The Guantanamo Book-Banning Quiz

Image of detainees in Guantanamo bay

By Clive Stafford Smith, Founder of Reprieve

It has long been said – by me, at least – that Guantanámo Bay is an irony free zone, as well as a legal black hole. Thus, while it is delicious, it not surprising that the Guantanámo MWR Library has been celebrating Banned Book Week with a banner headline “I’m with the Banned!”

MWR is the military acronym for “Morale, Welfare and Recreation” – in other words it is what the US military does for entertainment when they are not mistreating the 61 detainees who remain there (down from a total of 779). At Reprieve, we’ve freed some 80 detainees over the years, and we were also pleased to liberate a copy of the competition (entries closed on October 2nd and we await notice of the winner). Soldiers are asked to answer a series of questions about absurd government authorities who have, in their ignorance, banned various books over the years.

This is where the missing sense of irony kicks in. An early question in the competition asks, “why do we celebrate this day?” An ordinary reader might think it is because we condemn senseless censorship in all its forms. However, this cannot be the correct answer in Guantanámo Bay, since a significant element of the military’s work, rather than their play, has been to ban books from reaching the detainees.

A second question asks, “why have the Harry Potter books been banned” around the world? It is true – the Harry Potter books rank number one in the list of 100 most challenged books of the last decade, largely because religious zealots believe that they exalt irreligious wizardry. Interestingly, JK Rowling is not banned in Guantanámo, but various other children’s books inexplicably are, including Puss In Boots, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and Jack and the Beanstalk. Obviously we can understand the last one, since a prisoner might escape using a magic bean to scale the fence – but why the first three?

A third competition question asks, “which famous children’s book was banned in America because talking animals were seen as ungodly?” The answer is Winnie the Pooh banned in the US in 2006 (and in Turkey because Piglet was deemed offensive to Muslims). Before I realized that they were calling for a children’s book, I thought for a minute that they meant Animal Farm by George Orwell. But of course that was one of the books banned in Guantanámo Bay, along with 1984. Paradoxically, the censors did not ban these when I first took them in to my client Shaker Aamer. But they reversed their decision when Shaker wrote an essay about what 1984 was all about (they had clearly never read it).

Next we are asked: “Who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, banned for its discussion of controversial themes such as rape and racism?” The answer is Harper Lee, of course, but I confess I do not know who banned it. I was more familiar with similar decisions at Guantanámo, where they banned both Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, and The Innocent Man by John Grisham – books that deal with controversial themes such as whether we should keep innocent people in prison for years without a trial. They also banned The Rule of Law by Lord Bingham.

There is sure to be some overlap between the ridiculous banning of books around the world and the similarly absurd practices in Guantanámo – I feel confident that Number 86, Howard Stern’s Private Parts, would be excluded, since the Gitmo censors are solicitous of the morals of those they deem the worst of the worst terrorists in the world. For example, when I took a copy of Booky Wook Two by Russell Brand, it was banned because it had the word c**t on the first page.

Anyway, Bibliophiles, why not take our own variation on the test:

1. Why do the authorities at Guantanámo celebrate Banned Book Week (compare and contrast to why the rest of the world celebrates it)?

2. Why have Harry Potter books not been banned in Guantanámo Bay, when Jack and the Beanstalk has?

3. Which other famous children’s books have been banned in Guantanámo Bay?

4. What books have been banned from Guantanámo Bay on each of the following controversial issues:

(a) Whether innocent people should be held forever without a trial?

(b) Whether we should torture people?

(c) Whether it was unkind of human rights NGOs to refer to Guantanámo Bay as a “gulag”?

5. Which is the most banned book of the last decade in Guantanámo Bay, according to records held at Reprieve?

6. What books have been banned from Guantanámo Bay because they use naughty words?

7. Which Martin Amis books have been banned from Guantanámo Bay?

8. Which of the following have been banned in Guantanámo because they might give the detainees the wrong ideas?

(a) The Great Escape (film)

(b) Runner’s World (magazine)

(c) Swimming Times (magazine)

9. What poetry collection has been banned from Guantanámo because of its theme suggesting that war was immoral and futile?

10. Has any book by Reprieve’s director, Clive Stafford Smith, been allowed into Guantanámo Bay by the censors, and if so, why would they inflict such a thing on the prisoners?

Please submit all answers to, with “banned book quiz” in the subject line, by October 25th (the anniversary of the banning of Puss in Boots). The winner (assessed as the responses that amuse the Reprieve staff) will receive a signed copy of Injustice – the book was banned in 2012, but the injustice continues.