They" -- Muslims in Cleveland, Ohio -- "called Sept. 11 a glorious event for Islam. The taking of innocent lives was justified, they argued, as Sept. 11 was the continuation of a full-scale Islamic war taking place against Israel, which is backed by the United States. I heard a similar debate when the Muslim Council of Britain hosted a dinner for me in London in July 2002."

 Maybe this last bit helps explain why the Queen of England this month bestowed a knighthood on Iqbal Sacranie, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain. "Sir" Iqbal Sacranie: a body blow in the war on image. And also why, as Sutherland reportedly told Akbar, Homeland Security "has undertaken many measures to eliminate racial profiling." I think I see a strategy emerging. Little by little, we'll win this war on image. So what if we no longer recognize ourselves.