07/13/2012 06:12 pm ET

Hunger Strikes: Oldest, Most Painful Form Of Protest Theater Erupts

Is the hunger strike having a moment? Practitioners of this extreme form of protest -- part political theater, part publicity assault -- have been making headlines across the Middle East this week, conjuring painful memories that go back generations.
Soccer player Mahmoud Sarsak, a member of the Palestinian national team, was held for three years in Israeli custody without formal charges before being released on Tuesday. Israeli intelligence had suspected he was active in the violent Islamic Jihad, yet he was never proven guilty of a specific crime. The 25-year-old shed nearly half his weight, and the deal for his release was contingent on his ending the hunger strike.

The prominent Syrian blogger Hussein Ghrer began a hunger strike on Wednesday to protest his incarceration. Ghrer has been in a Damascus detention cell for 143 days, according to the blog "Free Hussein," exceeding the 60-day limit Syrian law dictates for prisoners without a court referral. He was apprehended with staff and bloggers during a raid on the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression in February. Supporters have been posting on Twitter using the hashtag #FreeHussein.

Then there's the popular activist and Moroccan rapper Mouad Belghouat, also known as El-Haqed, who went on a 48-hour hunger strike this week to protest his treatment in a Moroccan prison. Authorities arrested Belghouat in May for "showing contempt" to public servants in his song "Dogs of the State." His brother said the fast would only last two days, but it's unclear whether the strike has ended. The Guardian has previously referred to El-Haqed as Morocco's "hip hop revolutionary," and he, too, has quite an online following. Supporters tweeted about his hunger strike using the hashtag #Freel7a9ed.

Thanks to social media campaigns, hunger strikes are becoming better publicized, said Sharman Apt Russell, the author of "Hunger: An Unnatural History." Still, there are many more hunger strikes that don't attract as much attention, she said.

Russell told The Huffington Post that hunger strikes remain common because they "resonate with people in a primal way, and they're very easy to understand." Refusing to eat, she said, is one of the few things a prisoner can do to make themselves heard, to give them some semblance of power over their captors.

"It is theatre, it is a drama, and you do have to bring in the outside world if you're going to be successful," Russell said. "Even if we don't agree with the cause, we recognize that kind of courage and commitment. We recognize there's suffering involved."

Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who has represented hunger striking prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, said the hunger strikes are a constant of prison life, and it's “unclear whether the increased media attention is spurring an increase in hunger strikes, or the other way around, or even whether the number of hunger strikes has remained stable with press coverage increasing for some reason.”

"It's important for people not to lose sight of the fact that a hunger strike is an extremely courageous, but also risky undertaking," Kassem said. "In almost all instances it has very drastic consequences on prisoners well-being. Sometimes those consequences are permanent."

A hunger strike's noble display of suffering isn't always enough to bring about the desired result. Last year, the Indian seer Swami Nigamanand fasted for 115 days to protest illegal mining in the Ganga River. He began his fast on Feb. 19 and died in early June.

Hunger strikes have a long history in India, going back as far as 750 B.C., and they've been part of Ireland's "legal tradition" since at least the 8th century, when, according to George Sweeney's "Irish Hunger Strikes And The Cult of Self-Sacrifice," Irish villagers would fast as a way to air their grievances against their "wrongdoers," as it was "the only means to enforce a claim of right or wrong." 

The practice was revived by the Irish in the early 20th century. In October 1923, more than 8,000 political prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which resulted in at least two deaths. Sixty years later, in 1981, Bobby Sands and nine other Republican militants famously died in an Irish hunger strike and became the subject of a film called "Hunger," by director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender.

Russell also noted the cultural icons we now associate with hunger strikes, specifically Mahatma Gandhi, who led India to independence from British rule. During one of his many publicized fasts, directed against the British proposed separation of the India electoral system by caste, Gandhi said he wished to offer his life as "a final sacrifice to the downtrodden."

Sometimes a hunger strike comes at a breaking point, Russell said, providing a catalyst for social change, while "sometimes it only works posthumously, and that's part of the courage, part of what we recognize."

Often, with higher-profile prisoners, it doesn't come to that. On Friday, an American businessman named Zack Shahin was released from a Dubai prison after serving four years for suspicion of embezzlement. He had begun a hunger strike in mid-May to protest his innocence, and ended it last week when authorities told him he'd be able to post $1.4 million bail.  

Others, like the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, face steeper odds. Unlike most of today's hunger strikers, they were forbidden from publicizing their ordeals to the outside world via blogs and social media. In 2006, John S. Edmonson, the doctor who commanded the hospital at Guantanamo, said he used tubes forced down prisoner's nasal passages to force-feed hunger strikers there. 

These actions can conflict with the World Medical Association's Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers, which states, "It is ethical to allow a determined hunger striker to die in dignity rather than submit that person to repeated interventions against his or her will." 

The hunger strike presents complex legal and moral issues not easily summed up with a hashtag. Yet as a last-ditch protest, as political theatre, it remains as classic as Greek drama.