When Muslim Humanity is Subjective: Guantanamo Bay and the Legacy of Institutionalized Islamophobia

“I am happy to express from this darkness and draw a true picture of the condition in which I exist. I am moving towards a dark cave and a dark life in the shadow of a dark prison. This is a prison that does not know humanity, and does not know [anything] except the language of power, oppression and humiliation for whoever enters it. It does not differentiate between a criminal and the innocent, and between the right of the sick or the elderly who is weak and is unable to bear and a man who is still bearing all this from the prison administration that is evil in mercy... I am in need of a person who blindfolds his eyes from me [looks the other way] and leaves me in my freedom so that I can choose my end. With all my pains, I say goodbye to you and the cry of death should be enough for you.”

These words come from a letter that former Guantanamo Bay prisoner, Adnan Latif, wrote to his lawyer prior to allegedly committing suicide in 2012. Latif, known as prisoner #156 had been detained since 2002 and was cleared for release 4 times.

Since its opening on January 11th, 2002 Guantanamo Bay prison has been used to house war on terror prisoners. Despite the fact that former President Obama repeatedly stated that he would close Guantanamo Bay prison, it remains open and now President Trump has threatened to fill it with some “bad dudes.”

At present, 41 prisoners remain locked up behind prison walls, 5 of whom have been cleared for release, 26 who are being held indefinitely and without charge, 7 of whom have been charged in the farcical apparatus of justice of the military commissions, and 3 who have been convicted by the military commissions. The prisoners who remain and those who have been released (738 prisoners) have one thing in common: they are all Muslim. Every single one of them.

This is because Guantanamo Bay exists as one of the most egregious manifestations of institutionalized Islamophobia - a unique system of oppression of Muslims that is deeply embedded into the laws and policies of the post 9/11 era.

This means that prisoners have not only been held for years without charge or trial, but that they have also been subjected to torture - torture in the cruelest form. It was under President Bush that the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture became obsolete such that in order for abuse to rise to the level of torture as the infamous torture memos argued, it had to be “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” But bear in mind, that this type of treatment was designated especially for Muslims -and legitimized by institutionalized Islamophobia which sanctions this abuse on the basis of Muslims as dehumanized others.

While the vast majority of prisoners are innocent of any crimes, the stigma of the terrorist label has not only impacts the level of support that they receive behind prison walls, but it also leaves a lasting mark on their ability to readjust to life post-release. Couched in the dominant discourse of Islam and Muslims as barbaric, uncivilized, and inherently predisposed to violence and terrorism, we can only imagine how former prisoners bear the weight of this narrative in their efforts to rebuild their lives. For example, former prisoner, Airat Vakhitov said, "I consider the biggest humiliation I have suffered [to be] the stigma that the Americans gave to me. The life-long brand of terrorist, extremist, which I received in Guantánamo has stayed with me since being extradited to Russia." Another former prisoner, Hussein al-Merfedy stated that “We thought we would be free when we left Guantánamo,” he says. “Instead, we went from the small Guantánamo to here—a bigger Guantánamo.” Clearly, the terror and trauma continues to haunt these Muslim men and there will probably be little - if anything that will help them truly heal, especially in the global climate that is has become so invested in a never-ending War on Terror that never takes into account, the terror that Muslims have experienced as a result.

Guantanamo Bay has seemingly faded from the limelight - appearing only casually in the context of recidivism debates that not only obscure the legacy of Guantanamo, but which present Muslim responses to serious victimization and abuse as uniquely violent. But this is Islamophobia - institutionalized Islamophobia that constructs the unrelenting Muslim threat in order to justify treatments ranging from discrimination, to detention, to torture, and even death.

In June of 1987, the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT for short) entered into force. Since then, June 26th has been designated as International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. For many survivors, June is a month to celebrate their resilience and healing. However, there are many others who remained detained and who continue to suffer from serious and protracted trauma - 41 of whom remain in Guantanamo Bay prison. To highlight the stories of these men, Witness Against Torture launched a campaign on the eve of Ramadan on May 26th with the hashtags #ForeverHumanBeings #41MenAt Gitmo. It is important to remember these men, not just because of the stories they represent, but because of what this prison has come to stand for: institutionalized Islamophobia in the War on Terror. Dismantling this system of oppression can start by closing this prison once and for all and providing Muslim prisoners the opportunity for justice, because justice delayed is justice denied.

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