Over 100,000 mourners attended the funeral of IRA hunger striker Bobby SandsOver 100,000 mourners attended the funeral of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands

If the time ever comes when we have absolutely no avenue to fight for our most basic rights, how many of us would choose food over freedom?

What does a man desire most? Money, status, power, honour, recognition?  A slick car that turns heads? Beautiful women?

Food….Man desires bland, tasteless, unappetizing and simple food – when he’s starving that is.

If a Muslim man wants to have sexual relations with a woman he is required to get married. If he’s unable to afford doing so he is encouraged to fast because abstaining from food helps to kill the basest desires.

 “Put a man who hasn’t eaten for a few days in a room with the most beautiful woman in the world and a plate of old food and see which one he takes a piece of first.” Such is the nature of hunger in the words of Malcolm X who said of his own tormented Michigan childhood: “we were so hungry we were dizzy and we had nowhere to turn.”

But the fiery Muslim civil rights activist, who eventually paid the ultimate price for his beliefs, also gained a valuable lesson taught by profound hunger:  “I learned early that crying out in protest could accomplish things…. that if you want something, you had better make some noise.” Malcolm’s “protest” and “noise” was so loud that the world still hears it nearly fifty years on.


Religious and medical reasons

Voluntarily abstaining from food and or drink for extended periods isn’t something people generally practice en masse these days – at least not in the western world. Certainly there are people who sporadically fast for medical and health-related reasons to prevent diseases like diabetes and cancer or to reduce cholesterol and body weight; ofcourse we all essentially fast every night only to have ‘breakfast’ in the morning. But doing it for religious reasons requires  a certain kind of self-discipline.

 Systematic abstinence from food and drink for religious purification is an integral practice within Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu communities, while fasting from dawn to dusk during the lunar month of Ramadan is the third requisite pillar of Islam and is a highly recommended voluntary action at other times.

Refusing to eat for a cause however or for political purposes requires something more than just the desire – worthy as such qualities may be – to obtain religious purification or self-discipline alone. It requires determination to continue past one’s most base needs, past one’s limits and ultimately being prepared to die as a result. 


Hunger strike history

Hunger protests or – hunger strikes – can be traced back to antiquity and are mentioned in ancient Hindu texts as a form of protest against injustice.  One of the most notable hunger strikes in modern history was carried out by Mahatma Gandhi as part of his passive resistance campaign to obtain independence from British rule in India and as a protest against the oppression of the poorer classes.

In Europe, hunger strikes were first employed as a method of non-violent protest in pre-Christian Ireland. The hunger striker –who traditionally refuses solid food intake but will take liquids –laid himself at the door of the person from whom he was seeking redress or pardon, and remained there in order to arouse feelings of guilt against the acceptable norms of hospitality of the day. The Irish patron St. Patrick is said to have resorted to a hunger strike – at least in legend.

In relatively modern times, Irish republicans imprisoned by the British began hunger striking in 1917 in order to obtain prisoner of war status. Twelve of them subsequently died that year, some as a result of being force-fed.

During the more recent ‘Irish Troubles’ republican prisoner Bobby Sands led a series of highly politicised hunger strikes protesting against the internment, status, conditions and treatment of IRA (Irish Republican Army) prisoners. This resulted in the death of ten men, including Sands.

Despite being described as a triumph by the British press for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had consistently refused to negotiate with the IRA despite Sands being elected to the British Parliament as an MP just months before, her victory was short-lived. Over 100,000 people attended Bobby Sands’ funeral. The British government was widely criticised internationally and IRA recruitment grew significantly. Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA officially became a political party as a consequence of the hunger strikes. Its leader, Gerry Adams stated: "His [Sands] victory exposed the lie that the hunger strikers—and by extension the IRA and the whole republican movement—had no popular support". Sinn Féin went on to become one of the largest political parties in the North of Ireland and shares governing power in Stormont.



Arguably the most consistent and renown hunger strike in history is the one currently taking place by the Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay who have been hunger striking since February 2013. Hunger strikes in Guantánamo began from the outset in 2002 and have been resorted to intermittently since then. US authorities holding the men – almost all of them without charge or trial – have resorted to various methods in order to break the hunger strike, most notably through force-feeding. The technique, which is applied twice a day, is described by US authorities as ‘enteral’ and not ‘force’-feeding.  The prisoner is strapped to a chair to which his hands and legs are shackled while his head is bound by a restraint. A rubber tube is then inserted into one of his nostrils and pushed through the throat and into the stomach after which liquid food is ingested. If the prisoner vomits the process is repeated.

Over the course of the last six months 115 of the 166 prisoners in Guantánamo have been on hunger strike. Around 46 of them were being fed ‘enterally’. As a ‘mark of respect’ for Islamic tradition the US military is only force-feeding prisoners during darkness hours in Ramadan.

