It is indeed a joyous time: the last American POW is finally home. Who can deny that the U.S. military has indeed fulfilled its promise that it will leave no man (or woman) behind? Sargent Bowe Bergdahl has hardly been released, however, when the magnificent, wonderful story of courage and patriotism was transformed into, in Jon Stewart’s words, a complicated, clouded, controversial story. He has been called a deserter, a traitor and a coward. It seems as if even our soldiers are not guaranteed our respect after risking their lives for our freedoms.
As a Muslim, should I care? As an American, I certainly should, because my hope is that every soldier comes home safely to his or her family. The problem is, of course, that controversy inevitably follows anything even remotely connected to Muslims today. In the case of Bergdahl, who remained for five years in Afghanistan in the custody of the Taliban, there are indeed a myriad of connections that make me uneasy, but perhaps for not all the same reasons as Republicans.
True, there is the issue of the five Taliban released from Guantanamo Bay in a prisoner exchange. Who knows what they will be up to after their release? For many, that’s a serious concern. It should be, because unconstitutional imprisonment and torture is bound to make people even angrier with the U.S. government. Who knows when or where we’ll meet those five again.
The bigger concern for me and many others is, however, that there are still so many innocent men in Guantanamo who could have been released instead of the five that were. According to Code Pink, 77 of the prisoners left at Gitmo out of the 149 are scheduled for release because they have not been proven guilty of any wrong doing in the thirteen years since 9/11. These men, too are POWs, and they too, have parents, wives, children, countrymen and women waiting for them to come home. If we can sympathize for one Sargent Bergdahl, surely we can find it in our hearts to send those 77 wretched souls home and free them from abuse, detention and the horror that is force feeding.
Bob Bergdahl, father of the POW said it best:
I don’t think anybody can relate to the prisoners in Guantánamo more than our family, because it’s the same thing. How could we have such a high standard of judicial process for horrible war criminals [during World War II] … and yet now we can go for 10-11 years without even having judicial process? It’s just wrong.
To many, Bob Bergdahl himself is a traitor, learning about the enemy in a way that many just don’t understand. The controversy surrounding him is almost as big as that surrounding his son Bowe. Yet that is all politics, and we must recognize it as such. Muslims are not evil, Islam is not evil, and understanding the enemy is not the same as being a traitor. Let’s focus on the real – humanitarian – issues, not the political ones.
Despite the controversy, despite the questions swirling around this prisoner exchange, let us try to get at least one thing right. Perhaps it’s the only thing that really matters more than a decade after 9/11. Let us end the misery of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and send back POWs wherever they came from. Let us right our wrongs, once and for all.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, editor of Interfaith Houston and trainer of American Muslim issues. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi.