December 6, 2007
Pollution and Policy
In January of 1857 the British Raj began training their native Indian soldiers – sepoys – in the new weapon of the empire, the Enfield musket. The cartridges, the paper tips of which had to be bitten off, were lubricated with animal grease. Rumor quickly spread that both pig and cow fat had been used, alienating and enraging Muslim and Hindu alike. The idea that such religious pollution might be intentionally inflicted upon a population became yet another motivation for the Indian Mutiny – the Sepoy Rebellion – which followed later that year.
The phenomenon at play in the cartridge controversy echoes in two contemporary events. First, in the wake of the violence against peaceful demonstrators and the disappearing of thousands of Burmese citizens by Myanmar's military junta, Lanna Action for Burma has organized the "Panties for Peace" campaign, asking women around the world to mail their undergarments to Burmese embassies. The logic is that the ruling generals – particularly the notoriously "superstitious" Senior General Than Shwe – "believe that contact with any item of women's wear deprives them of their power." Panties are being sent in the aim of denuding the dictatorship of authority. Here deliberate religious pollution is approached as a functional act.
Closer to home, a functional approach to religious pollution underlies certain so-called "creative decisions" for interrogation techniques used on detainees of the American government at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. While being straddled and sexually touched by scantily clad women might seem less invasive and offensive than waterboarding, the administration of electrical shocks to genitals, or sodomy with objects (all of which are also documented American techniques), such sexual acts are designed not merely to break down morale and to emphasize the futility of resistance but also to alienate prisoners from their faith. Spiritual pollution is a functional goal behind these and other such "aggressive interrogation tactics" as forced cross-dressing, fake "baptism" by an interrogator dressed as a priest, and showing prisoners pornographic images altered to include the faces of their wives and Osama Bin Laden.
Former army sergeant Erik Saar, who served as an Arabic interpreter at Guantanamo , recounts an incident of a female interrogator attempting to sexually arouse a detainee while taunting him for his lack of faith, then smearing him with simulated menstrual blood. She left for the night with these words: "Have fun trying to pray tonight while there's no water in your cell," her point being that both the forced sexual contact and the blood rendered the detainee impure, necessitating ritual cleaning – impossible without access to water – before he could even engage in prayer. The government has judged such procedures to be "abusive and degrading" but holds that they are not "prohibited inhumane treatment." Yet their intent, to quote Saar – who worries that such techniques could be misconstrued as part of "a religious war" – is "to create a barrier" between a prisoner and his faith, to render him defiled, ritually unable to seek strength or solace in his religion.
As Diane Christian of the University of Buffalo has written, such "sexual spiritual torture" is all too similar to other famous historic incidents of religious pollution. "As the Greeks slaughtered a pig on the altar of the temple in Jerusalem, and the French revolutionaries installed a whore on the altar of Notre Dame, so the Americans smear menstrual blood on captives and show them their wives naked with Osama Bin Laden." In his book about his time at Guantanamo, Inside the Wire, Saar labels such tactics moral and practical failures. Rather than useful new intelligence-gathering approaches, this "grasping" assault on detainees' religious beliefs will further damage America's reputation, strengthening hatred, fuelling antagonism, and weakening international sympathy and support.
We who study religion and history have a responsibility to speak out about whether our government should employ such tactics. We would do well to consider the concerns of Sergeant Saar as well as the words of another military man, Sir John Kaye, Fellow of the Royal Society, Knight Commander of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India, a staunch supporter of England's righteous imperialism and author of a history of the Mutiny of 1857, who wrote of the cartridge scandal: "It was so terrible a thing, that, if the most malignant enemies of the British Government had sat in conclave for years, and brought an excess of devilish ingenuity to bear upon the invention of a scheme framed with the design of alarming the Sipáhi mind from one end of India to the other, they could not have devised a lie better suited to the purpose."
Spencer Dew is a PhD candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and a Martin Marty Center Junior Fellow.
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