I was born a prisoner in the United States of America. What was my crime? Being born Black.
I followed the combat boot prints of the Buffalo Soldiers, Harlem Hellfighters, and my father, as I enlisted in the United States Air Force. I was honorably discharged in 2005 for reasons that I was unaware of at the time: A USAF psychologist diagnosed me with clinical depression. I continue to struggle with depression. Over the years, I have found healthy ways to address my depression; I’ve also found Islam, which has helped me be patient and compassionate toward myself and others.
I am still healing from the emotional scars sustained during my time in the Air Force — and from the dehumanization that comes with being Black and Muslim in the United States of America. Despite serving to protect my country, my country continues to dehumanize me because of my race and my religion. This isn’t new: Throughout this country’s history, plantations, housing projects, prisons, internment camps, and ICE detention centers have been created to punish those the U.S. deems unhuman.
I joined the Air Force to change the United States from the inside. Also, I hoped white people would see me as honorable instead of a terrorist. Throughout the U.S. history, but especially after 9/11, Muslim people have been treated as subhuman. In 2002, President George W. Bush declared an indefinite “crusade” on “terrorism,” which in effect, amounted to a war on Islam. Bush established the Guantanamo Bay detention camp after the events of 9/11. The purpose of Guantanamo was to indefinitely hold people who had confirmed or suspected ties to Islamic terrorist organizations. Some prisoners, like Abdul Latif Nasser, who spent 19 years at Guantanamo, were held without ever being charged.
Muslim detainees at Guantanamo are “indefinite prisoners of war,” held on suspicion of crimes they may or may not have committed. It would be easy to believe that Guantanamo is unique in regards to how it treats those the United States has deemed its enemies. But in reality, Guantanamo is an extension of the U.S. prison system. Black people are also “political prisoners of war” as they are subjected to police brutality and harsh prison sentences due to Blackness being conflated with criminality.
In the United States, Islam is not only conflated with criminality but also terrorism. One’s faith being associated with terrorism can lead to isolation — not just metaphorically, but literally. Guantanamo is a “single cell operation” facility that holds an unknown number of its prisoners in solitary confinement. The U.S. pioneered the technique of solitary confinement, which continues to be used in prisons all across the U.S., despite it being ineffective and racially biased. This technique of isolation is used to exert power over incarcerated individuals, erasing their sense of self. Even for those who are eventually released back into society, the trauma of isolation can have a permanent impact.
President Joe Biden has said he intends to close Guantanamo eventually. Whether Biden has agreed to do this because he understands the trauma the prisoners have endured or because he believes it to be politically advantageous is unclear. Ultimately, Biden should be motivated to close Guantanamo immediately for one major reason: his faith. As a Catholic, Biden should heed Pope Francis’s desire that the United States find an “adequate humanitarian solution” to holding people indefinitely. Holding people indefinitely, confining them to a single cell, is torturous. Francis warns that torture “is a mortal sin.”
I am a Muslim, but because I was raised Christian, I believe both the Quran and the Bible should be used to fight against evil and injustice, respective of one religion or belief. Two verses come to mind when thinking about why Guantanamo should be closed and how its closure would impact the larger fight for justice in the United States.
The first verse is from the book of Isaiah where the prophet writes that God wants us to, “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
The second passage is found in Surah, Al-Nisa, ayah 135. This passage reads, “Oh ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be against rich or poor: for Allah best protects both. Follow not the lusts of the hearts, lest ye swerve, and if ye distort just or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.”
In these passages, God not only commands people to protect the vulnerable but is also said to embody perfect justice. To ignore the warning of these passages results in people being alienated from each other and from God. In keeping Guantanamo open, we alienate ourselves from one another and from God.
Like James Baldwin, I am criticizing the United States because I love this country, my community, and God. It is because of this that I am morally obligated to advocate for the people being held at Guantanamo. My patriotism cannot erase the wrongs committed by the United States. For those of us who are U.S. citizens or former service members, we have a moral obligation to ourselves and to others to demand the closure of Guantanamo. Instead of demonizing and dehumanizing people, we should learn to live into God’s desire that we defend the exploited and the destitute.