“The can take everything you own- your property, your best years, all your joys, all your good works, everything down to your last shirt- but you’ll always have your dreams, so you can reinvent your stolen world.”
This quote by Habib Souaidia (who used the pen name Yasmina Khadra), reminds me of the lives of the many men who have languished in the depths and hell of Guantanamo Bay. I think of these men often, how much they must be suffering, how they long to see the outside world, how they wish to restore a life of semi-normalcy, and whether they will ever be able to put life in Guantanamo Bay behind them. But day after day, year after year, the possibility of freedom has become a distant and seemingly intangible dream. Nonetheless, individuals around the world have continued to advocate for these individuals, pleading with a sense of moral urgency that the detention of these men must end. However, this piece isn’t about those who continue to work tirelessly for the freedom of others, this piece is a reflection on the apathy, the silence, and the idleness of those who stand by as injustice is perpetrated daily. This piece is about making sense of how individuals can be so desensitized to the struggles and oppression of others, and how we might change things to see ourselves in others, so that there humanity is our humanity, their lives are no more a consequence of their bad luck, then ours are of our good luck, that they like us, deserve a chance, and more than anything else, that what separates us from each other, is a matter of chance.
I decided to write this piece after spending labor day weekend at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual conference. My friend Darakshan and I, spent our conference weekend staffing an Amnesty International booth in the exhibition hall hoping, perhaps too idealistically, that we would be able to raise awareness of the implications of the “War on Terror,” which includes various measures such as indefinite detention, extrajudicial killings, the use of drones, and the now infamous Guantanamo Bay prison, which is said to house “suspected” terrorists (164 prisoners now remain in Guantanamo, 86 have been cleared for released, and the remaining prisoners have been subject to detention without charge). We anticipated some push back from our Muslim audience as we know such issues often arouse fear in the Muslim community because of punitive measures that have subjected Muslims to increased surveillance, racial profiling, and detention. However, what we didn’t anticipate was an almost complete lack of concern on behalf of all these individuals who have been causalities of American policies, policies that continue to perpetuate ideas of collective responsibility, guilt by association, and the presumption of guilt until proven innocent.
Hour after hour, we watched as people walked by and either ignored our booth or gave us a second glance, but continued to move on. Very few people stopped to engage with us, and even fewer signed our petitions aimed at ending indefinite detention, drones, and extrajudicial killings. Some people asked, “is this going to the White House,?” while others simply declined saying that they “had to be careful about what they signed.” Though this piece may be thought of as passing judgment on others, I still can’t help but wonder how this experience would have been different if people saw themselves in these people who we were advocating for. What if they thought for a minute that this could happen to them? Would anything change? How would they feel if others declined to protect them in their most desperate times, instead choosing to protect themselves? Would anything change if these individuals had made such realizations? Martin Luther King is quoted as saying “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” but is this true? Do we really feel that injustice perpetrated against others makes us less likely to be recipients of justice? If we did, would we not feel more compelled to lessen the injustice and oppression in the world? Further, how do make sense of King’s notion that “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”? While some may be able to comprehend the depth of this statement, do most of us really believe that others’ suffering will affect us?
Bringing this piece back to Guantanamo Bay and the annual ISNA convention, seeking to raise more awareness and engage people in some of the key issues that have so deeply affected the Muslim community in the United States as well as in countries all over the world, I decided to wear an orange jumpsuit with a piece of orange tape on my mouth to convey the egregiousness of detention at Guantanamo and the mask of silence that has pervaded coverage of this issue. After slipping into the jumpsuit, I sat in front of one of the signs and while more people stopped to engage thereafter, I was still met with significant apathy and a blind eye. Later in the day, as I walked around the exhibition hall in the jumpsuit, I was again met with silence, disinterest, and sometimes even disgust. Why I kept asking myself, where these individuals choosing to so actively disengage? Was buying the latest style of abayas or scarves more important to listening to the story of a prisoner who had been so deeply hurt and accosted? This experience, though not about me, affected me greatly as I put myself in the shoes of the prisoners, thinking that if I wasn’t even on the radar of these individuals, how could they even forget me? In other words, forgetting me would be better than never having known my story in the first place.
The second day of the conference, my friend Ramah and I both decided to wear jumpsuits and kneel in the entrance to the exhibition hall. Several people stopped to observe us and many took photos, but few stopped to ask us why we were doing what we were doing (and let’s be clear, a photo opp was not the reason). The fact that we seemingly penetrated the environment so seamlessly despite wearing bright orange jumpsuits was a clear indicator of just how distanced our community is from wanting to deal with the reality that Muslims have and continue to be targeted for negative differential treatment by the U.S. government.
Hoping we could get someone at the conference to acknowledge this very important issue, Ramah and I went to the main session. Standing as close to the stage as we could, I stood with the orange jumpsuit while Ramah kneeled on the ground. Out of four speakers, only one addressed the issue of Guantanamo Bay and it was done in such a cursory manner, that silencing or removing us seemed to be the ultimate goal.
Perhaps things will change in the future and the Muslim community will wake up and recognize that members of our community are suffering. Many of us are American citizens, however, this does not preclude us from being active advocates of social justice-in fact our obligation to our Muslim AND American communities demand this of us. As Muslims, we have a responsibility to address injustice wherever and whenever it occurs, not only when it’s convenient. If our religion teaches us anything, this is it.