STRENGTH FROM WEAKNESS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUNGER

By Aoife O’Leary-McNiece
Staff Writer

Hunger Strikes are anomalous in that they are often acts of desperation, yet they usually yield great power to those going hungry. One need only look in the news of late and chart the growing momentum behind the group of inmates currently on hunger strike in Guantanamo Bay, or Maria Alyokhina in Russia, a member of the punk band “Pussy Riot” who has been jailed for two years for a breach of public order. Indeed, hunger strikes experienced a renaissance at the beginning of the 20th century and have accompanied many major conflicts in history since.

Charting the rise of the hunger strike from the Suffragettes of the early 20th century up to the Guantanamo Detainees is fascinating. The different strikes vary to a huge degree, reflecting the differences between the conflicts to which they relate. However, what they do have in common is the paradoxical empowerment of the strikers caused by physical weakness.

The history of protest fasting can be traced back to Celtic Ireland and Wales. Fasters would lie at the door step of the person they believed had done them wrong in some way; it was extremely shameful to have a person die, or starve at one’s doorstep due to the emphasis placed upon hospitality in these cultures. In ancient India, Dharma fasts were also practiced in order to protest injury and injustice. In both ancient societies, fasting was a powerful mechanism to rectify a personal injustice, and perhaps the strong tradition of hunger strikes in contemporary Irish and Indian culture may be traced back to these early roots.

That said, it is the English Suffragettes of the early 20th century who are popularly attributed with the modern revival of Hunger Strike as a form of political protest. In her book Hunger Sharman Apt Russell argues that the growth of hunger strikes in the 20th and 21st centuries may be attributed to the rise of popular media, such as newspapers and, more recently, the internet. The first strike lasted ninety-one hours and was undertaken by a woman who had been arrested for graffiti. She demanded to be treated as a political prisoner but was released soon after going on hunger strike. The practice soon spread to other suffragettes. The government’s problematic responses faced by this issue are strikingly similar to those currently faced by the US government.

Initially the women were force fed. Notably, Sylvia Pankhurst wrote about being force fed through a metal tube; one woman almost died after a tube was incorrectly inserted into her trachea and food was pumped into her lungs. This treatment led to one hundred doctors signing a letter to the Prime Minister condemning the force-feeding, one doctor advocating, “I consider forcible feeding by the method employed an act of brutality beyond common endurance.”

The House of Commons also discussed the possibility of allowing one hunger striker to die as a deterrent to others, however, they feared that this would simply have the opposite effect and turn the deceased into a martyr. Indeed, this is the case with many hunger strikes that took place later. The full effect of the suffragette hunger strikes was curtailed by the outbreak of the First World War, however, the news coverage, public interest and the government’s difficulty in handling the hunger strike is a harbinger of what followed later in the century.

Mahatma Ghandi, the iconic Indian leader who spearheaded the non-violent independence movement, also underwent political hunger fasting. However, his was of a different nature, having its origins in ancient India rather than Celtic Europe. Religious fasting was something Ghandi had grown up with and he underwent many private fasts in order to spiritually cleanse himself or others. His first public fast was during a worker’s textile strike in 1918. The fast was actually held against the workers, who he feared would resort to violence in their impatience for a successful outcome. However, the fast succeeded in putting pressure on the factory owners, despite Ghandi’s intentions, they made a deal with the workers within three days of his fast, leading to its completion.

Ghandi’s fasting was an extremely potent politically; he used it against the British government several times whilst in prison and was usually released as a result. However, what makes Ghandi’s brand of fasting unique was his use of it against his followers; he said himself that he used the fast “to reform those who loved me.” He held several Hindu-Muslim friendship fasts, attempting to peacefully wield his power as a means of obtaining religious and social equality in his country. As well as campaigning for friendship between Muslims and Hindus, Ghandi also fasted against the tiered nature of traditional Hinduism and the classing of people as “untouchable.” Ghandi’s fasting is somewhat unusual in that it was not out of desperation that he fasted but largely in an attempt to peacefully influence his followers or his antagonists. Nonetheless, his utilization of the hunger strike is an example of how one can utilize great power by physically disempowering oneself.

