President Obama’s swift move to shut down Guantánamo has drawn rapturous and unqualified praise across the globe, emphasising him as a catalyst for change. In his first week of office, the newly-elected President sought a 120-day suspension of legal proceedings involving detainees at the naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The disastrous foreign policies of the US have left it more isolated than ever. In 2004, George Bush blithely asserted: “We’re not an imperial power. We are a liberating power.” In an unprecedented and urgently needed move, it appears that President Obama is striving to match US rhetoric with reality.
US possession of Guantánamo Bay as a naval base was won as a result of the ignominious Platt Amendment of 1901 in which Cuba ceded Guantánamo to the US on open-ended terms. Although the Platt Amendment was subsequently abrogated, the US continues to retain Guantánamo Bay.
There were about 770 detainees incarcerated at the notorious prison camp as part of George Bush’s ‘War on Terror’. While most have been released, more than 200 are still held. Though the process of shutting down Guantánamo may be arduous and complex, the decision nevertheless signals a determination to halt the cruel injustices inflicted upon Guantánamo’s prisoners; offering hope and the prospect of peace for the future.
Sadly, Obama’s widely celebrated decision cannot undo the pain, damage and devastation endured by Guantánamo’s prisoners. Lives have been irrevocably shattered. Mohammad Saad is just one grim example of the horrors faced in the prison. Speaking recently to the Associated Foreign Press, Saad wept bitterly as he described the chilling torture tactics used on him despite his repeated protestations of innocence and his passing of a polygraph test. He was incarcerated for six years — now 31-years old, he walks with a limp and suffers from severe ear infections which have impaired his hearing. An Islamic scholar fluent in nine languages including English, Saad spoke of his utter despair during his years of imprisonment, “I went on hunger strikes three times. They said they would give me treatment if I cooperated. I was suffering. I was in terrible pain. There was an abject sense of humiliation. I wanted to end my life but I could not.”
In 2005, Time magazine published an article on an official log of interrogations of one Guantánamo detainee, Mohamed Al-Khatani. The dreadful cruelty he was subjected to included making him urinate on himself, bark like a dog and chaining him to the floor for 18 hours which were all noted with unflinching objectivity in the log book and after just 30 minutes Mr. Khatani was “beginning to understand the futility of his situation”.
In the past, dehumanising prisoners has made it easier to pretend that the US is working on behalf of humanity in the fight against the ‘War on Terror’. But as more released prisoners continue to share their harrowing accounts of torment, the horrific realisation that innocent lives and families have been destroyed will set in. This will only heighten the anger, frustration and alienation presently felt by a large swathe of Muslims.
Torture — including the tactics authorised at Guantánamo such as waterboarding, sensory deprivation and complete isolation — is gravely condemned under the Geneva Conventions as a war crime.
Treated neither as human beings nor potential citizens achieves nothing in the fight for the ‘War on Terror’. In fact, subjecting prisoners to systematic cruelty and humiliation as a means of extracting confessions and information will only embolden extremist elements and create avowed enemies.
As fresh accounts continue to emerge of the brutalities faced at Guantánamo, the Muslim world must strengthen its intellectual and economic capabilities to effectively counter the continued demonisation of Islam to suit imperialist agendas. So, rather than exact revenge for the horrific cruelties suffered, the Muslim world must craft an articulate political dialogue to respond to the vexed and embittered debate surrounding Islam and terrorism.
The issue of unjust imprisonment resonates in Islam, Christianity and Judaism as eloquently highlighted by renowned Islamic scholar Abdal Hakim Murad: “Muslims, Christians and Jews all remember one particular prisoner, wrongly accused in ancient times, who became a symbol of God’s power to deliver, and the victory of hope. That figure is the Prophet Joseph. He was thrown into a hole by his brothers; and later, in Egypt, was imprisoned again, on false charges of sexual harassment. Both, the Book of Genesis and the Koran, stress how his confidence in God’s justice and compassion helped him to bear the darkness of his cell.”
Abdal Hakim Murad points out the premium Islam places on the beauty of forgiveness: “Faith urges us to oppose cruelty, but it also has a voice, a poetic, more difficult, more troubling voice, which insists that we find ways in which justice can coexist with forgiveness.”