Hunger Strikes as Legitimate Protest

by Lise Olivarius

When people are no longer in control of their own lives, they can resist by mastering their own deaths. In 2012 the hunger strike was deployed as a mode of resistance among migrants in Danish asylum camps and a political prisoner in Bahrain; the Danish media reacted in interesting ways.

First published: 12 September, 2014 | Category: Media, Migration, Racism

Background: Two hunger strikes

The wave of asylum hunger strikes began around 7th of May 2012 in Sigerslev Asylum Camp, when app. 20 rejected Syrian-Kurdish asylum seekers initiated a hunger strike demanding the reopening of their cases. The following weeks Syrian Kurds in the camps of Brovst, Jelling, Holmegaard and Hanstholm, and a group of Iranians in Sandholm joined. By the 24th of May more than 80 asylum seekers were hunger striking. On the 23d, 11 migrants from Iran began a hunger strike in Stefanskirken in Copenhagen. The group was forced to leave the church on the 29th of May. The protests continued in the municipal facility ‘The Democracy House’, where they were kicked out a few days later. After this they continued their hunger strike in front of the parliament. Meanwhile, the different hunger strikes ended, and around the 12th of June, the asylum hunger strikes were over.

In parallel, the hunger strike of the prominent human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, holding Danish citizenship, took up space in the media. Al-Khawaja had been imprisoned in Bahrain since June 2011 for arranging pro-democracy protest as a part of the so-called Arab Spring. In February 2012, he began a hunger strike demanding his release. Al-Khawaja, who is one of the internationally acknowledged heroes of the Arab Spring, is still in prison.

If 2011 was the year of the revolutions – from Tahrir Square to Wall Street – 2012 was the year of the hunger strikes. Pussy Riot did it in Russia. Julia Timoshenko did it in Ukraine. Political prisoners did it en masse in the Middle East. And migrants did it in asylum camps in Denmark.

If we look at the space taken up by the hunger strikes in the Danish media landscape, it can definitely be said that this form of resistance was gaining momentum. Although often vehemently condemned, the hunger strikes were at least out there; represented in the media, and that makes them significant in itself. A hunger strike is a performative mode of resistance, and the representation and the audience are at least as important as the act of starving. This essay will focus on the asylum seekers’ hunger strike in Denmark, and compare it to the hunger strike of one specific political prisoner in Bahrain. I’ll then ask why the latter hunger strike was widely considered more legitimate and portrayed more sympathetically than the former. When, for whom and against what does the media’s hegemonic discourse consider it legitimate to hunger strike? Who are granted the use of violence against what?


Slow death: Necropolitics

“It is a slow death to be an asylum seeker for years”[1]. So write the eleven Iranian asylum seekers on hunger strike. This is more than mere polemics. Death is not metaphorical here, it is literal. And death is a recurrent theme in the Danish media discourse on the asylum hunger strikes. On several occasions, the hunger strikers are quoted for stating that death is their only option. Thus, Farhad Talebi, one of the hunger strikers, states: “We will hungerstrike as long as we live […] No matter what, I will die. Either here or in Iran”[2]. The hunger strikers’ most recurrent argument – filtered through the discourse of the media representation – is that death is unavoidable, and that taking death into their own hands is their last and only option: “Hunger strike is my only way out”. “I can’t do anything. Only hungerstrike. Maybe someone will hear me and do something”[3].  Taking these sorts of quotes at face value, asylum seekers turn to hunger striking when they are deprived of other kinds of political agency.

Desperation is another key word throughout the media coverage. Does that make the deliberate self-starvation the ultimate expression of powerlessness? Not necessarily. For the philosopher Achille Mbembe, dying can be an expression of agency. In his essay ‘Necropolitics’ from 2003, Mbembe argues that death – in the very concrete and literal sense – plays a central role for present-day political power structures.[4] Mbembe introduces the concept of necropolitics, politics of death, as a corrective to Michel Foucault’s influential concept of biopolitics, politics of life. Biopolitics or biopower is the contemporary, decentralized power to control and cultivate life in all its aspects, as opposed to the power of the sovereign to take the life of his subjects, i.e. the power of death. Foucault’s mistake, Mbembe argues, is to relegate death to an irrelevant appendix of the biopolitical system, where death, according to Mbembe, still has a central function. Therefore, the Foucauldian notion of a (however seemingly) “benevolent” power mainly operating through the cultivation of life is inadequate.

