Is Starving Themselves the Only Way Guantanamo Inmates Can Get Attention?


A recent New York Times article asserted that the number of hunger strikes in Guantanamo have surged in the last month, according to the Department of Defense. The number reached approximately 25 inmates starving themselves among the 166 detainees, many being force-fed nutritional supplements to stay alive.

While this may seem alarming, a hunger strike is nothing new in Guantanamo. In 2005 (amidst a controversy over an interrogator who flushed a Koran down the toilet) 131 of 500 prisoners went on strike. In 2007, 13 detainees of roughly 385 total detainees purportedly protested their treatment.

Despite their best efforts, the protests have made little headway. In this way, it is a major blow to the Obama administration’s foreign policy record. Shutting down Gitmo has been put in the back seat after Obama realized he was seriously "in over his head" at the beginning of his first days in office. The detainees have not given up on their strategy to elicit sympathy from the international community and support from the Islamic world, perhaps bolstering their case.

Apart from claims of deplorable conditions in Guantanamo, the widely held rationale for the hunger strikes comes from rumored desecration of Korans after an intensive search was ordered on February 6th by a relatively new officer in charge of camp operations. While the New York Times reports this as the "spark" that started the strike, the Washington Post confirms through Pentagon spokepersons that only cultural advisers who are specially trained are allowed to touch detainees’ Korans.

Back in 2007, one detainee, Majid al-Joudi stated, "If the policy does not change, you will see a big increase in fasting." The hunger strike in this sense is not a religious fast as an act of worship (for example, during the month of Ramadan one reason for fasting is to direct oneself away from worldy desires and a time of spiritual reflection), but a strike to provoke public feelings of guilt for their inhumane conditions.

So why strike now? Are the conditions the worse they have ever been? I doubt it. A second term is the best explanation. The hunger strike is no more than a gambit in hopes that the Obama administration will reopen the debate over shutting down Gitmo through public awareness now that he has a comfortable political mandate in his second term.