Dr. Maha Hilal is the Executive Director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, an organization dedicated to addressing civil and human rights abuses in the War on Terror by directly supporting prisoners and their families.
Since the onset of the War on Terror, Muslims have been targeted by counter-terrorism policies that presume that they are innocent until proven Muslim. Ranging from indefinite detention to torture and murder, the Muslim body has become callously disregarded by the U.S. Rather than rectifying any of the abuses that these individuals have faced, the United States has instead continued to respond with state violence that has lead to the creation of additional policies that are shrouded in secrecy so that Muslim lives are diminished and erased.
While Muslims are mistreated and criminalized by the policies of the War on Terror, they still turn to God every year and practice the holy month of Ramadan. For Muslims, Ramadan offers the community a time a time of spiritual reflection, closeness to God, and food with family and friends. Though the vast majority are able to enjoy this special month in freedom, other Muslims spend Ramadan in captivity. From Guantánamo Bay to Bagram to Terre Haute, Indiana, Muslim men face the additional burden of being in prison while trying to practice Islam and one of the bedrock practices: Ramadan.
Prison units vary and many, including Guantánamo Bay and the Communication Management Units (CMUs) within federal prisons, house a disproportionate number of Muslim men. Guantánamo is filled entirely with Muslim men. And the Center for Constitutional Rights estimates that up two-thirds of the population being held in Communication Management Units are Muslim. The CMUs were built quietly and secretly. Languishing in these prisons means having no physical contact with family members, limited phone time, and little to no contact with other prisoners.
As sunset approaches each day, families and friends gather around the table to enjoy a meal together. But for those with loved ones in prison, there is an empty chair that belongs to a prisoner held in captivity, who, rather than spending Ramadan with their family, spends the month—like all other months—alone, behind bars, in a cold empty cell. Imagine a Ramadan where you have little to no access to culturally relevant food and items and are permitted little if any communication with the outside world. This is not only devastating for the prisoners themselves, but also for the families who long to see their loved ones free. This is Ramadan in prison.
Though Ramadan is a time of remembrance, many of the Muslim prisoners are forgotten to anyone other than their families. Treated only as numbered casualties of the War on Terror, few organizations attempt to even contact these prisoners. Thus, not only are they forgotten by the outside world, they are even forgotten by those who might offer them help. Even Muslim organizations that work on civil and human rights have failed to include these prisoners in their advocacy work. None have tackled questions about abuse of prisoners and solitary confinement as torture. Prisoners in the Communication Management Units are effectively erased by numerous organizations, and receive little help in getting accountability for abuses, much less advocating for certain conditions during Ramadan.
In order to address the many forgotten prisoners post 9/11, the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF) emerged out of the need to support prisoners, and the families of prisoners, held because of the War on Terror. More specifically, the NCPCF exists to support prisoners who have become collateral damage of the national security state’s counter-terrorism policies that have criminalized many innocent Muslims. To this end, the NCPCF provides $100 commissary funds to over 150 prisoners that enables them to buy culturally specific items to remind them of Ramadan at home. The NCPCF also has a pen pal program to connect prisoners with the outside world, as a reminder that they are not forgotten.
Yasmina Khadra once wrote, “they can take everything you own- your property, your best years, all your joys, all your good works, everything down to your last shirt- but you'll always have your dreams, so you can reinvent your stolen world.” This is where the NCPCF comes in, to help prisoners reinvent their stolen worlds; to remind them of life on the outside; to remind them that they haven’t been forgotten; and most of all to remind them that we will continue to advocate for them until they are free.