Melissa Smyth

"I said in my introduction that man is a yes. I will never stop reiterating that.
Yes to life. Yes to love. Yes to generosity.
But man is also a no.
No to scorn of man. No to degradation of man. No to exploitation of man. No to the butchery of what is most human in man: freedom."1
                                                                        - Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks

Britain has welcomed Shaker Aamer home like a long-lost son. The Telegraph published the first photographs of him walking in the street—smiling, it says, though his parted and slightly upturned lips could suggest anything from surprise to amusement to patient annoyance. All the same, paparazzi will be paparazzi. 

After fourteen years in US captivity, isolated, abused, and tortured, held without charge since 2002 at Guantánamo Bay and cleared for release since 2007, Aamer returned to his wife and four children in London last October. Well-wishers have cheered his homecoming, strangers have approached him in admiration, and media outlets have lapped up his easy, peaceful charm. 

Of course, there are also the trolls, eager to berate him, who insist on asking, what was he doing in Afghanistan anyway? The answer is actually important. 

Aamer went to Afghanistan in 2001 to work with a charity that builds schools for girls. In other words, he was doing the work most evident of saintliness in the western liberal psyche. But more significant is what drove him to leave London at all. He says he was uncomfortable in the UK, ostracized for his beard and his wife’s niqab, and wanted to live where he could feel like part of a community. When the British scorned him, Afghans embraced him as a brother. 

This is important to bear in mind when beholding the celebratory spectacle that has followed his release. Aamer makes it easy to like him, to appreciate his thoughtful speech, to look for light in the glint of his eyes behind his smart and modestly stylish glasses, to feel comforted by the balance between his full beard and casual ponytail, to smile when he throws his head back in laughter, to breathe a sigh of relief when he does not lash out in anger. To raise a fist when he suggests that jihadis should “get the hell out of Britain."

In the reductive delusion that the War on Terror has thrown upon the world, you are either With Us or Against Us, and it seems that, despite 14 years of the most ‘effective’ means of torture employed to force him to claim the latter, Shaker Aamer is With Us. He is happy to drink good coffee again, he seems well adjusted, and he says nothing so inflammatory that we can’t easily nod along in agreement. He dutifully sits for interviews, smiles for the camera. His grace assuages the conscience. Britain, given a second chance, embraces its newest Good Muslim.

But what does it mean to be Britain’s Good Muslim when hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise, having reportedly increased in frequency by 300% in the days following the November 13 Paris attacks? What happens to the clean dichotomy of right and wrong when the most common victims of these attacks are young Muslim women, the most common perpetrators young white men? Is it too obvious to point out that the West sent its young men to destabilize the Middle East, under the guise of a mission to save Muslim women?

The feel-good aura of Aamer’s homecoming echoes the narrative surrounding another unlikely hero from the quagmire of the War on Terror: Malala Yousafzai. Now 18, the Pakistani activist for women’s education gained international notoriety after she survived an assassination attempt by members of the Taliban. As their enemy, she was assumed to be With Us, her complex positions and engaging work swept up into the simplified narrative of the enlightened Oriental outlier, someone through whom the Western gaze can persist undiverted. 

This narrative appears most polished in Davis Guggenheim’s 2015 documentary He Named Me Malala, which, as Ayesha Siddiqi argues, extracts Malala’s heroism from Pakistan’s historical context of military and ideological interventions in service of a comfortable, depoliticized hagiography. “Neoliberal responses to tragedy preclude justice in favor of non-state icons of ‘goodness.’ And once branded to endorse values without controversy or actionable commitment… these figures can be deployed to safely verbalize an alliance with what is good, while presenting no disturbance to the conditions preventing that good, or their own biases.”

Shaker Aamer’s public persona is this newest icon of goodness, with gleeful accounts nearly titillating with the ironies—that his youngest son was born on the day he was transferred to Guantánamo—and the tender details—his bonding with birds, cats, and even ants in prison—of his story. Drawings represent the physical torture he has described countless times by now. Interviewers demand with imprudent curiosity that he describe his emotionally wrought reunion with his children, lead him to recall the psychological torture that suggested the rape of his then-five year old daughter, and, crucially, have him reiterate that he does not blame the British government or its people for his experience.

But despite all he has gone through, the celebration of his release, and the laudatory praise of his even temper, he remains a subject of scrutiny in front of the British public. Interviewing him for her BBC program, Victoria Derbyshire read each of the initial accusations made against him, asking him to yet again explain his innocence, expressing incredulity that he could have voluntarily gone to Afghanistan (implicitly, for reasons other than jihad), cutting off his eloquent assessments of the psychology of torture to press forward with the interview’s predetermined course. 

Aamer admitted to Derbyshire that, as he had before his interrogations at Guantánamo, he got diarrhea before meeting her. Though he apologetically clarified that she isn’t like his interrogators, the exchange reveals the persistent distrust and distain directed the Muslim subject, which so easily translates to the notorious practices of interrogation and ‘advanced interrogation’ in the context of a military prison. And like his interrogators, Derbyshire manipulated the conversation to her desired end—his confirmation of the oft-repeated assertion that US military prisons became the breeding grounds for Islamic radicalization.

