The force-feeding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has recently gone from raising issues of human and constitutional rights to raising questions of religion.
The holiday of Ramadan began on Monday, and for Muslims all over the world, that meant the start of a month-long daylight fast. But for the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, the start of Ramadan was complicated by a hunger strike of over 100 detainees, about 45 of whom are currently being force-fed because they refuse to eat. And now, with the start of Ramadan, they want to choose to be force-fed at night so that their show of force does not interfere with their religious beliefs.
Given the controversy, Islamic leaders are yet again asking President Obama to rethink the decision to keep the prison in operation, and are demanding an end to the force-feeding, especially during the holiday. But is that a legitimate request? How can we reconcile the religious beliefs of prisoners with the reality of their situation? Did the detainees lose the right to such accommodations when they stopped complying with even the basic rules of the prison? As I see it, when the prisoners stopped eating, they surrendered any right to decide when to eat. After all, if they agree to eat, their right to choose when to do so will return as well. They can’t have it both ways. Either they eat freely, or they eat at the officers’ convenience.
The entire actuality of Ramadan in Guantanamo Bay’s prison is multifaceted, because many believe that the very existence of the prison is unconstitutional, and so the question of how much the government should accommodate their religious beliefs is irrelevant.
As of now, the U.S. government is continuing the force-feeding at night in order to respect the fast. How ironic. We, as a society, are comfortable with the idea of having possible terrorists rot in their cells without trial for years. And we are comfortable with the idea of torturing food into their stomachs. What makes us uncomfortable is the idea of feeding them at a time that would conflict with their religious beliefs. How completely paradoxical and hypocritical.
As of now, it's not even clear that the night feedings are sustainable. As lawyers and inmates have written: "Because dozens of Guantanamo Bay detainees are currently being force-fed, it might very well prove to be logistically infeasible to conduct twice-daily force-feeding only at night time." What will happen then, when it is no longer possible to respect the religious beliefs of the inmates, because medical professionals of the prison are fighting to keep them alive?
American law clearly states that freedom of religion is every individual’s right, but that a separation between church and state must exist. People are entitled to their beliefs, and should never be persecuted for them. But we should not accommodate criminals, who are, themselves, ignoring their own needs by going on hunger strike.
But the question is timeless: how much space can religion take in the justice system? Religion is a sacred concept. American law clearly states that freedom of religion is every individual’s right, and that a separation between church and state must exist to their beliefs, and should never be persecuted for them. That is not what is being questioned. It is the right of religion of criminals, who themselves have given up their rights to their own bodies by setting on the hunger strike, that is being questioned. It is their right to demand accommodation despite their refusal to comply with the laws that is being questioned. And perhaps this question does not have an answer. Or maybe it is so simple and obvious, that the answer is impossible to word. But the multilayered question remains open-ended. And any simple answer would be cheap, a reflection of a lack of appreciation for the subtle complexity of the role of religion in society, and in the law.