Guantanamo Bay Detainees and the White House Iftar – Not in Our Name

By Tasnim Motala

Last night, more than 100 Muslims had iftar — or the traditional breaking of the fast — at the White House. This year, there was a concerted effort to boycott the iftaar due to the Obama administration’s policies of surveillance on high-profile Muslim Americans, unequivocal support for Israel despite mass atrocities in Gaza, the continued use of drones in Yemen and Pakistan, and the indefinite detention of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and Bagram,

Those who attended the controversial White House iftar justified their choices by describing it as necessary in order to engage the President on important issues affecting the Muslim community. As a Muslim woman who assists in representing over twenty detainees in Guantanamo Bay, I implore those who attended last night’s iftar, to not justify their decision to attend in my clients’ names.

Last night, nearly 150 Muslims (149 to be exact) had iftar at Guantanamo Bay. Their iftar was not as ceremonious. For many, this is their 11th Ramadan at Guantanamo. For 11 years, they have been deprived of the community, love and warmth that go hand in hand with Ramadan. Almost all of these men (139) have never been charged with a crime. The majority of them (78 to date) have been cleared for release. These men are on my mind and in my prayers this Ramadan.

While attendees at the White House iftar went through security, I hope they were reminded of the invasive and humiliating genital searches that men in Guantanamo Bay have to go through every time they wish to speak to their families or their lawyers. I hope they were grateful that while security to attend the iftar was tight, it was nothing compared to being frisked in the genitals and the buttocks, oftentimes in a manner that amounts to sexual assault.

While attendees enjoyed the finest food that the White House kitchen has to offer, I hope they thought about the hunger strikers in Guantanamo Bay who are forcibly extracted from their cells and prodded with painful force-feeding tubes at all hours of the day. I hope they thought about men like my client, Yasin Ismail, whose weight fluctuates around 100 pounds. Yasin has sustained severe injuries as a result of the force-feeding procedures. When I saw Yasin a few weeks ago, his body was skeletal and his arms and legs were bruised from the shackles of the force-feeding chair.

While attendees heard the President quote the Quran, I hope they were grateful that they could access their Qurans without any fear of reprisal. Most men in Guantanamo avoid owning or keeping Qurans in their cells because they fear that authorities will disrespect their holy book.

While attendees broke for the sunset prayer, I hope they kept the detainees who are prevented from the communal tarawih prayers in mind. Authorities in Guantanamo punish hunger strikers by preventing them from joining in the special Ramadan prayers that are a staple of this holy month.

I appreciate the White House’s gesture of reaching out to Muslim Americans during Ramadan. But the Obama administration has shown a complete disregard for the religious rights and practices of Muslims in Guantanamo Bay. While President Obama talked about celebrating one of the “great faiths,” the policies he defends in Guantanamo Bay fail to provide detainees the opportunity to meaningfully practice their religion. The disconnect between President Obama’s words and his policies show that while he partakes in the White House tradition of the annual iftar, the concerns of Muslims are not a real priority.

As a human rights activist and a Muslim, I find it deeply insulting that Muslim American leaders have described the White House iftar as an opportunity to meaningfully engage President Obama on issues such as Guantanamo Bay. Did anyone ask President Obama about Adnan Latif? Adnan was a spirited and beloved Yemeni detainee, who was cleared for release multiple times. He was found dead in his cell almost two years ago. There were no disciplinary hearings in response to his death.

Did anyone ask President Obama why Muslims attending the White House dinner could pray communally, but detainees in Guantanamo Bay are denied that right? Did anyone ask President Obama why his Justice Department has continually defended force-feeding, a procedure, which a D.C. Circuit judge described as  “a painful, humiliating and degrading process”? I haven’t talked to anyone who attended last night’s iftar, but I have a hunch the answer to these questions is no.

I also haven’t had a chance to talk to our clients about the White House iftar, but I know that they would view a dinner hosted by President Obama in celebration of Muslim Americans as cruelly ironic.  

Accountability doesn’t happen over chitchat and hors d’oeuvres at a state dinner. Petty photo opportunities and vapid small talk are not going to provide American Muslims with the political clout they so desperately seek. President Obama could close Guantanamo Bay tomorrow, if he had the moral and political will to do so. Yet, no amount of cajoling from the international community, human rights activists, and legal scholars have convinced our president to soldier past congressional histrionics and end this dark chapter in American history.

I stand with organizations such as the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee, which chose not to attend the iftar, declaring, “Political engagement is important and having a seat at the table is crucial —  but only when that seat is intended to amplify our voice as a community, not tokenize or subdue it.”

If President Obama wanted to genuinely engage the Muslim community on issues that affect us, he would meet with us away from the press cameras and at the negotiating table. Until he does so, I see no value in attending high publicity events, which celebrate the Muslim American community, whilst the administration silently condones the indefinite detention of 149 Muslim men in Guantanamo.

