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Camp X-Ray

Photo from IFC Films

Writer-director Peter Sattler’s 2014 film Camp X-Ray raises interesting questions about morality, idealism, gender, and nationality, but here I want to highlight the film’s cinematic interpretations of religious accommodation and the larger issues that are often attached to this idea.

“It’s one of the better mainstream American film portraits of what happened to America’s psyche after 9/11: the moral numbness that set in right away, and never entirely lifted,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz about Camp X-Ray.

[1.] The narrative follows twentysomething PFC Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart) in her time guarding detainees at Guantanamo Bay. While guarding a block of Muslim detainees, Cole begins speaking with the particularly talkative Amir Ali (Peyman Moaadi), a man who has been imprisoned at Camp Delta for the last eight years despite numerous claims of innocence. Their conversations increase in frequency and result in an unlikely (and highly prohibited) friendship between soldier and prisoner.

Cole’s relationship with Ali sparks her compassionate responses toward his status at the Camp, ultimately facing Cole with struggles about her moral identity that parallel subtle hints about that of the Camp’s, and “the way that procedure, protocol, and tradition rule everything, on both sides of the cell doors.”[2.] For example, she begins to express her sympathies about various Camp protocols to Ali—particularly methods of sleep disruption. Detainees attempt sleep despite the constant fluorescence of their throbbing cell lights, and especially disruptive detainees are subject to punishment dubbed “the frequent flyer program” during which they are placed in isolation and moved to a different cell every two hours. Cole asks her trainer, “You move [them] all night long? How [do they] sleep?” “[They don’t], dummy,” he answers. “That’s the point.”

The remainder of the narrative showcases Cole’s quiet dealings with these issues and Ali’s continued distress as he navigates his eighth year of imprisonment.

Though the complex film focuses on the lives of the characters in particular versus the Camp’s procedures at large, residing in the filmmaker’s subtleties exist details that hint at the tensions that surround the validity of situational religious accommodation. These transcend their cinematic boundaries and establish a very real relevance offscreen.

In an early scene, Cole accompanies three male soldiers in their pursuit to strong-arm an aggressive prisoner, also a devout Muslim. As the soldiers struggle to each grasp a firm hold on his arms and legs, the prisoner both punches and spits on Cole. Later Cole’s trainer explains that many of the Camp’s “fundamentalist” Muslims “don’t like being overseen by Americans generally, American women in particular.” Later in the film soldiers are seen using markers to black out the faces of women in American newspapers that will be distributed to Muslim prisoners. The harshness of these scenes are contrasted by others that feature the same prisoners softly handing their Qur’ans and wrapping them gently in white cloths.

Cole’s trainer later forces her to supervise a vulnerable Ali as he undresses and showers. Though she initially argues that women rarely supervise showers because it upsets Muslim inmates, her pleas against this are silenced by her supervisor’s angry taunts: “Are you a soldier, or are you a female soldier? Because I don’t have these kinds of problems with soldiers.” (The role gender plays in Camp X-Ray is whole other topic.)

While religion is not so much in the foreground of Camp X-Ray, it remains a looming constant as protocols in the Camp have clearly been adapted to fit the religious needs of various inmates. This closely resembles an issue discussed in a recent NPR article about clashes between Muslim prisoners and their female guards at the real Guantanamo Bay, as a judge prohibited female guards from escorting a group of Muslim men being tried for plotting the September 11th attacks. One of the detainees’ lawyers insisted that “his client refuses to leave his cell if women are on the escort team because Muslim men can only touch women they’re related to.”[3.] This decision angered many, some of whom disagreed with the statement’s Islamic validity, and sparked a debate about manipulation, religious rights, and religious accommodation.

Professor of politics and human rights Paul Bou-Habib, in his 2006 article A Theory of Religious Accommodation, put together a general structure of many arguments in favor of religious accommodation, as follows:

All persons have a right to an equal opportunity for well-being. > In order for all persons to enjoy an equal opportunity for well-being all must have a right to religious accommodation. > All persons have a right to religious accommodation.[4., pg. 110]

Fleshing out the components to these justifications, Habib concludes that religious accommodation is “justified on the grounds that the ability to perform such conduct is derivatively valuable, insofar as it is necessary for religious persons to retain their integrity.”[5., pg. 111] With religious integrity as playing the key factor in Habib’s argument, it seemingly becomes blurry when applied to the issue at Guantanamo Bay. When an incarcerated individual argues for or against a standard protocol on account of religious integrity, is Habib’s argument regarding religious accommodation still acceptable? Does an individual’s status as detainee forfeit his or her religious rights as it does others? Or do these religious rights transcend such incarceration due to their nature? Of course, definitively answering this requires a definition of religion that is excruciatingly difficult to produce; one that many scholars argues is impossible.

While questions like this are complex and hard to sift through, thinking about them holds a fruitful importance, as the greater religious landscape is so closely intertwined with society and culture. Camp X-Ray subtly explores some of these issues and creates a platform for discussion about religious accommodation, situational morality, and religion’s place in greater society.