Religious fasting also has strong roots in Irish Catholicism; fasting during lent was common practice, as is fasting during pilgrimage and as a form of penance and self-sacrifice. As mentioned, hunger strikes also have roots in ancient Irish society. When one couples the tradition of the hunger strike with the idea of personal blood sacrifice held by some Irish Nationalists—a very different genre of hunger strike than Ghandi’s emerges. The first modern utilization of the Hunger Strike in Ireland was during the War of Independence against Britain in the 1920’s. Many members of Sinn Féin and the IRA were arrested and went on hunger strike; the most famous example being the Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney, who died in 1920 after not eating for seventy four days. He viewed his death as a sacrifice to the cause of Ireland, famously saying, “It is not those who inflict the most, but those who will suffer the most who will conquer.”

The militant nature of this quote is something Ghandi would have found unattractive, and the nature of MacSwiney’s hunger strike was undoubtedly different to the Indian leaders. MacSwiney’s death also revealed the House of Common’s concern over the potential deaths of suffragettes on hunger strike to be prophetic. He was made a martyr for the nationalist cause, and, furthermore, his death made the Irish conflict international news. Moreover, later hunger strikes were reported and followed all over Europe and the United States. This placed the pressure of public opinion upon the British government.

The tradition of hunger strike was propagated later in the century by republican paramilitaries during the period of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Ten hunger strikers died in all; they were protesting their right to be treated as political prisoners rather than criminals despite the fact that all men had been associated with the terrorist group the IRA and some had even admitted to planting bombs. The display began as a “dirty protest.” The prisoners refused to wear clothes and smeared faeces on the walls of their cells. They became known as “blanket men” because all they wore were the blankets they were given for bedding. These protestors also underwent force-feeding.

The strike was entirely different to Ghandi’s peaceful fasting against those he loved, rather it was seeped in hatred and fuelled the violence and antagonism under which Northern Ireland was struggling. Indeed, sixty one people were killed in sectarian violence during the 217 days of the protest. Hundreds of people attended the funeral of Parliament member, Bobby Sands, the first to die in hunger strike. Although the strike was eventually called off and the prisoners’ demands were not met, the strike caused a huge media stir and many republicans viewed it as a public relations success. To this day, the strike is an extremely contentious issue in Northern Ireland. Recent attempts to convert the Maze Prison—the location of the strike—into a museum have been met with protest in the fear that the area might turn into a place of pilgrimage for the republican paramilitaries who died there.

One could draw analogies between Guantanamo and the Maze, however, it would be unwise to do so. Both prisons are controversial and iconic but for different reasons. The Guantanamo strikers appear to have most in common with the suffragettes and Ghandi in that they have managed to place the government in an ethical strait jacket, whilst at the same time garnering international media attention. Guantanamo is an excellent example of hunger being wielded as a weapon by those who have nothing left to use but their own bodies. According to the report of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, hunger strikes were employed in Guantanamo intermittently before 2005, largely to protest disrespectful treatment of the Koran. The first major hunger strike took place in 2005, when two hundred prisoners refused to eat, protesting their living conditions, treatment at the hands of guards and indefinite detention. Since then, hunger strikes have been relatively common in Guantanamo. Some inmates have been striking on and off since 2007.

There are currently at lest one hundred hunger strikes currently protesting their imprisonment at Guantanamo. Eighty-six inmates have been cleared for release. The dilemma the hunger strikes present to the government is remarkably similar to those faced by the House of Commons in the beginning of the 20th century Force-feeding is practiced in Guantanamo, despite the fact that the World Medical association prohibits it as an act of torture. Indeed, Jeremy A. Lazarus, President of the AMA, wrote to the secretary of state protesting the force-feeding. President Obama has defended force feeding, saying “I don’t want these individuals to die.” However, Obama may also fear the public backlash should an inmate to die on hunger strike.

Although their contexts, aims and political agendas could not be more different, the Suffragettes of the 1910’s, different generations of Irish republicans, Ghandi, and the current inmates of Guantanamo Bay all demonstrate the political power one may yield by physically weakening oneself. Although we do not yet know what the fate of the current hunger strikers will be, the detainees have already experienced the success of gaining international media attention, putting pressure on the government and gaining popular support. Indeed, since its modern inception at the beginning of the century, the hunger strike as a means of protest has lost none of its potency or momentum. It is an example of the great power people can wield when they seem most powerless.