Tasnim Motala is a current student at Yale Law School. She serves as habeas counsel for approximately 20 detainees in Guantanamo Bay. She is a 2012 graduate of Yale College and also holds a masters degree from the University of Cape Town.  


  • Nadirah

    As salaamu alaikum, sister Tasnim, I agree with you 1,000 per cent. My heart aches for the suffering Muslims wherever they are. Obama has blood on his hands just like all the other previous presidents. May Allah protect us and have mercy on our souls. Amend.

    • Jeff

      Obama doesn’t have nearly as much blood on his hands as the murderous fanatics who’ve turned your ‘religion’ into the greatest disease on the planet. Funny how their bloody hands never seems to disturb you.

      • Nadirah

        In the name of the Most High. Jeff, you don’t know me and you don’t know what may disturb me. actually, I am quite disturbed by anyone who harms innocent people. throughout history there have been persons of varied backgrounds who have harmed innocent people even if their belief system has taught them otherwise. as for your comment about my religion being turned into the greatest disease on the planet, I assume, like most Americans you gather your opinions via the media. Islam is a faith and way of life of truth and logic and I don’t feel the need to defend it, as the truth can always defend itself, nor am I going to debate with you about the merits of Islam. The Almighty has already done that, however, I will challenge you to research the truth of Islam for yourself. don’t rely on fox news or your local newspaper. To get you started i’ll refer you to a Muslim scholar/educator who has studied extensively our religious text, the Holy Quran. challenge yourself and don’t make sweeping statements without proof about a subject that is so vast that most Muslims know that it can take a lifetime or longer to acquire the total essence of Islam. look on youtube for the many lectures by Nouman Ali Khan. try to keep an open mind. May the Almighty guide you to what is good. thank you

  • Shalla Khan

    Such a refreshing piece. Wish there were more like you. I pray for my brothers at Guantanamo and elsewhere to be reunited with their families. Inshallah. So proud of you Tasnim. May Allah SWT reward your hard work.

  • Zakaria Desai

    Alhumdulillah. Keep up your good work defending and contributing to the ummah!

  • ThingsThatMakeYouGoHmmmm

    Well done sister, a bunch of hypocrites ended up going to the white house for nothing but a photo op – perhaps a selfie to show in facebook to their friends back in the village they grew up in how great they are doing in the land of the ‘free’. Keep up the good fight.

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  • Moshe Rubinstein

    The individuals that participated in the made for publicity, White House Iftaar should be named and shamed. They do a disservice to your Muslim community and to humanity.

  • 4ever49

    Tasnim – your article strikes me as sophomoric at best.

    I am definitely not an Obama fan, but any American President is going to “have Islamic blood on his hands” in defense of the US. You complain about the treatment of terrorists locked up at Guantanamo who repeatedly return to fight again upon release. Americans have very little sympathy for them.

    You have to be aware of the ever widening chasm that exists between Islam and the non-Islamic world.

    Until the tenants of your “religion” can be changed in a way
    that is no longer threatening to kafirs and apostates I think you will be met
    with a broad from of resistance and push back. As long as the teachers of Islam
    promote hatred particularly towards Jews you can expect a very sharp response
    of opposition to virtually any position you may want to take.

    Am I optimistic that the above will happen – No. Muslims
    cannot even resist killing each other because of some archaic difference that
    created Sunni, Shia, Alawites, and Wahhabis etc.

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    • SimplePseudonym

      I liked the article and I am not a fan of this comment, but I want to expand on the use of the term “chasm.”

      Within the U.S.A. (and even around the world), there needs to be a greater demonstration of a chasm b/c the sane Muslim majority and the insane non-practicing-actual-Islam-but-claim-to-be-Muslim minority. I feel that the differences between the two parties are not emphasized enough, which has contributed in part to the rising anti-Islam sentiment. I’m sure there are a number of contributions on both sides (Muslims and non-Muslims) to that lack of clarification, but just would like to make that point as a suggested starting point for change.

      To Muslims, why protect and make excuses for these fanatics when their #1 target for destruction is Muslims? To non-Muslims, how can you frame these groups as Muslim when their #1 act of destruction is killing Muslims for their religious beliefs? The two groups are obviously not the same.

      • 4ever49

        Good point SimplePseudonym.

        The rest of the world waits to see if they can actually create a chasm – to date, as you are pointing out, they have failed to do so.

        Meanwhile, the rest of the world is justified resisting any Islamic incursion. It is not incumbent on us to draw distinctions Muslims cannot define for themselves.

  • 3palominos

    “If President Obama wanted to genuinely engage the Muslim community on issues that affect us, he would meet with us away from the press cameras and at the negotiating table….”

    Do you golf?

  • Space_Cowboy_1952

    Islam is never without its daily dose of toxic politics. Wherever one goes on the Internet there is always the preformed agenda of the Ummah. It’s never just about ‘religion’ per se, The Master Plan always pushes its head above the parapet to give the game away…