Skip to content

21 Years of Guantanamo Bay

How one of the world’s most inhumane prison proliferates Islamophobia

This January marks the 21st anniversary of the founding of Guantanamo Bay detention camp, an American military prison located within the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. The prison was intended as a permanent facility to consolidate and detain suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. Guantanamo Bay is globally known for its gross human rights violations, including the systematic use of torture, or what is euphemistically termed “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Over the course of 21 years, every American president (Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden) has either refused or been unable to close the prison. While Guantanamo Bay is principally recognized as an institution of unrelenting human rights violations, the prison facility has also served as an instrument for emboldening Islamophobia within the US. Initially built following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the camp has been used over the past 21 years to propagate the threat of terrorism and the “othering” of Muslim people. All of the 780 prisoners that have been held at Guantanamo Bay have been Muslim, and the discourse surrounding the necessity of possessing such a prison reinforces Islamophobic narratives deeply entrenched in the “War on Terror.” 

An us-versus-them narrative ran deep within the Bush administration’s opposition toward two Muslim-majority countries – Iran and Iraq – that were members of the so-called “Axis of Evil.”  Bush famously referred to the War on Terror as a “crusade,” framing it as a conflict between everyday Christians and Muslims as much as conflict between the US and a small number of terrorists. Characteristics like “civilized” and values like “freedom” and “liberty” were attributed to the US, while terrorist organizations were thought to maniacally wish to “impose the darkness of tyranny and terror upon the entire world.” 

Guantanamo Bay functions to house Muslim militants and suspected terrorists captured by US forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries. While the naval base is under US control, it is technically American territory that the country rents from the Cuban government. Its murky legal status means that individuals held there are not entitled to certain rights guaranteed under US law, including the right to a fair and speedy trial. Typical human rights values that are championed by the US – freedom from torture, the right to due process, the presumption of innocence – are disregarded in relation to terrorist suspects.

The creation of Guantanamo Bay heightened, and continues to perpetuate, Islamophobia in the US. While campaigning in 2016, Donald Trump vowed to keep the prison open and “load it up with some bad dudes.” Trump’s views on Guantanamo Bay are inextricably linked to his overt bigotry toward Muslim immigrants and his beliefs on terrorism that link religion to acts of terror. Similar to how Guantanamo Bay was an avenue for the Bush administration to convey its warmongering and muscular opposition to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the prison for Trump was also a tool that further allowed him to spread his unconcealed Islamophobia. Yet, the prison has and still does receive support from Democrats as well, demonstrating that Islamophobic and xenophobic ideologies cross party lines. While Obama attempted to close the prison by executive order in 2009, Senate opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike failed to finance the closure. Even today, despite Biden’s promise to close the prison, 35 men remain imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. 

Guantanamo Bay is an inhumane detention facility that never should have existed. Yet, 35 prisoners – ten of whom are still awaiting trial and three of whom are held indefinitely without trial – remain detained there. Experts from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have said that Guantanamo Bay stands as a symbol of the lack of accountability for the practice of torture, with an “unacceptable impunity” granted to those responsible. Further, both the Bush and Trump administrations’ use of Guantanamo Bay show us that there exists reasons in addition to the prison’s human rights violations for the facility to be shut down. The mere existence of Guantanamo Bay arms politicians with a potential tool that may be used to generate Islamophobia.

For our non-Muslim readers, it is important to educate oneself on how Islamophobic political dialogues may develop in the presence of oppressive institutions, in the US and beyond. Support organizations like Reprieve, Close Guantanamo, and Witness Against Torture, which fight to hold the US government responsible for the unlawful detention of the 780 prisoners that have been held at Guantanamo Bay. Add your name to the list of over 41,000 people in favour of shutting down the prison to demonstrate that the state-sponsored removal of human rights will never go unaccounted for. In Canada, anti-Muslim hate exists in laws like Bill 21. You can take action against institutionalized Islamophobia in Canada by, for instance, signing petitions that call on the Quebec government to oppose Bill 21. Support Canadian anti-Islamophobia organizations like the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, and McGill Against Bill 21.