But necropolitics is not an alternative to biopolitics. Rather, necropolitical death is a precondition for biopolitical cultivation of life. Think about the legitimisation, for instance, of war with security arguments. Or, more abstractly,  of the way in which the maintenance of the living standards of a dominant, Western class have fatal costs in other parts of the world, and other layers of society. Some people must die so that others may live.

Necropolitics does not only operate through the bomb, the gun, the drone, the spectacular death, or the singular death of the individual body. Necropolitics also operates through the control of populations by keeping them only barely alive in “death worlds”, as Mbembe calls it, on the border between life and death as so-called “living dead”.  Mbembe illustrates the concepts of ”living dead” and “death worlds” with a variety of historical examples. Important necropolitical topographies are the colony, the slave plantation, Holocaust, and the present occupation of Palestine.

The point is that none of the necropolitical death worlds listed by Mbembe, not even Holocaust, are exceptions; on the contrary, the death worlds are the foundation of the current world order. Not the rupture, but the rule. Or, as Giorgo Agamben would put it: The state of exception has become constant. One of Agamben’s most famous points is that society depends on whom it excludes. With Mbembe, we could take it a little further and venture to suggest that society depends on whom it kills.

There is reason for suggesting that the migrants caught in the Danish asylum system are incarnations of Mbembe’s “living dead”, and that the asylum camp, or the state of being an “asylum seeker”, is a Mbembian “death world”, a necropolitical topos, seemingly abject and exceptional, but actually normal and necessary for the course of history and the maintenance of the system. Slow death, as the hunger strikers from the church call their life as asylum seekers, when they manage to make their voice heard in the media


Racism: The distribution of degrees of life and Danishness

Could another name for slow death simply be racism?  For Foucault, racism is the instance dividing people into those who must die and those who can live – or those who must die so that others can live. Racism is a means of distributing degrees of life. Mbembe adds that racism serves the purpose of justifying the death function of biopolitics. Racism is the vessel that transports the death power of the sovereign into the biopolitical system. In this homicidal, biopolitical realm – which is what Mbembe calls necropolitics – death is presented as having the function of saving lives. It is the security logic of the war, the state of emergency which with racism has become constant, common, and mundane.

It is with this structural, Foucauldian understanding of racism in mind that I look at the racism at play in the media’s consistent denouncement of the asylum hunger strikes. Thus, it is an expression of racism when the hunger strikers by several media, politicians, and opinion formers repeatedly are condemned as “un-Danish” or “unchristian”[5]. The distribution of privileges – such as the privilege to participate in political life, e.g. by protesting – in accordance to nationality, culture, and religion is a function of structural racism.

A central point of much of the media discourse is that the hunger strike as a form of resistance does not belong in Denmark. As the manager of Jelling Asylum Camp puts it: “No Danish caseworker is going to feel pressurised, and in Denmark, there is no tradition for that kind of action being successful […] In their part of the world, they have a tradition for making their point somewhat more vigorously than we have here.”[6]. The camp manager disavows the hunger strikers as non-Western or un-Danish. Their lack of Danishness, certified by their exclusion from the Danish nation-state when they were denied asylum, is further emphasised by their protest against this exclusion, as the camp manager culturally disassociates herself from their protest taking the abject and alien form of a hunger strike. Similar cultural-national disavowals abound in the media represented denouncements of the asylum hunger strikes, and the discourse functions through a very frequent use of the words “Denmark” and “Danish”.

