Fundamental Faith: Lessons from Guantanamo

A kind and caring prisoner at Guantánamo makes Hannah Tennant-Moore rethink her attitude toward fundamentalism.

Hannah Tennant-Moore
1 May 2010
Photo by christian Bardenhorst

Every few months, my mother rides in a tiny, decades-old government airplane to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where she meets with her pro bono client, Abdul Aziz Naji. Aziz is a thirty-four-year-old Algerian man who has been held at Guantánamo for eight years without being charged with a crime. Four years ago, my mother and her law partner Ellen volunteered to take on his case, in hopes of forcing the U.S. government to grant Aziz habeas corpus, the right to challenge his detention in a court of law. This basic human right has been intrinsic to all civilized societies since the proclamation of the Magna Carta in 1215.

My mother describes Aziz, who has spent the last several years in solitary confinement, as a small man with a polite, gentle way about him. He lost a leg to a land mine some years ago, and uses a prosthesis that is a bit too short. During meetings with my mother and Ellen, his legs—both real and prosthetic—are shackled to the floor. Even as he describes how much he misses his family and asks again and again when he will be freed, Aziz smiles and laughs frequently; he constantly thanks his lawyers for their efforts on his behalf (though, so far, their work has yielded no concrete results) and asks after their families. He frequently tells my mother that he is able to accept his situation because he has absolute faith in God’s plan for his life.

I have long been opposed to strict, narrow interpretations of any religion. I associate fundamentalism with young men taught that their only hope for happiness is “martyrdom,” opponents of gay marriage attempting to deny their fellow human beings basic rights, and women covered from head to toe in heavy, black cloth in the heat of summer. So it’s been interesting for me to notice how fundamentalist Islam has allowed Aziz to maintain equanimity through eight years of being held, virtually incommunicado, in conditions that are now widely recognized as being physically and psychologically torturous.

My disdain for subscribing to a narrow conception of God and morality is born in part from my relationship with my grandparents, who are evangelical Christians. I have a wonderful time on my quarterly visits to their home in rural Georgia—gorging on biscuits and blueberry cobbler, shelling peas on the porch swing, laughing at Granddaddy’s silly jokes. But I am always acutely aware of the struggles my mother has gone through to overcome her guilt and sadness over the unacknowledged but ever-present emotional distance her family maintains from her because of her decision as a young adult to leave the church. Although my mother has tried to explain to her parents numerous times that she has a rich and fulfilling spiritual life, they have frequently begged her to take my sister and me to church, arguing that she is putting us at risk for eternal damnation. I am equally disturbed by my grandparents’ unquestioning support for any politician who is opposed to abortion and gay marriage, despite the fact that this often means they are voting against their own economic interests and supporting violence and corruption that is counter to their belief in Jesus’ teachings.

In a backlash against the rigidity of my mother’s upbringing, my own childhood was marked by religious openness. My father taught me yoga and meditation, my mother read me Bible stories and took me to Shambhala workshops, and I was raised in a predominantly Jewish community, which meant I attended bar mitzvahs and Passover seders. In college, I started studying Buddhism intensively, drawn to the possibility of training the mind to accept the present, whatever that may be. After studying at a Buddhist monastery in India, I decided, with a sense of heavy-handed finality, to “become” a Buddhist.

For a while, I was self-consciously territorial about my newfound religious assimilation. I enjoyed pointing out to liberal-minded friends who thought Buddhism seemed “cool” that it is actually a religion—not some New Age concept—which demands a commitment to prescribed rules (the precepts), rituals (rigorous meditation practice, prostrations, visualizations), and beliefs (karma, emptiness, interconnectedness). The aspects of the practice that had enlivened my own life—compassion for difficult people, relief from the anxious cycle of self-involved thoughts, the simple ability to sleep better and feel more joyful on a daily basis—seemed to me inseparable from the label “Buddhism.” I felt that the world would be a better place if everyone were Buddhist, and I was blind to the fact that I was adopting the religious exclusivity common to the forms of fundamentalism I’d always taken issue with.

Perhaps there was something appealing to me about the promised structure of a “real religion”—the same concept, no doubt, that appealed to both Aziz and my grandparents. Within a clear framework of spiritual, practical, and ethical guidelines, one has the freedom to explore one’s inner life, rather than floundering in purely cerebral considerations of the pros and cons of various religious practices. Perhaps this is why the Dalai Lama and Pema Chödrön caution against “shopping around” for a religion. While Pema Chödrön advises spiritual seekers to “stick with one boat,” the Dalai Lama says it’s best to find spiritual fulfillment through the religion in which one was raised, “since all the different traditions have the same potential to bring inner peace, inner value.”

That two leading Buddhist teachers would promote acceptance for all religions is hardly surprising. The idea that Buddhism is a “better” religion than others is clearly counter to teachings of emptiness, which render judgments and comparisons meaningless. Nonetheless, for those of us who became Buddhists as adults, it’s a hard line of thought to avoid. We “chose” Buddhism because we felt there was empirical evidence of the good that can come from exposure to meditation and Buddhist study.

So it was not until my mother started representing Aziz and telling me about her visits with him that I started to see the fallacy of my rejection of other religions. My mother assured me that Aziz was fundamentally okay, despite his horrific circumstances, because of his faith in God. This made me realize that the very fundamentalism I had blamed for violence, enmity, and ignorance was, in Aziz’s life, a precious gift affording him not only some measure of peace in his solitary cell, but also allowing him to profess nothing but kindness toward my mother and her law partner, citizens of the country that imprisoned him without charge.

