A Parable on the Divisibility of Human Rights

The German security services say that Murat Kurnaz was a security risk; he describes himself as a pious Muslim who went to Pakistan to look for religious guidance. Eberhard Seidel thinks that the case shows that Germany has failed to come up to its own standards

Murat Kurnaz? We have not heard much about the 25-year-old from Bremen recently. There is of course the book which came out two weeks ago: "Five Years of my Life" ("Fünf Jahre meines Lebens"). It tells an outrageous story of torture, death, humiliation and malice. It is a document about barbarity, carried out in the name of the United States of America: "Once upon a time in Guantanamo."

It is unlikely that Kurnaz's experiences will turn into a best-seller. It would need different protagonists. On the one hand it would need a likeable victim who knows how to stir the emotions of the public, someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who suffered genital mutilation and was abused by her Koran teacher. And its bad characters would have to be archetypes of corruption. The book would need clear lines between good and evil.

In Germany, people like clarity. And nothing is clear in this presentation of violence. The most Kurnaz can count on – with his shaggy long hair and untidy beard, not to mention his background--is pity.

"This strange universe called Islam"

Why does a young Muslim man fly to Pakistan of all places on 3 October 2001, just a few weeks after the 11 September? And what does it mean that he plans to join a group called "Tablighi Jamaat" of all things? It's true, the group is not seen as radical, but it is known to be very religious and Islamic. And haven't we all learned in the last few years that there are many confusing and baffling things in this strange universe called Islam – much which is dangerous and ambiguous.

"We are all Murat Kurnaz" was the headline in the tageszeitung newspaper on 29 March 2007, over a remarkable and passionate essay by the Islam scholar Navid Kermani. His message was: we can see from Kurnaz's story what our value system is really worth.

The text appeared on the day of the long-awaited appearance of the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, before a parliamentary committee looking into the activities of the German secret services. Since then Germany has returned to its normal activities. It says it is happy with the minister's explanation: the decision in autumn 2002 of the then government not to grant entry to Kurnaz was justified by the responsibilities of the government at the time.

The decision was not only "possible," it was "necessary." At the time, Kurnaz's categorisation as a "risk" was "logical and plausible." Always stay on the safe side.

Categorised as an "enemy combatant"

At this point in a confusing, multi-layered and open narrative, it is difficult to imagine what significance the case, or the name, or the person Murat Kurnaz will have in German collective memory in the future. The world goes on turning. Even those who, just a few months ago, were burning with indignation at the cold-hearted treatment of the Guantánamo convict from Bremen, are now less interested in the case.

So let us remind ourselves at this point that, so far, the man has been linked to no offence. Kurnaz was arrested after a routine check by Pakistani security forces and was handed over to the US forces in Afghanistan in exchange for a reward of $3,000. He was categorised as an "enemy combatant" and transferred to Guantánamo in January 2002. On 31 January 2005, a US federal judge found that his imprisonment was unlawful. The German government had been informed about Kurnaz's capture in January 2002, and it cooperated closely with the American security services.

In 2004 the Home Affairs Minister in the state of Bremen announced that Kurnaz would not be allowed to return to Germany once he was released. His permanent residence status had expired because he had been absent for more than six months.

Defending the country

This is all known, and has been known for some time. All the same, doubts remain. They have been encouraged by the former Interior Minister, Otto Schily, who noted that Kurnaz went to Pakistan with camouflage trousers and binoculars in his baggage. And why did he want especially to go to Pakistan?

These questions have been enough to justify the tabloid press in continuing to talk about the "Bremen Taliban." And what should those responsible at the time have done, other than to have defended the country from even the slightest possibility of terrorism? You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. The Guantánamo principle has seeped into German attitudes.

Murat Kurnaz. He's just one Muslim, one Turk. What have we Germans to do with such a man? That's a common question. But it's a question which poisons the nation. And it's a question which divides human rights, splitting the world up into those who have them and those who don't.

Not one of our own?

What is the meaning of this silence which is setting in around Murat Kurnaz? Compare it to the uproar which surrounds the Red Army Faction. The country has been arguing for the last thirty years about how a state based on the rule of law should deal with people who are proven murderers. The discussion flares up over and over again, and always with deep passion.

In the case of Murat Kurnaz, who has never lifted a weapon against anybody, public interest will remain short-lived. Could it have something to do with the fact that the RAF are our very own killers, while Kurnaz is not of our flesh and blood?

Murat Kurnaz is an object lesson for children from immigrant families: "Girls and boys, that's the way it is, and this is what you can expect from us." It is a crash course in how to create inclusion and exclusion, a cheap show about the award and denial of dignity, a parable on the divisibility of human rights, and a disgrace for the whole country, which has failed an important test.

Eberhard Seidel

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton


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