Like Malala’s depoliticized characterization, Aamer’s appearances release some of the wound-up anxiety of guilt and complicity in the systems that have abused him. Siddiqi writes, “You don’t love Malala because you’re grateful she survived—you love her because she’s not angry… the star of this story isn’t an astoundingly gracious child—it’s the resounding relief of politicians and officials whose violent foreign policies aren’t indicted.” Though the perpetrators here are closer to home, pointing the finger at the individuals implicated, the torturers themselves, cuts through the tangle of imperial alliances and persistently egregious policy that created the conditions that facilitated his capture, detainment, and torture. A sigh of relief.

Knowing with certainty his own innocence, Aamer owes no apology or explanation to the public. It was British hostility that drove him away in the first place. Yet he continues to bear the weight of public suspicion and the triggering of his physiological responses to interrogation, for what?

Unlike much of the public, Aamer does not see himself as an abstract curiosity. He is a man who suffers severe physical and psychological effects of his treatment in prison, and struggles with the burden of making up for fourteen missed years of fatherhood. Likewise, those still detained at Guantánamo are not mere numbers or political bargaining chips to him, not the remaining dark marks on the US military’s image. They are men who continue to live every second of their lives in gross injustice. It is for them that Aamer continues to struggle. To him, Guantánamo is no postmodern allegory, but a place to which he says he would return if it might bring his brothers closer to freedom. 

Aamer is no museum piece, and Guantánamo no historical aberration. It remains a functioning prison, with 107 prisoners still detained, 86 cleared for release, 38 without charge, 7 years into a US presidency premised on promises to close it. 

Efforts to realize this promised end should be carefully attuned to the words of current and former prisoners like Aamer who continue to speak out. In 2005, during his third year at Guantánamo, Mohamedou Ould Slahi closed his memoir with a generously forgiving assessment of US practices in the War on Terror, but asked firmly, “has the American democracy passed the test it was subjected to with the 2001 terrorist attacks? I leave this judgment to the reader. As I am writing this, though, the United States and its people are still facing the dilemma of the Cuban detainees.”2

Slahi wrote those words more than ten years ago. Can we feel as good about his gentility knowing he remains locked in a cell in Guantánamo? A society can’t pass a test carried out on the wrong subjects, for reasons unrelated to the ones given and with malicious motives unconvincingly veiled by the rhetoric of democracy and humanism. But it can listen to the calls for justice coming from inside its prison cells. And then, what dilemma remains?

Neither Aamer nor Slahi was charged with any crime, and it seems unlikely that any genuine suspicion of their guilt could have lasted very far into their captivity. They were kept, tortured, experimented upon, for whom or what they might know, and for what they were made to represent to the brutish logic of the military industrial complex. 

In fact, in spite of the prevailing sense that Britain has triumphantly wrangled its innocent son free from the monstrous grasp of its devil-spawn, America, The Independent revealed in 2012 that the British government spent £274,345 against his case of innocence. Further, one of his lawyers, Clive Stafford Smith, identifies his activism as a potential motivation for his extended imprisonment: "because he is so eloquent and outspoken about the injustices of Guantánamo he is very definitely viewed as a threat by the US. Not in the sense of being an extremist but in the sense of being someone who can rather eloquently criticize the nightmare that happened there."

As he had in Guantánamo, where he organized hunger strikes and stood up for the rights of his fellow prisoners, Aamer continues to do just that. His advocacy is not for personal vindication, but for the advancement of justice. While he gives Britain the nonviolent character it so desires, he bends its ears towards their cases, towards the unfinished work. Even if it is guilt that compels, listen.

What empire and its propagandists prefer not to acknowledge publicly are the struggles that occur beneath its garish surfaces, where solidarity is a true principle and justice is not sacrificed for the mere appearance of goodness. Where a man values his brothers’ freedom more than his own comfort. Where we refuse to see our world divided into two camps. Shaker Aamer might be With Us, but he is for the wretched and the oppressed.  

So applaud his release not because it vindicates Britain, but because it means one less innocent man remains at the mercy of US extrajudicial injustice. Celebrate his family’s reunion not because the public has any right to glimpse his private life, but because something of love prevails for one who has been so brutalized to the brink of death. Admire his steadfast resolve not because he owes anything to anybody, but because he, after years of victimization, continues to make himself vulnerable for the sake of his brothers. 

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, translated by Charles Lam Markmann (Pluto Books, 2008), 173.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantánamo Diary, edited by Larry Siems (Little, Brown and Company, 2015), 371.

Melissa Smyth is an Associate Editor for Warscapes currently based in Hargeysa, Somaliland, where she teaches at Frantz Fanon University. She recently completed an MA in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is interested in the visual culture of violence, particularly as related to the war on terror in media. Twitter @perrykeetsmyth