Interestingly, there is a consensus about denouncing the asylum hunger strikes all across the parliamentary political spectrum[7]. Regardless of which stance they otherwise take on asylum issues or migration policies, the politicians agree to condemn the fact that asylum seekers hunger strike. Most of the opinion formers outside of parliament who make their voices heard in the press adopt the same attitude[8].  Even the network Grandparents for Asylum, a pro-asylum support network identifying as “humanitarian”, agrees to denounce the hunger strikes as misplaced in Denmark. Spokesperson Mogens Hilden appears in several media with statements such as: “Nobody in the Danish society thinks that a hunger strike is a good thing”[9], or “I hope that they eventually realise that this fight should be fought with other means – and not at the risk of their lives”[10].  Here, Hilden completely ignores the hunger strikers’ message, as it has been presented in the media – that they are already risking their lives. Furthermore, Hilden practices both victim-blaming: “I don’t know how much we managed to emphasise the gravity of the situation that the hunger strikers have brought themselves in”(emphasis added)[11], and victimisation, when he responds to the journalist’s question about what the asylum seekers should do instead: ”But they can’t do anything, those poor things. They can’t do anything but endure it”[12]. Similar condescending victimisation is present in much of the media discourse[13]


National disavowal versus national appropriation

Compared to the asylum hunger strikes, Al-Khawaja’s hunger strike receives broad support in the Danish press. He is presented with titles such as ”advocate of democracy”[14] and “human rights activist”[15] The words democracy and freedom constitute a leitmotif throughout the media coverage of his case.

If the discourse about the asylum hunger strikers is characterised by a national disavowal, the Al-Khawaja discourse is conversely characterised by national appropriation, as his Danish citizenship is repeatedly emphasised. Or rather, his Danishness - the recurrent keywords freedom and democracy serve the purpose of creating a discourse of cultural affiliation with Denmark and the West beyond his legal status of citizenship. He is introduced as Danish-Bahraini, or pure and simple, as Danish. Furthermore, several media report that it was the Danish society that taught Al-Khawaja about human rights.[16]

Thus, the newspaper Politiken even awards him a “Freedom Price”[17]. And, although the same paper in an editorial calls his decision to end his hunger strike “wise”[18], his method of resistance is never condemned nearly as strongly as the asylum seekers. For Al-Khawaja, hunger striking is presented as both legitimate and potentially efficient.

Compared to this, one of the most characteristic and recurrent features of the media coverage of the asylum hunger strike is assertions of its uselessness. The words useless, pointless, and purposeless form a common thread throughout the media discourse. As mentioned, a hunger strike is a performative form of resistance depending on its representation. When media in editorials and op-eds call a hunger strike useless, or quote politicians and other sources for the same point of view, it is a speech act. Calling a hunger strike useless is rendering it useless.


The religious factor

Despite the relative broad support, Al-Khawaja enjoys in the media, the representation of his hunger strike still oscillates on an axis between legitimate/“Danish”/“pro-democratic” and illegitimate/ “un-Danish”/“Muslim” /“Islamist”. Thus, in an editorial, the newspaper Jyllands-Posten asks: “Martyr for democracy or for Islam?”.  Also in the coverage of the asylum hunger strike, religion is an issue to an astounding degree. This is of course partly due to the Iranian hunger strikers’ choice of battle field: The church in Copenhagen. Moreover, some of the hunger strikers are reportedly Christian, and their degree of Christianness function as a more or less legitimizing factor of their hunger strike, much like Al-Khawaja’s varying degrees of Danishness (while the asylum seekers are undisputedly un-Danish). However, Kristeligt Dagblad warns that “It is a more religiously mixed bunch of hunger striking Iranians who have moved inside Stefanskirken at Nørrebro, than it appeared in the media coverage to begin with. Unlike what several media, including Kristeligt Dagblad, so far have reported, only a minority of the asylum seekers are Christian”. Thus, the cultural and religious distance created by the hunger strikers’s disappointingly low degree of Christanness is another factor in the discursive distribution of Danishness – which is also the distribution of rights, legitimacy, and life.