Thumbnail Photo by Aslan Media

Title Photo by Leonard Bently

Photo of Bobby Sands by PPCC Antifa

Photo of Ghandi by the second fiddle

BLOG: LOSER COUNTRIES YOU CAN MAKE FUN OF

By Nolan Weber
Senior Editor

Yep, the people of Iraq are so backward and unenlightened. Wait, that didn’t sound right, did it? I will put money down that all the trip wires of your social conscientiousness just felt a violent yanking sensation. So let me reform that previous statement: Southerners are so backward and unenlightened.

But why is that statement socially acceptable? By the same token, that dig could easily be swapped for the ubiquitous “In Mother Russia. . .” joke. This sort of double standard about which countries can be made the subject of humor bothers me like a drunken Irish man bothers the bartender.

Indeed, why has Western society seen this collective development? It makes sense that cultural jabs concerning Western Europe and the United States are commonplace. At this point in history, these are the winners—the reigning champions of the international struggle for monetary and military supremacy. As a consequence, it is like making fun of the Yankees or the Lakers; they win so much cracking a joke is mitigated by the obvious reality of their political dominance.

On the flipside, nations like Sierra Leone and Algeria cannot be made the subject of such jest. Formerly colonized countries such as these lost this round of history. For a citizen of the “first world” to make fun of a nation that has been the victim of imperialization would be adding insult to injury. To that end, I can see the moral appeal in decrying humor generated at the expense of a state in the Global South.

However, the fact Russians and Southerners can be the butt of almost any joke fails to make sense to me. Certainly from a comparative perspective, their country lost. Consider Russia for a moment.

At its highest point in history, the best title to which Russia could stake its name was a distant second to the world’s superpower. While the USSR may have had a comparable number of nuclear warheads, Russia suffered from such a great dearth of toilet paper the government had to strategically stock bathrooms when foreign envoys came to visit. To rub salt in the wound, the United States induced flash crony capitalism upon its economy—a practice that, no doubt, has aided the re-emergence of authoritarianism.

Think of the ebbs and flows of purges that riddle Russia’s history. Recall the gulags that devastated the social and political foundation of humanity. Without question, history has not been kind to Russia. Yet no one bats an eye when someone passes off a makeshift Yakov Smirnoff bit.

The South also serves as a conversational punching bag, yet, by all accounts, has suffered political ostracization and economic manipulation equal to any fallen challenger of the United States. Indeed, de facto banishment from the federal stage of politics for more than a hundred years coupled with Reconstruction efforts left to plantation-class whims, at least in part, doomed the South to social runt hood. How would you feel if the United States, after losing its War for Independence, still suffered constant social berating by England?

I bet you would not care for it. However, the South—in a supposed age of cultural relativism—gets beaten over the head constantly.

I stand legitimately perplexed by this issue. What is it about these two countries that makes them fodder for backhanded colloquial criticism? I am compelled to say they have reached a sort of minimum threshold of economic development so one does not feel like they are making fun of a homeless person. But I really have zero point of reference. Instead I ask you, the reader, for your thoughts. What is it about the South and Russia that makes them such easy, socially acceptable targets?

Image by World-Wide-Gifts.com

MOSCOW AND THE RADICALIZATION OF RUSSIAN ISLAM

By Giovanni Castaldo
Staff Writer

Following the tragedy of the Boston bombings, the media and international community are now turning their attention back to the North Caucasus. Well-known for being an haven of instability and upheaval, two particular republics of the Russian Federation started filling the headlines of the press after a period of relative neglect: Dagestan and Chechnya. Sharing poor economies, a continuous secular push to secede from Russia and a religious predominance of Islam, these regions epitomize the evolution that Islamism has endured in Russia throughout the last decade.

What does this development consist of? What are its causes? An understanding of this evolution has never been this relevant, considering the renewed pressures by the Russian government on the United States to reconsider its flirting with various separatist movements in the area. Indeed, a possible volte-face towards the previously sympathetic region has to be rapidly discouraged when confronted with an understanding of the recent regional developments along with Russia’s involvement the area.

