The position of the United States government on the issue of negotiating with terrorists such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is clear.
Unlike other governments, the U.S. and Great Britain have refused to pay a ransom to bring about the release of American and British hostages. This stance, however, has not stopped these governments from seeking the release of hostages, nor has this official governmental stance prohibited the families of these hostages from using every channel possible to coax Islamic State group militants to release those detained.
What seems certain is that Westerners held by the Islamic State group were taken hostage solely because of their nationality. The hostages are not military personnel or intelligence officers, but rather journalists or humanitarian aid workers captured in the Syrian civil war.
The appeal from our government and families for the release of these innocent hostages has garnered support from around the world, including Muslim countries. This is not the whole picture, however. In decrying the treatment Western hostages by the Islamic State group, we have forgotten how similar is the disgust and outcry among many in the world, Muslim and non-Muslim, for the confinement and torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other secret locations. There are certainly dangerous terrorists held in these facilities.
There is clear evidence, however, that innocent persons are being detained at Guantanamo. Some of these detainees might have been turned over to Coalition forces for the bounty money offered. Others might have been turned in as part of one tribal group settling a score with another tribal group.
The American Civil Liberties Union in November provided these figures: 148 persons are currently being detained at Guantanamo; 79 of these have been cleared for release but are still imprisoned; and 36 are imprisoned with insufficient evidence to prosecute, but considered too dangerous to release.
Careful observers have noted from Internet videos of the Islamic State’s hostages that these prisoners are commonly dressed in the same style and color uniform (bright orange) as
prisoners wear at Guantanamo. There is also evidence that the Islamic State group justifies waterboarding by referring to treatment of detainees held at Guantanamo and elsewhere.
What seems undeniable is that the Islamic State group’s treatment of hostages mirrors the treatment of those held at Guantanamo. What is the message that the Islamic State group is sending by this mirroring of treatment of hostages? Clearly, one part of the message is that even as we see Western hostages held by the Islamic State group as innocent persons, held for no justifiable reason other than as representatives of the West, so the Islamic State group views those held at Guantanamo as innocent persons, held prisoner for being Muslims.
There is a further parallel here. An increasing number of Muslims, many in the Middle East, have called on the Islamic State to stop the torture and execution of Western hostages. Yet, for over a decade, reasonable voices, such as Desmond Tutu’s, have called on the U.S. to stop detaining and torturing those held at Guantanamo.
The question before us is this: Can we take advantage of this strange mirroring or parallelism? While our governments have ruled out paying ransom for those held hostage by the Islamic State group, we suggest that it is time to consider trading detainees. Of course, no one is suggesting that guilty detainees be traded. But the data provided by the ACLU indicate that between 79 and 115 detainees at Guantanamo could be traded with little to no risk to our nation. If we ask the Islamic State group to show mercy by releasing Western hostages, are we willing to offer similar mercy to those we have detained?
We invite our government to make a gesture of mercy in hopes of eliciting a reciprocal gesture of mercy from the Islamic State group. Now is the time to make an offer that, while not ending the war on terror, will bring a measure of peace richly deserved to numerous families in the Middle East and in the West.
Although I am not aware of others who have proposed this trade of Guantanamo detainees for the Islamic State’s group’s hostages, if that is the case, we join those voices in appealing to our government to act on this proposal. If this proposal has not been made, we respectfully ask that the U.S. government to give it careful consideration.
David Carlson is a professor of religion at Franklin College and the author of “Peace Be With You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-filled World.” Send comments to [email protected].