Lessons still to be learned: Guantánamo in our minds

As the US and UK bomb Yemen on the 22nd anniversary of the opening of the Guantánamo Bay prison camp, Arzu reviews her thoughts from 2012 about the narratives of Islamophobia that facilitate this violence


Yesterday was the anniversary of the opening of Camp X-Ray, the notorious US prison camp and its successors now known colloquially, as Guantánamo.  Yesterday also saw the bombing of Yemen by the US and UK, in response to Yemen – under the Ansarallah leadership – preventing ships destined for Israel to navigate the Red Sea.  There are lines that lead from one to the other.  One is the line of demonisation, a negative that Muslims themselves are implicated in.  The other is of resistance – the line that goes from the symbolic humiliation to heroic resistance.

The second of my review pieces for 2024 looks at Guantánamo Bay and the notorious prison camp built by the US to incarcerate so-called enemy insurgents – their cherry pick of prisoners at the outset of the ‘war on terror’.  I wote ‘Guantánamo at 10: The rise and rise of US exceptionalism and the downfall of human rights’, when the camp had existed for a decade – ten years too many and already three years into an Obama administration that had promised to close it down.

In summary that piece took the examples of Shaker Aamer and Martyr Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan as a starting point to unpack the symbolism of Guantánamo.  That being the end of the idea of universal human rights and the US as the exemplar of those values.  I argued it was dead and that also by the brazen actions of the US in the so-called war on terror, no-one was under any illusions.  The piece makes connections between Aamer, then incarcerated in Guantánamo and Roshan who was martyred in Tehran by, it seems, Mossad agents.  That both are victims of the same regime shouldn’t have been in dispute, yet then and now.

Shaker was seen as deserving of torturous incarceration because he was an ‘enemy combatant’, Mohsin deserving of death because he was an ‘enemy scientist’.  Whether allegedly fighting against the US empire with arms, or actually progressing science in the service of humanity both are enemies of the US and the (part of the) world it leads.  Both these narratives work because of the Islamophobia that runs rampant in Westernised societies.  It is surely obvious, yet what has happened is that Muslims have continued to internalise both narratives.  The very narratives of Islamophobia that fuelled support or dampened critique of Guantánamo became the mainstay of supporters of factions in the Syria war.  Already raging many months in 2012, it has raged many years more, and Muslims worldwide have sought obliterative solutions in ways that exemplify not the Prophetic but the American way.

What have we learned since then?  We are all currently demanding a ceasefire in Palestine on the basis of the mass suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza.  We can’t escape the fact that when we supported a US / Israel backed insurgency in Syria, in the name of the rights of some of its people, we did so at any cost to all of its people, and more so to the Palestinians whose routes of support were disrupted.  We are silent and or wilfully blind to the fact that those supporting the Palestinians then and especially now are all those who sat on the ‘other’ side of that war, who were similarly maligned in the way that the detainees of Camp X-Ray, Abu Ghraib and Bagram were.  Because Shaker and Mostafa are the same enemy of the US, and should have been the joint cause for the rest of us to rally around.  That failure has cost an untold toll in lives lost, societies ruined and the infestation of the vilest of hatreds within the psyche of the so-called ummah.

Despite this, resistance based around the liberation of Palestinians has arisen – organised and unafraid to reject the US and its empire’s role in the region.  This has become the beacon for liberation for peoples around the world, whether Muslim or not.

Back in 2012, I wrote that Guantánamo will close one day.  And it will.  The fact that it hasn’t however – we need to concede – is because of the Guantanamisation of the Muslim mind in the meanwhile.

As it happens Shaker Aamer was freed.  As it happens more scientists, politicians and generals have been assassinated.  Those Muslims celebrating (yes celebrating) the fourth anniversary of the US assassination of General Soleimani cannot square the circle that Saleh al-Arouri assassinated on the eve of that day, by the Israelis, was a close allies of his.  The line from humiliation to heroism has happened despite the Muslim mindset.  If we are to have a truly ummatic future – not just for Muslims but the benefit of all, then understanding that something has been very wrong in this way of thinking is but the first of many lessons to be learned if we want the Guantánamo of our minds to close.


Arzu Merali is a writer and researcher based in London, UK.  She is one of the founders of Islamic Human Rights Commission and is currently one of the editors of The Long View.


Photo: Guantanamo Bay protest by Victoria Pickering CC2.0