The Guantánamo prisoners are protesting against abuses which include : desecration of the Quran; the use of chemical sprays and rubber bullets; humiliating strip searches before and after legal visits; interference in privileged legal communications; physical and sexual assaults; extended periods in total isolation and lack of meaningful communication with family. Their greatest reason for the protest however is the most understandable one: detention without charge for almost twelve years with no foreseeable end in sight.

This is what hunger does to the body: in the first three days the body uses up glucose reserves.  Then, the liver starts utilising stores of body fat.  After three weeks the body goes into “starvation mode” and begins to excavate energy from the muscles and vital organs. Bone marrow loss then becomes life-threatening. Death can occur in a matter of weeks. The Irish hunger strikers’ deaths took place from between 52 to 74 days of the strike.

Islam forbids self-harm in numerous Quranic verses and Prophetic sayings. In fact, although the eating of swine is strictly prohibited for Muslims it becomes permissible (some would argue obligatory) in order to prevent death from starvation. Islam also puts great emphasis on feeding the poor, orphans and captives. All the prisoners in Guantánamo are observant Muslims. Hence, there has been some contention amongst them as to the permissibility of taking part in something that quite clearly harms the body.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of prisoners are either taking part in the protest or support those who are shows that there is a great deal of support for hunger striking. Put simply, there is no other way to escape the injustice. It’s not a question of impatience either: they have held out for almost twelve years without the most basic rights and privileges that are afforded to ordinary convicted criminals in ‘normal’ prisons. In the minds of most Muslims, not least the hunger strikers, it is the Islamic concept of the fight for justice through acts of necessity that allows them to hunger strike. They are quite literally starving for justice. And they are not alone.


Starving in solidarity

The sister of Canadian former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Khadr embarked on an 18-day hunger strike in 2008 to protest the protracted incarceration of her brother who was taken to Guantánamo as a child. In 2012 he was repatriated to Canada where he remains in prison.

The stand-fast-for-justice campaign was recently launched by the charity Reprieve which legally represents around thirty of the Guantánamo prisoners. In an act of solidarity with the men hundreds of people around the world are fasting for as long as they can in order to highlight the plight of the prisoners. Among them are British celebrities, Frankie Boyle and Julie Christie.

Senior CagePrisonersstaff have also joined the campaign during the last ten nights of Ramadan when Muslims not only fast all day but pray all night.  They are doing it to feel a sense of commonality with the prisoners while learning a great personal lesson in the process. Asim Qureshi mentions one of his inspirations is the second Muslim Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab who during a major famine in his land refused to eat all except the most basic food in solidarity with his starving population. During his abstinence the Caliph would respond to the pangs of hunger: “O stomach you may rumble as much as you like, but as long as the famine persists I cannot allow you anything dainty.” 

Of course it would be incorrect to say that only Muslim prisoners in Guantánamo have a reason to hunger strike.


Beyond Guantánamo

Palestinian hunger striker Khader Adnan, dubbed ‘the West Bank’s Bobby Sands’ ended his 66-day hunger strike after being held in an Israeli prison under the ‘administrative detention’ practice by which hundreds of Arab suspects have been detained without charge in the Jewish state on secret evidence. Adnan’s was the longest hunger strike ever mounted by a Palestinian prisoner. His campaign motto was: “My honour is more valuable than food.” He was released in 2012.

The California prisons hunger strike prison began last month with over 30,000 prisoners around the state taking part. Solitary Housing Unit (SHU) detainees launched a massive hunger strike to protest prison conditions in America’s ‘Golden State’. Among their demands is an end to collective punishments, an end to long-term solitary confinement (some prisoners have spent in excess of 25 years in isolation) and the provision of adequate food. One prisoner has already died.

Ali Aarrass is a Moroccan-Belgian national who was first arrested by Spanish police in 2006. He was cleared of any wrongdoing but was rearrested and deported to Morocco on the same charges. There, he was kept in secret detention and tortured. He was handed a 15-year sentence based on evidence obtained through torture. Last month he began a hunger and thirst strike to protest his treatment by prison authorities. As a result of refusing both food and water Ali Arrass’ condition is now critical.

Another is the Shawki Omar Ahmad, a Jordanian-American imprisoned in Iraq since 2004. Ahmad, despite legally entering Iraq for business purposes, was apprehended by US forces and held in secret prisons – including the notorious Abu Ghraib – for eight years without charge. He was severely tortured with the use of electricity and beaten after which he was handed over to Iraqi custody where he was charged with falsely entering the country and received a 7-year prison sentence. Ahmad has been on hunger strike for five months protesting his sentence and housing inside a metal holding cell. Consequently, his condition has substantially deteriorated.

The hunger strike is a tool that few of us will ever feel the need to use. We live in societies where, generally, some kind of system is available to obtain justice – eventually. But if the time ever comes when we have absolutely no avenue at all to fight for our most basic rights to liberty, humane treatment and living conditions except by refusing to eat, how many of us would choose food over freedom?

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)