When Life is Disposable: Muslim Bodies as Precarious in the War on Terror

February 1, 2016

(Photo: Justin Norman)

By Dr. Maha Hilal, Executive Director at National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms

“[W]hat counts as a livable life and a grievable death?”

(Judith Butler, 2004, p. xv)

The Muslim body in the so-called War on Terror has been treated as if it is without value and inconsequential. Muslim bodies have been detained, extradited, tortured, and unlawfully killed. Muslim lives have been drowned in a sea of policy and rhetoric that justifies the loss of lives as “collateral damage” in the name of protecting U.S. security.  Methods which would otherwise be considered brutal and inconsistent with the U.S. government claims to uphold democracy and human rights position Muslims as less than human, and in this way their lives and their deaths are treated as inconsequential.

According to some estimates, as many as 1.3 million Iraqis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis have died in the War on Terror. In polls that survey the American public about the use of torture, virtually none address torture as a human rights violation; they merely question whether torture tactics are “justified” or not. Dehumanization in the War on Terror legitimizes violence against Muslims. After all, human rights only apply to those recognized as belonging to the human family; for Muslim “others,” their subhuman status legitimizes the perpetration of violence against them.

This dehumanization of Muslims explains why 779 Muslim men have been imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay over the course of the last 14 years, many of whom were subjected to enforced disappearance, and arbitrary detention, and 91 continue to be indefinitely detained. It explains why, when President Obama speaks about closing Guantanamo Bay, he speaks not of the lives that were and continue to be destroyed, but of the policy rationales that only include fiscal and security reasons. It explains why released prisoners are often sent to third countries where they have no ties and essentially live unacknowledged lives marred by the stigma of the “terrorist” label and trauma resulting from years of detention and torture.

As Guantanamo enters its 15th year in operation, let’s acknowledge these 4 issues:

  1. It is impossible to discuss such policies without discussing the role of Islamophobia. Would a U.S. off-shore prison that completely and utterly disregards established human rights protections exist if it housed a different religious group? Islamophobia makes Guantanamo possible by leveraging cultural racism based on tropes that Muslims are uncivilized, dangerous, and ultimately categorically opposed to democracy.
  1. It’s also important to recognize that Guantanamo Bay will always live. The detention camp may close, but the lives of many men have been damaged in incalculable ways. This will not change even if the prison itself shuts down.  Guantanamo’s legacy will live on, with detrimental consequences even to those who have been freed.

10 years of Guantanamo - Close Guantanamo Now

  1. The reason to shut down the prison is not to “preserve the rule of law.” The rule of law has never fully functioned in U.S. governance. Thus, it is a fallacious claim to suggest the prison that is Guantanamo Bay is the only visible and overt obstruction of the rule of law. Indeed, the rule of law has been violated time and time again through the use of “targeted” air strikes and extrajudicial assassinations, among many others.
  1. Those who have been cleared for transfer need to be freed from Guantanamo. The U.S. government has used the excuse of third party countries being unwilling to resettle detainees and members of Congress have claimed to fear that detainees will be “recidivist.” In the case of the former, the US government must own up to its creation of the prison in the War on Terror and accept former prisoners within the United States. In the case of the latter, the US government must cede the use of this terminology that criminalizes Muslim prisoners preemptively and as the word is defined, is a return to crime. For those who have not been charged with any crimes and where evidence is essentially nonexistent (the vast majority of prisoners), how can they return to a life of crime? This rhetoric does nothing less than obfuscate the crimes of the US government.

In President Obama’s last year as president, it is imperative that he fulfills his promise to close Guantanamo Bay. This will not rectify the injustices that have been committed behind prison walls under the guise of security, nor will it restore the lives of those who languished and died in Guantanamo.  Closing Guantanamo will not end the War on Terror, but will hopefully be one small step forward: it will reignite the call for accountability; it may bring former prisoners some semblance of justice.

“Hardship is the only language that is used here. Anybody who is able to die will be able to achieve happiness for himself, he has no other hope except that.”  These heartbreaking words were written by Adnan Latif, a prisoner who committed suicide in Guantanamo. Closing the detention camp is President Obama’s responsibility, and time is running out for him to do it before he leaves office.

Take action – sign the global pledge to urge President Obama to close Guantanamo before he leaves office.

Butler, J. (2004). Precarious life: the power of mourning and violence. New York, NY: Verso Books.