Also hunger striking as a phenomenon as such undergoes religious-philosophical analysis, such as when hunger striking is called “unchristian”[19]. In an editorial, the newspaper Berlingske elaborates: ”Instead of placing the responsibility for their future with the church and the Danish public, the asylum seekers must take responsibility themselves. That is actually also one of the most important Christian messages”[20].


Playing the game of democracy

Thus, the most often repeated argument against the asylum hunger strikes is that this form of expression does not belong in a democracy such as the Danish society. One of many examples is an editorial in Kristeligt Dagblad: “A hunger strike might make sense in dictatorships, where parliamentary solutions cannot be sought. On the other hand, it is hard to justify such means of pressure in a democracy that offers the injured party other ways of seeking their right”. This argument, however, disregards the fact that the migrants are not fully included in the state they are subject to. Asylum seekers do not have status as political agents, and they do not enjoy democratic rights. The distinction between those who are political beings or citizens, and those who are not, those who are granted political agency and those who are not, is essential to the hunger striking discourse.

The Danish citizen Al-Khawaja is often referred to with the epithet “political prisoner” and is thereby already, discursively, granted political agency. Several spokespeople of the asylum hunger strikes attempt to frame their fight as resembling the exceptional Al-Khawaja’s – the fight against an undemocratic, non-Western society. Thus, Dariush Mokhtari from the Iranian group: “The Danish government denounced Bahrain. Why won’t they denounce Iran, when we demonstrate?”[21].

Others appeal to the narrative about the Danish state as democratic: “We thought that life in a democratic country would bring us new hope and new life”.

But perhaps more interesting than these attempts to speak the language of the dominant media discourse is the mere insistent presence of the protesting migrants. Some of them protest in the camps, while eleven Iranians make themselves visible by taking their fight to the center of Copenhagen. Here, they are in sequence thrown out of their refuges: First the church and later, almost too ironically symbolic to be true, a community center called The Democracy House. When the eleven hunger strikers obtrusively move their struggle to the Danish power centre by camping in front of the parliament, it is perhaps not as much in order to appeal to the democratic channels, as it is to point to the inadequacy of this system. This is strongly performative, even theatrical, if not outright tragic: A play displaying the so-called democratic society as a mere society of the spectacle. Interestingly, some of the most historically acclaimed hunger strikes have also been fights for the expansion the political sphere, and for the recognition as political agents, for example the suffragettes who brought the hunger strikes onto the political stage of the 20th century in the first place[22].


Starving as a necropolitical mode of resistance

The power of the hunger strike, Patrick Anderson suggests in his analysis of the great hunger strike among prisoners in Turkey in the early 2000’s, consists of its challenge of the state monopoly on violence. The hunger striker makes themselves the subject of the violence they are already the object of. The violence might not change degree or even character, but its agent is displaced from the state to the hunger striker[23]. This is unacceptable for the sovereign state whose power is based on its monopoly on violence.

Perhaps this makes it clearer why Al-Khawaja and the migrants in Denmark chose to deliberately speed up their inevitable slow deaths. These hunger strikes are performances staged in necropolitical spaces where subjects no longer are in power of their own lives and therefore only can master their own deaths. This is the power of the hunger strike – to challenge the privilege of the sovereign to control its subjects’ deaths. This is what makes hunger strikes so provocative: Any act of violence committed by any other actor than the state, even against oneself, is traditionally condemned as illegitimate by the hegemonic, Western discourse (here represented by the Danish media).


Making the violence visible

The hunger strikers perform and make visible the structural violence of necropolitical (that is, at once sovereign and biopolitical) systems such as totalitarian states and deportation regimes rather than attempt to attain political liberties through the rights of the citizen. Every individual, hunger striking, dying or dead body, as real and material as it is, represents something outside of itself, a community as a whole. This is necropolitical resistance. And solidarity. As when Ramin Molavi, spokesperson for the eleven Iranians in Copenhagen, responds to the journalist’s leading question about whether he thinks hunger striking has benefitted his asylum case legally: ”I don’t think about my own case, I think about the collective responsibility.”. Following this line of thought, it is possible to consider the hunger strike in more than pure negative terms of desperation, self-harm, and purposelessness bordering on insanity. Hunger strikes might succeed in challenging the system, while immediately losing struggles for particular rights within that system. The hunger strike not only represents, but also reverses the relations of violence the sovereign is founded on, when it takes the weapon of death from the sovereign’s hand.

