Bad Books Behind Bars
by Stephen Schwartz
Early this year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced the completion of an inventory of Islamic books and videos in Muslim chapel libraries in the 105 federal correctional institutions. The bureau had undertaken the inventory at the recommendation of the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General, which in turn was responding to the concerns of terrorism experts and members of Congress who sought to end or forestall the radicalization of Muslim inmates. I obtained a copy under the Freedom of Information Act.
The inventory, which runs to 399 pages, shows a marked predominance of Wahhabi and other fundamentalist Sunni literature among the Muslim holdings of federal prison chapels. The collections also contain plentiful materials from the Nation of Islam, the extreme black nationalist movement headed by Louis Farrakhan, but Shia and Sufi works are generally absent, as are texts on broader aspects of Islamic history and culture.
This finding is significant in light of two other facts: Muslim extremists' openly stated intent to spread their ideology in prisons, and the Bureau of Prisons' own past reliance on Muslim chaplains trained in Wahhabi Islam. While no major acts of terror have been traced to recruitment in U.S. prisons, the tools necessary for extremist indoctrination remain, unaccountably, in place.
Among the authors available to inmates in federal prisons, contemporary popularizers of Islamism, including jihadist radicals, are well represented. More encouraging is the discovery that the inventory includes only half a dozen copies of the infamous Wahhabi edition of the Koran, printed in English in Saudi Arabia with interlineated extremist commentaries (see "Rewriting the Koran," THE WEEKLY STANDARD, September 27, 2004).
But the inventory shows at least 280 copies of works by Abdullah Hakim Quick, a Wahhabi-oriented fundamentalist from South Africa. These include videos of Quick preaching hateful attacks on Baha'is, as well as Ahmadis, a heterodox Muslim group, and titles like Muslims Under Siege and The Importance of Da'wa in Times of Crisis. (Da'wa is Islamic missionary activity. Islamists pursue da'wa aggressively, sometimes with the explicit goal of establishing a worldwide Islamic state or caliphate.) Quick is also known for his pseudo-historical claims for an early Muslim presence in the Americas. The inventory further lists 250 items by another South African extremist, the late Ahmed Deedat, notorious as an anti-Christian preacher, with such piquant titles as Da'wa or Destruction, as well as ferocious attacks on Salman Rushdie.
Federal prison chapel libraries offer some 200 volumes by the Pakistani jihadist Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-79) and approximately 200 copies of works by the eccentric Turkish Islamist Harun Yahya, who is known for donating books printed in numerous languages around the world, many of them expounding anti-Western conspiracy theories. It also lists 185 copies of offerings by a prominent North American fundamentalist, the Egyptian-born Jamal Badawi; 175 copies of titles by Imam Siraj Wahhaj, the preacher best known for spreading Wahhabism among black Americans; and 125 by Jamal Zarabozo, a white American Sunni radical. Zarabozo is the compiler of a retrograde 1996 collection of Islamic fatwas on the status of women.
Missing from the books on Islam available in federal prison chapels is any semblance of pluralism, though competing schools of thought have characterized Islam from the beginning. Even the most famous Islamic classics are slighted. The inventory shows only a dozen volumes by the 12th-century philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroës), renowned as a commentator on Aristotle. It lists fewer than half a dozen copies of texts by the philosopher Alfarabi, the great Sufi Ibn Arabi, and the historian Ibn Khaldun, and not a single book by the Islamic polymath Ibn Sina (Avicenna).
The prison library register does encompass 50 volumes by the greatest Islamic theological figure after Muhammad (and the defender of Sufism), al-Ghazali, and more than 25 copies of selections of the Sufi poet Rumi. But other classic Sufi authors are absent. Shia writers are only sporadically represented, with no more than a dozen copies of Shia classics like The Peak of Eloquence, the commentaries of the caliph Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and inspirer of the Shia sect.
Chapel collections include some 50 English and Spanish editions of the Koran issued by the Shia publisher Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an. But these Korans do not substitute for works explaining Shia doctrine.
The inventory shows 33 copies of works by the radical cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, whose manual of sharia, The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, is widely read by Sunnis. This means that approximately one in three prison chapel libraries includes this volume, habitually used to introduce new Muslims to fundamentalism.
In addition, one finds 30 copies of writings by Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), a leading light of the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Prison libraries house 9 copies of works promoting the "achievements" of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, as well as 19 copies of al-Wahhab's own Kitab al-Tawhid (The Book of Monotheism), the "classic" work of Wahhabi doctrine, which is incomprehensible to anybody other than a serious Islamic scholar or a person guided through an indoctrination process. The presence of this specialized text-unknown to most ordinary Muslim believers, mainstream clerics, and academics-in the libraries of roughly 25 percent of federal prisons is highly suggestive.
These books are at the disposal not only of inmates but also of the Muslim chaplains who serve them. In 2003, the Justice Department froze the hiring of Muslim chaplains after authorities realized the only Muslim organization that had "completed the paperwork required by the BOP to endorse chaplain applicants," the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), was a successor to a Saudi-backed Wahhabi group, the Muslim Students' Association. In effect, this Wahhabi outfit had become the sole screening organization for Muslim prison chaplains-including some individuals still on the payroll today.
Also in 2003, the notorious Warith Deen Umar (born Wallace Gene Marks), founder and president of the National Association of Muslim Chaplains, was finally fired after his terrorist sympathies were exposed in the Wall Steet Journal. Chief Islamic chaplain in the New York State prisons for 25 years until 2000 and later a contractor in the federal prison in Otisville, New York, Umar had not been terminated even after "BOP staff observed Umar repeatedly give sermons that violated BOP security policies," according to the Justice Department Inspector General's 2004 Review of the Federal BOP's Selection of Muslim Religious Service Providers.
That same Review set in motion the recently completed chapel library inventory and urged the BOP to maintain "a central registry of acceptable material" for prisons. It also urged that prospective chaplains be questioned about whether they supported violence and had ever received funds from foreign governments. But the Review failed to insist on the firing of extremist chaplains hired before the freeze and to establish a mechanism for the removal of offensive books and videos already in prison collections. Clearly, there is more work to be done to clean radical Islam out of U.S. prisons.
Related Topics: Prisons receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
© 2023 Center for Islamic Pluralism.
home | articles | announcements | spoken | wahhabiwatch | about us | cip in the media | reports
external articles | bookstore | mailing list | contact us | @twitter | iraqi daily al-sabah al-jadid