Robert Crews of Stanford University argued that there is an historical model of Muslims as loyal citizens that can be traced back to the Tzars era. At the time, Islam was used as a way of securing the political allegiance of Muslim subjects and many Muslims became active participants of Russian political life. Today, instead, a new perspective that sees Russia’s Muslims as outsiders has slowly become more prevalent, originating from the growth of political Islam, or Islamism, as a new form of political activism.

In the past, Islam in Russia was a mixture of different regional forms of Sufism, or “popular Islam.” The traditional creed is still organized into two main communities: the Shafi’is in the North Caucasus and the Hanafis in the Volga-Urals Region. These two communities are divided into many brotherhoods, branches and spiritual leaders (the Shaykhs). While all these subdivisions are organized into Regional Boards of Muslims, religious life is very different among small neighboring groups. These very differences might have aided the introduction of a new idea of faith into Russia: “pure” Islam, or Islamic fundamentalism.

The Wahhabism, also called Salafism, found a land of economic and social unrest in the North Caucasus. Its revival of radical Islam found a consistent following in the region, even though it is still very unpopular and feared by the local population. During the past two decades, hundreds of imams and missionaries preached and challenged the local Russian Muslim traditions. Growing numbers of young students received Islamic education abroad; and after returning home, the old-fashioned spiritual leaders were not prepared for the confrontation on the “true” Islam that these neophytes demanded. As Alikber Alikberov, head of the Center for Central Asian, Caucasian and Volga-Urals Studies, suggests, the destructive process between the two generations and the two ways of envisioning faith and society has also spread to the Volga-Urals region. This phenomenon is not relegated solely to the North Caucasus, but it now encompasses the entirety of Russian Islam.

This major transformation of Russian Islam can be attributed to two main factors. On one side, the inability of the archaic forms of religious organization to meet the growing needs of the community. On the other, President Vladimir Putin’s political expediency and nearsightedness. The foremost symbol of Putin’s misbehavior regarding this issue is Chechnya.

Following the Khasavyurt Agreement, Moscow promised to provide political and economic assistance after the first Chechen war in order for the province to reach independence in 2001. Instead, the government instituted a blockade and rerouted a pipeline that was intended to run through the area. The goal was to further choke the Chechen economy and starve the region back into the Russian Federation.

Maskhadov, the Chechen President at the time, was then left alone facing the growing demands of the Wahhabi warlords. It came as no surprise when, in 1999, Maskhadov gave up to the warlords’ pressure. The Sharia law was applied for the first time in history on a Russian territory. The situation escalated when two warlords, Basayev and Kattab, attacked Dagestan. Moscow responded by declaring war on Chechnya rather than aligning with Maskhadov against the radicals. The contract soldiers that Moscow employed in the area committed murder, kidnapping and marauding, as the journalist Anna Politkovskaya witnessed, further aggravating the tensions in the area.

If on one side the government’s strategy can be credited for the radicalization of Russian Islam, its strong leadership has partly avoided the Arab Spring from knocking at its door. The lack of a well-educated youth and the resilience demonstrated by the central government do not match the conditions that favored the demise of the regimes in Egypt and Libya. Nevertheless, there are some elements connected to the Arab Spring that might have a direct impact on Russia in the future such as the involvement of the Circassians, a North-Caucasian population in Syria and Jordan, and the diaspora of North-Caucasians to the Middle East.

Alexey Malashenko, the co-Chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society and Security Program, claims that the recent “shariatization” of Russian Islam is the direct consequence of Moscow’s failure to address the economic problems of North Caucasus. In these regions the unemployment is around 13 to 15 percent. Moreover, terrorist attacks like the Beslan school hostage crisis, where 186 children were killed by a group of Islamic separatists, have further marginalized this area from the rest of the Russian Federation. “Caucasophobia,” is the term that refers to the growing fear that Russians have felt towards anything related to the North Caucasus and that the government has further propelled to choke the area’s separatism. In this context of economic stagnation and social isolation, Wahhabism showed the youth a light at the end of the tunnel.

Photo by Evstafiev