Thus, it is worth noting that while the Danish media, in keeping with the general “uselessness discourse”, are quick to deem the asylum hunger strike a failure (“Hungerstrike is over: Politicians did not yield”, as a headline smugly sounds), some of the Syrian-Kurdish hunger strikers release a statement focusing on their achievement: “We have made our voices known and shown our suffering to the Danish and European public; while aware of the fact that this is not an end in itself, but a means of attaining the recognition and freedom, we demand.”[24].


This article is part of NLP's Immigration series

Lise Olivarius is based in Copenhagen, and has studied comparative literature and gender studies at University of Copenhagen. She is an editor of the magazine visAvis which covers asylum and migration









[1]Nielsen, G 2012, ’’Det er en langsom død’’, Berlingske, 29 May,

[2] Larsen, JB 2012a, ’Politikere: Sultestrejke nytter ikke’, BT, 25 May, Infomedia database.

[3] Larsen, 2012c, ’Sultestrejkende iraner: Jeg er bange for at blive henrettet’, Politiken, 23 May,

[4] Mbembe, A 2003, ‘Necropolitics’, Public Culture, vol.15(1), no.1, pp.11–40, Duke University Press.

[5] Krøl, AS 2012,’‘Måske er der nogen, der hører mig’’, TV2 Nyhederne Online, 24 May,

[6] Baun, L 2012, ’Centerleder: De bestemmer selv, om de vil spise eller sultestrejke’,Vejle Amts Folkeblad, 22 May.

[7] Larsen, JB 2012d, ’Politikere opfordrer til at droppe ”formålsløs” sultestrejke’, Århus Stiftstidende, 24 May

[8] e.g Heick 2012

[9] Lindqvist, A 2012,’ Bedsteforældre for asyl: Hold så op med at sultestrejke’, Politiken, 23 May,

[10] Dagbladet Køge 2012a: ’Demonstranter vil stoppe sultestrejke’ , 21 May

[11] Dagblaget Køge 2012b: ’Sultestrejke fortsætter trods demonstration’ , 21 May

[12] Lindqvist 2012

[13] e.g. Politiken 2012e: ’Bedsteforældre for Asyl: Hold så op med at sultestrejke’ 23 May, and Wolfhagen, R 2012: ’“Jeg kan ikke se nogen løsning på jeres problem”’, Information 4 June 2012, viewed 10 April 2012,

[15] Politiken 2012c: ’Al-Khawaja for retten i Bahrain’, 1 December, viewed 10 February 2013,

[16] Jyllands-Posten 2012: ’To danskere er blandt verdens førende tænkere’ 2012, 27 November,

[17] Politiken 2012a: ’Portræt: Ikke til at kue’  10 April and, Jørgenssen 2012a, ’Frygt for sultestrejkende danskers liv’, Berlingske, 1 March,

[18] Politiken 2012b: ’Pris til Al-Khawaja’  29 October

[19] Heick 2012

[20] Berlingske 2012: ’Berlingske mener’, 26 May

[21] Madsen, AE 2012,’Sultestrejke giver andre skylden’, Kristeligt Dagblad, 1 June

[22] Ellmann, M 1993, The Hunger Artists. Starving, Writing, and Imprisonment, Harvard University Press. 

[23] Anderson, P 2004, ‘‘To lie down to death for days’: The Turkish hunger strike, 2000-2003’, Cultural Studies, vol. 18 no.6, pp. 816-846,

[24] Jørgenssen, SA 2012b,’ Syrere indstiller sultestrejke over hele landet’, Jydske Vestkysten, 31 May, viewed 10 February, Infomedia database.


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