The Fast’s Protest: California State Prisons’ and Guantanamo’s Hunger Strikes

For as long as I can remember, Ramadan has been an enchanted season whose arrival I eagerly and fondly anticipated. With the first news of the moon sighting ushering in the blessed month, a spiritual ebullience settles into my home. It is not the days of growling stomachs and dry throats we await, but the days of my family sitting around the table together at once, of everyone from the toddlers to the elders of my community swarming the mosque every night and for the uplifting and generous spirit that saturates every airy fast and every rousing night of communal prayer.

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 As a privileged Muslim living in first world, fasting has undoubtedly been a holistic experience- prompting me to improve my character and cultivate my connection with God. The month of Ramadan has thus served as an impetus for seeking benevolence, sincerity, patience and piety in my life. By emptying my stomach, I give myself an opportunity to cleanse my soul.

But you know all that already. Most Muslims enjoy Ramadan. We breeze through midday hunger pangs, we celebrate when we break our fast with ethnic fried foods every evening, and we spend the month reflecting on our faith, our place in the world and our aspirations for a blissful afterlife. It’s a lovely time of year for many Muslims, as photo collages of Ramadan around the world and autobiographical essays of what Muslims learn through fasting abound on social media outlets. It’s even sometimes described as “Muslim Christmas”. This isn’t to say fasting is a cake walk-this year, Ramadan has fallen in the dead of summer and Muslims across the world are facing scorching temperatures while fasting. In middle school I remember hiding the fact that I was fasting from my friends at lunch, not wanting to evoke any overly sympathetic awe or worse, any sad glances of pity. Today, as a germinating Muslim American identity is beginning to take shape however, fasting is seen less as a means of self affliction- finding its way to normalization as it’s increasingly swathed in celebration and marked by tranquility.

Generosity, communal worship and spiritual enrichment aside, fasting is still at the core or Ramadan. And the fast is a powerful universal symbol – one that connotes asceticism, self discipline and purification. As Ramadan becomes more commercialized however, the fast of Ramadan has also given birth to designer holiday chocolate and 7- star sumptuous iftars , accruing more festive attributes along the way. In our haste to celebrate Ramadan however, the universe has dealt us an all too poetic, but bracing reminder of how truly emblematic hunger is.

This year, Ramadan began in sync with a historic hunger strike at California state prisons, overlapped with an ongoing hunger strike at  Guantanamo Bay, and coincided with a hunger strike by Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons. Through the struggle of these prisoners, we have an allegoric return to the ascetic fast. By virtue of a symbol they so readily employ, Muslims are reminded that their brothers and sisters around the world are enduring grave hardship- and using hunger as a distress signal.

In Ramadan, my hunger is usually a means to a plentiful, flavorful end. For me, fasting is not enough to put me in the shoes of  those who are facing starvation, considering I always know there will be a warm plate waiting for me come nightfall. So I strive to fast from more than just food and drink, from vices I’m prone to.  My desire to be more charitable during Ramadan is borne out of a place of humility- the astute awareness that I rely on God for my provisions and am grateful for what He has blessed me with.  As the Prophet said, “It may be that a fasting person gets nothing from his fast except hunger.” I pray that I do not fall into that category.

This year, the quintessential Ramadan spirit has acquired new meaning- providing me with perspective by not those who are starving, but those who are opting to starve. On July 8, 30,000 inmates in California state prisons timed a hunger strike to coincide with Ramadan, protesting inhumane conditions including group punishment, inadequate meals, and most importantly abusive solitary confinement practices. More than ten days later, thousands of inmates remain on strike, facing potential disciplinary action, in an effort to force the administration to implement reforms. Many of these inmates are Muslim, most are not, but it behooves me to stand in solidarity with them in their struggle against the heinous transgressions they face. And in Israel, several Palestinian prisoners are continuing to strike against unlawful detention and abuse. As their health severely deteriorates, their crisis has garnered little attention in the international press. As a Muslim fasting in Ramadan, I believe that it is my duty to be attuned to not just those who are oppressed or in need, but those who are calling for justice,

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The California prisoners’ hunger strike comes in the wake of the harrowing predicament Guantanamo Bay detainees have found themselves in for months. 100 inmates have been on hunger strike for five months at Guantanamo Bay, being subjected to the utterly grotesque and torturous process of force feeding. The ongoing hunger strike has resulted in longer periods of isolation and  treatment like lab rats, leading many of the detainees to end their hunger strike last week, a few days into Ramadan. The decision to temporarily relent might have something to do with the fact that the detainees, all of them Muslim, didn’t want to break their fast with high nutrient goo through their noses. Breaking their fast with actual meals has afforded them temporary relief from isolated quarters, and they’ve been allowed limited access to pray communally, a crucial element of Ramadan that is elevating and restorative for Muslims. There has been more “peace” in Gitmo since Ramadan commenced, and though I share the unifying spirit of Ramadan with the men detained there, they are still breaking their fast in a strange place removed from their families while I enjoy a feast with my loved ones. The Guantanamo detainees gave up a five month long battle where they put their lives on the line to be able to worship with fellow inmates for a limited window during Ramadan, while I am able to attend services at a local mosque overflowing with congregants every night. Where they had used starvation to garner attention to their plight for five months, they now go hungry for their faith alone.

My Ramadan fast binds me to the historic struggle of the prisoners of California state prisons and the detainees at Guantanamo, but not because I am skipping lunch or because some share the same creed. Fasting has endowed me with an unshakeable awareness, nurtured my self-discipline, and allowed me to develop a capacity for change- providing me with the tools to advocate for a cause that I firmly believe in, because I am Muslim.  In Ramadan I go without food and water while the sun is out, and am fasting from things that don’t nourish my soul. In contrast, the prisoners  on strike are starving to get the world to acknowledge their plight, and to gain back their humanity that is being steadily robbed from them. This Ramadan, as I hope to break my fast from egotism, cowardice, and narrow mindedness, incarcerated people in Guantanamo, Israel and California hope to break their fast from unlawful detention, cruel treatment and an unjust system. I pray that the sun sets on all of our trials soon.

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  • About the autor
    Uzma Kolsy

    Uzma Kolsy is a freelance journalist who focuses on issues facing the Muslim American community. She also writes on domestic policy, minority rights, international politics, and popular culture. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, The Nation, and Foreign Policy among others. Follow her on twitter @ukolsy.

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