I’m certainly not the first person to note the power of faith in oppressive circumstances. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for writings which exposed the brutality of the Gulag, turned to Christ to help him preserve his sense of self through eight years in the prison camps. Not only did his belief in God lend him the strength to withstand the deprivation and violence of prison, it also formed the basis of his critique of modern society: “We have forgotten God.” Though Solzhenitsyn was firm in his commitment to Russian Orthodoxy, his admonition to “remember God” was not veiled proselytizing. In an interview with Joseph Pearce, he said, “God is endlessly multidimensional, so every religion that exists on Earth represents some face, some side of God.”

Numerous observers have noted the strength of believers during the Holocaust. Etty Hillesum, who was killed by the Nazis at the age of twenty-nine, left a collection of diaries and letters that have served as a spiritual guide for people of all faiths. She often wrote of the vital importance of having a rich inner life in trying times. For Hillesum, nurturing one’s inner life meant engaging in meditation, prayer, and Bible study, which brought her closer to “the deepest and best in me, which I call God.” No doubt it was this religious practice that allowed her to write, during her first months in the squalor and cruelty of the Westerbork concentration camp, “And yet life in its unfathomable depths is so wonderfully good.”

I identify much more readily with Hillesum’s conception of God as “the deepest and best in me” than I do with Solzhenitsyn’s or Aziz’s God. But in a situation as nightmarish as a concentration camp or indefinite imprisonment, does it really matter what one’s personal conception of God entails, so long as that God allows one to maintain an appreciation of the world as a whole, despite its specific horrors?

This gift of gratitude for being alive, come what may, is certainly applicable to situations that are far less extreme than those of Solzhenitsyn, Aziz, or Hillesum. Both of my grandparents’ lives, for instance, have presented their fair share of difficulties. Throughout their childhoods they experienced the hard labor and deprivations of poverty, the deaths of siblings, and parents too preoccupied with putting food on the table to offer much affection. Too poor to pursue their respective dreams of being a teacher and a veterinarian, they ran a dry-cleaning business. I once heard my grandmother say, “When I look back on my life, I don’t know how I would have done it if it hadn’t been for Jesus.”

When I consider my grandparents’ evangelism in light of this statement, I realize that it doesn’t really matter that they believe they’re among a select group of people destined to go to heaven. If I can accept my grandparents’ religion as invaluable to them, I can stop feeling oppressed by their implicit judgment of my way of life. They feed me delicious meals cooked with homegrown fruits and vegetables, hug me and tell me they love me, and generally add much richness and delight to my life. Even more important, my grandparents take seriously Jesus’ commandments to help the needy (they have volunteered at a local nursing home for years), to be stewards of the Earth (their lifestyles are more environmentally sound than those of many supporters of “green” policies), and to practice gratitude and humility in their daily lives. In this way, Christianity brings my grandparents the inner peace and inner value that the Dalai Lama says every religion is capable of manifesting.

Aziz’s method of worship similarly entails simple kindness to others. He frequently tells my mother and her law partner—who is Jewish, as are many of the Guantánamo lawyers—that he is keeping them and their families in his prayers, and I often end my meditation and yoga practice with the wish that “any merit gained from this practice be dedicated to Abdul Aziz Naji.” Though different in form, these practices have the same underlying intention of expressing goodwill toward a stranger, an act that opens the heart and helps one escape the prison of self-involved thinking. And Aziz’s frequent invocation of the term inshallah (God willing) is nearly identical in psychological effect to an awareness of impermanence; both practices ward off the suffering that results from desperate attempts to control the uncontrollable.

There’s no doubt that I would take issue with many of Aziz’s religious beliefs surrounding, for instance, the treatment of women (my mother and Ellen never visit him without donning modest clothes and head coverings), just as I take issue with my grandparents’ belief that premarital sex is a sin. But I need not vainly wrestle with these beliefs in order to appreciate the individuals who espouse them, and even to value the positive role religion has played in their lives. This is not to say that there’s no danger in ideology. But the dangers of religious ideology have been documented so well in recent years that I fear many of us have forgotten that religion is not the enemy. Stalin, after all, was an atheist.

As I was writing this, I learned that Aziz had gone on a hunger strike. Although he has been “cleared for release” for many years, he remains stuck in limbo between a windowless, solitary cell and a return to Algeria, where the fate of former Guantánamo prisoners is uncertain at best. Because of his association with terrorism, however groundless, Aziz would run the risk of imprisonment and torture in Algeria; he also could be forcibly recruited by extremists. “All the golden ideas I had in mind are no longer here,” he told my mother. “I just want a simple life. I have had my dreams destroyed.”

As my mother’s attempts to get another country to grant Aziz asylum prove more and more hopeless, Aziz has resorted to the only means of protest available to him: refusing food. Like other Guantánamo prisoners on hunger strikes, he is force-fed through a tube in his nose twice a day. Already a thin man, he has lost thirty pounds.

Aziz loves chocolate, which my mother and Ellen usually bring him on their visits, sometimes along with homemade meals. On their most recent trip, they tentatively laid out a few snacks on the table in front of Aziz, unsure if he would break his fast. He smiled broadly when he saw the chocolate, and then ravenously ate two bars with evident delight. After thanking my mother and Ellen for the food, he began to imagine the traditional Algerian meal he would share with them if he were at home. “Inshallah,” he said, “someday we will eat together someplace other than here.”