GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – A detainee reads the Qur’an in a recreation yard at Joint Task Force Guantanamo, June 8, 2010. Photo by Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Nista.

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – A detainee reads the Qur’an in a recreation yard at Joint Task Force Guantanamo, June 8, 2010.
Photo by Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Nista.


By Sajida Jalalzai

Without Charge, With Little Hope

“My name is Moath al-Alwai. I have been a prisoner of the United States at Guantanamo since 2002. I was never charged with any crime and I have not received a fair trial in US courts. To protest this injustice, I began a hunger strike in February. Now, twice a day, the US military straps me down to a chair and pushes a thick tube down my nose to force-feed me.”

Moath al-Alwai is one of approximately one hundred detainees in Guantanamo Detention Center participating in a hunger strike that began this February in response to cell searches and the alleged mishandling of a Qur’an on the part of prison guards. Beyond this specific incident, however, prisoners at Guantanamo strike to protest their treatment and their “open-ended detention without charge.”

This is not the first time prisoners at Guantanamo have gone on a hunger strike to protest cruel treatment and to express feelings of hopelessness after over a decade in the prison.  In fact, the majority of detainees are actually cleared for release or transfer to other countries. The issue of force-feeding, however, draws new attention and controversy to the situation at Guantanamo, particularly as the hunger strike stretches through Ramadan, a sacred month of the Islamic calendar during which observant Muslims fast from food, drink, smoking, and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset. Out of the approximately 100 hunger strikers, about forty-five detainees are on the “enteral feeding” list.

In July, lawyers for several Guantanamo prisoners asked a US federal judge to block the force-feeding of hunger strikers, citing the practice as “painful, humiliating, degrading, and a violation of medical ethics,” and hoped that the onset of the month of Ramadan would expedite the ruling. Federal judges rejected the petition, citing their lack of jurisdiction over the detention center in Cuba. U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler, however, condemned the force-feeding, and urged President Obama to put an end to the practice.


Standard Operating Procedures

You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God.  (Qur’an 2:183)

On the first night of Ramadan, a friend sent me a link to a video of the artist Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) voluntarily participating in a Guantanamo Bay-style force feeding, in an attempt to draw attention to the situation at the prison. Produced by the British human rights organization Reprieve, the graphic video portrays the “standard operating procedure” for the force feedings, the usually dapper Bey clad in Guantanamo-orange, strapped to a chair, with a feeding tube shoved into his nose. As Bey groans and writhes in obvious pain, anonymous hands hold him down until the tube falls out. During the second attempt to insert the tube, Bey screams, crying, “Stop! I can’t do it.” Unable to withstand the pain, he puts an end to the procedure.

This now viral video, which garnered over five million views in about three weeks, highlights the highly invasive, painful, and degrading nature of force-feeding. The “enteral feeding” process, which involves administering a liquid nutrient mix to the prisoners through a nasogastric tube, takes approximately twenty to thirty minutes. The entire procedure, however, which includes observation and confirmation by x-ray that the liquid has been properly digested, can take hours. If the detainee vomits, either voluntarily or involuntarily, the process starts over again.

There exists a great deal of criticism concerning the practice of force-feeding in and of itself, but the stakes are even higher during this holy month. Military-issued statements inform the public that during Ramadan, feedings will only take place between sunset and sunrise, out of respect for the religious beliefs of the detainees. Some of the prisoners’ lawyers have expressed skepticism at the administrative plausibility of this statement, noting that there are “little more than 10 hours of darkness each night and 45 men to whom the force-feeding is supposed to be administered.” Given such constraints, it seems likely that some prisoners will still be force-fed during daylight, and thus fasting, hours.

This Ramadan, as a Muslim American fasting during these long summer days, I’m compelled to think about the different kinds of hunger. How can this one act, the voluntary refusal of food, register in such different ways? Upon what grounds is this choice honored or refused in prison settings? Hunger-striking in Guantanamo prison during Ramadan reveals ambiguous and seemingly contradictory discourses about the relationship between religion, ethics, and the rights of prisoners.


The Rights of a “Non-Person”

Hunger striking in prisons isn’t new. In her essay, The Longest Hunger Strike, Revealer Contributing Editor Ann Neumann discusses one incarcerated American’s efforts to protest his conviction through a refusal to eat solid food, and the subsequent prison administered force feedings that keep him alive. Neumann points out that the only two places in the United States where you can be fed against your will are a “Catholic hospital and a prison,” and explores the question of “prisoner’s rights,” both in terms of religion and in terms of personal autonomy.

The question of prisoners’ rights in the context of Guantanamo becomes even murkier, given the incredibly ambiguous legal standing of the detainees. What are the rights and civil liberties of “unlawful enemy combatants?” Upon what grounds can someone who is “not a person” argue for basic human and civil rights? While several Supreme Court decisions uphold that international law applies to Guantanamo prisoners, detainees have been held indefinitely without trial and had their habeas corpus protections denied. They’ve also been subjected to unconstitutional combatant status review tribunals in violation of the Geneva Conventions. As Clinical Professor of Law at Boston University Susan M. Akram argues, “Congress and the executive branch have, through policy and legislation, strenuously avoided implementation of these decisions.” It seems ironic, then, that Guantanamo officials would even demonstrate concern about “honoring” the religious duties of Muslims to fast during Ramadan by limiting the unethical practice of force-feeding to the legally permissible hours. There is something dubious about this “benevolent,” self-congratulatory gesture, the generous granting of a “right” to those whom you’ve dispossessed of most basic rights.


