A Miscarriage of Censorship
by Stephen Schwartz
IN THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, Islamist influence in U.S. federal and state prisons came under scrutiny from the Justice Department's Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Officials were informed of pre-9/11 complaints by inmates whose Islam (mainly acquired by conversion) was counterposed to a jailhouse infiltration campaign promoting Saudi-financed Wahhabism.
The discontented convicts charged that Wahhabi-trained Muslim chaplains had acquired a monopoly in the correctional system and were busily imposing their ultra-fundamentalist religious interpretation in the vulnerable atmosphere of the prisons. The Wahhabi imams, it was said, had confiscated non-Wahhabi literature from Muslim prisoners, ostracizing and even physically threatening those who contradicted them.
At that time, the prison imams were trained and certified, along with Islamic chaplains in the U.S. military, by two institutions. The first was the former Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS)--renamed Cordoba University and located in Ashburn, Va., since 2005. The second was the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a body mainly supported by radicals from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. GSISS was raided by U.S. antiterrorism investigators in the GreenQuest inquiry of 2002. ISNA is an unindicted coconspirator in the current court proceeding in Dallas against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF). The Holy Land Foundation is charged with financing terrorism by serving as a front for Hamas, and was shut down by the federal authorities at the end of 2001.
Right after 9/11, federal prison authorities appeared visibly uncomfortable with the Wahhabi chaplain challenge. The problem brought up constitutional issues, but also exposed the ignorance about Islamic affairs that made much of the American government susceptible to Islamist intrigues, and the difficulty of removing the chaplains from service once they had become government employees.
Yet the prisons produced more and more evidence that something profoundly threatening to domestic security was taking place behind bars. In 2003, then-governor of New York George Pataki dismissed Warith Deen Umar, head of the Muslim chaplains in that state's prisons, for speaking in praise of Osama bin Laden. Umar had planted a network of equally-radical chaplains throughout the state's lockups; but he alone was removed, while the rest remained in place. In the following years other Muslim prison chaplains who had dedicated themselves to hateful and inflammatory rhetoric were exposed, but little action was taken against them (see "Islam in the Big House").
Also in 2003, attention was drawn to a small group of Shia Muslims in the New York prisons who revived an ongoing lawsuit against the Wahhabi chaplains. In 2006, a federal court found merit in the Shia claim of discrimination. Nevertheless, documenting and removing radical Islam from American prisons proved to be no easy task. It was not helpful that anti-radical Muslims who claimed to possess piles of inmate letters complaining about their mistreatment by the Wahhabis never released the material.
Meanwhile, in 2004 the Inspector General of the federal BOP issued a report in which the IG effectively exonerated the BOP for allowing Islamist radicals to seize such sensitive positions inside the correctional system, but suggested a practical measure to at least partly address the problem: "Our fieldwork also revealed that supervision of chapel libraries is not as thorough as it should be. None of the chaplains at the facilities that we visited was able to produce an inventory of the books and videos available to the inmates, and it did not appear that these materials had been evaluated after the terrorist attacks of September 11. We recommend that the BOP undertake an inventory of chapel books and videos to confirm that they are permissible under BOP security policies. The BOP also should consider maintaining a central registry of acceptable material to prevent duplication of effort when reviewing these materials."
In assisting the Shia prisoners with their complaint, I examined a catalogue of the Islamic literature held in a New York state prison library. I found that the facility held many copies of the "classic" by the founder of Wahhabi movement, Muhammad Ibn abd al-Wahhab, the Book of Monotheism, which is merely a guidebook for persecution of alleged heretics. In addition, the library included multiple volumes by the 13th century fundamentalist Muslim jurist Ibn Taymiyya, considered the inspirer of Ibn abd al-Wahhab. Both figures are recognized as the progenitors of al Qaeda's ideology. Finally, American prisons had become known as a place where the Wahhabi version of the Koran, printed in Saudi Arabia in English, was widely distributed (see "Rewriting the Koran"). But no classics of mainstream, moderate Islam, or of Sufi spirituality, or even of Shia theology, were available to the convicts.
So the BOP was correct in recommending a review of prison library holdings. But the Bureau's implementation was disastrous. As reported in the New York Times and other dailies last week--but generally overshadowed by coverage of new European terror plots, the latest Bin Laden videos, the 9/11 anniversary, and the appearance of Gen. David Petraeus in Washington--the BOP has removed much more from prison libraries than radical Islamic literature. The federal officials have thrown out thousands of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim books that were donated or otherwise acquired. Two federal prisoners at Otisville, NY--one Jewish, Moshe Milstein, and one Christian, John J. Okon--have filed suit alleging a denial of their first amendment rights.
The federal prison authorities claim they assembled lists of acceptable books on the world's religions, before conducting their library-cleansing operation, by consulting a group of experts. The catalogue of approved reading and the identities of the experts are undisclosed. But Michael Gerson noted in the Washington Post on September 14 that the Jewish mystical classic The Zohar and the legal works of the Jewish philosopher and jurist Maimonides have been trashed.
One might imagine the BOP was motivated by fear of appearing Islamophobic if it did not expunge more non-Muslim than Muslim literature from prison libraries. It is also tempting to think that a governmental prison-library sweep against the texts of all religions would be simply another example of the recent trend, in which repulsion against radical Islam has fuelled contempt for faith in general. But on the basis of my own experience, I suggest a different explanation. The federal prison authorities have committed an exceptional and absurd act of blundering censorship for the same reason they permitted Wahhabi chaplains to infiltrate the system. They are bureaucrats who could not and cannot be bothered to learn enough about Islam to make sensible decisions in combating those who use religion as a pretext for extremism and terror.
The BOP book purge should be halted and corrected, and replaced by a new policy that seriously analyzes and proposes realistic solutions for the continuing presence of Wahhabi clerics in American prisons.
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