The Numbers Game

Narrated by Anas bin Malik
The Prophet said: “Take (the meal of) suhoor because there is blessing in it.”
(Bukhari Book 3 Volume 31 Hadith 146)

Every few days, different media sources report the fluctuating numbers of hunger strikers at Guantanamo. With the onset of the month of Ramadan, a flurry of articles from Al Jazeera to The New York Times reported a downward trend in the hunger strike, as a number of detainees began eating at least one meal within each 24-hour period. What is the significance of these numbers provided by the military? Did worsening conditions at the prison break the strike? Did the physical toll of hunger striking and force-feeding wear them down? Or did prisoners end the strike because they felt successful in bringing Guantanamo back into national focus?

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – Force Feeding Restraint Chair. Photo by Brian Godette.

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – Force Feeding Restraint Chair. Photo by Brian Godette.

The truth likely exists between these contrasting interpretations. It is impossible to consider the apparent decrease in hunger strikers, however, without acknowledging military promises for the reinstatement of communal religious worship should prisoners quit the hunger strike. Congregational fast breaking and prayer are mainstays of Ramadan tradition, as are eating suhoor, the pre-fast meal, and the breaking of the fast with dates. How might the traditions and etiquette of Ramadan play a role in the decisions of the striking detainees? Hunger striking at Guantanamo, after all, does not mean the prisoners do not eat at all. “It means they mostly don’t eat,” says Carol Rosenberg in an interview with NPR. Prisoners are placed on the hunger strike list if they’ve lost 15% of their medically defined ideal body weight and have refused nine consecutive meals. London-based attorney and founder of Reprieve comments, “Some detainees are taking a token amount of food as part of the traditional breaking of the fast at the end of each day in Ramadan, so that is now conveniently allowing them to be counted as not striking.” The military has a vested interest in portraying the number of hunger strikers as decreasing, deflecting the public eye away from the accusations of unethical practices. The reality of the situation, however, is undoubtedly more complicated than any numbers game implies.

There is a not-so-fine line between fasting and hunger striking. Thinking about Ramadan at Guantanamo, however, the two appear intimately connected. These very different modalities of hunger push and pull together: one hunger, mandated in religious texts and traditions, and limited by clearly demarcated temporal bounds; the other, undertaken in protest of injustice, and theoretically as indefinite as the prisoners’ detentions. The military respects the detainees’ refusal of food on religious grounds, but refuses to honor their choice to hunger strike. Taken together, these two types of hunger point out the military’s confusion about just what to do with the prisoners at Guantanamo, not only in terms of where or for how long to keep them, but also in terms of the bases and ways in which to honor or deny their rights and autonomy. The military’s divergent responses to the same action, namely, the detainees’ refusal of food, underlines the irony of paying lip service to the religious rights of indefinitely detained prisoners of war.


The “Preservation of Life”

The force-feedings at Guantanamo are an attempt on the part of the military to keep the prisoners alive. Department of Defense spokesman Todd Breasseale explains, “We will not allow detainees to harm themselves — not with weapons, not with medication, not via self-imposed starvation to death,” Breasseale said. Preservation of life remains at the center of this issue, and becomes the ethical lynchpin that justifies the force-feedings. The quality of life that they are preserving for the detainees at Guantanamo is seldom discussed.

The hunger-strikers, however, are not trying to end their lives. In a joint letter from hunger striking detainees to the military, they express themselves with a single voice: “I do not wish to die, but I am prepared to run the risk that I may end up doing so, because I am protesting the fact that I have been locked up for more than a decade, without a trial, subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and denied access to justice. I have no other way to get my message across.” With this petition, the detainees at Guantanamo challenge the military’s confusion of “suicide prevention” with the noble preservation of life.

The strikers at Guantanamo are using what they have, namely, their bodies, to prevent themselves from disappearing from the American national agenda. I fast along with them this Ramadan- for about fifteen hours of each day, anyway. But as the sun sets each night, my fast ends, and I use the hours of darkness to rehydrate and make up my calories. My Ramadan nights are spent peacefully, reading the Qur’an, attending communal prayers at the local mosque, or quietly reflecting and writing at home. Without a doubt, the same cannot be said for those in Guantanamo. At the beginning of the month, I decided to dedicate my fasts to the prisoners at Guantanamo, in part to express my solidarity with them as a fellow Muslim and advocate for justice, but also to remind myself of the many things that separate us: my privilege, my security, and my freedom. This Ramadan, I have tried to understand a different kind of hunger: a desperate hunger driven by the experience of torture, the fear of being forgotten, and the hope of preserving a life beyond the detention camp perimeter.

Sajida Jalalzai is Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. Her research focuses on Islam and Muslims in North America, with a specific focus on Muslim leadership education in the United States and Canada.