Targeting Muslim Chaplains:
Neo-Conservatives and Christian right-wingers have extended their attacks on Muslims in America (see Grassroots, Spring Issue, “Those who war on Islam”) by focusing on Muslim chaplains in the state and federal prison systems and in the military.
Their overall goal in attacking Muslims is to marginalize Muslims. This is evidenced in a recent Wall Street Journal article in which neo-conservatives lamented that Muslims groups such as CAIR and AMC are still being invited to government functions. These Islam bashers desperately want to see Muslims and Muslim organizations disappear from the public arena.
As part of their strategy, neo-conservatives and Christian right-wingers are now attacking Muslim chaplains. Their clear aim is to eliminate Muslim chaplains, stop the conversion of prisoners to Islam and subvert the right of prisoners to practice Islam while incarcerated.
Colson’s Initial Attacks
The Christian fundamentalist Chuck Colson, whose vicious and unfounded attacks began after 9/11, was one of the first to initiate attacks on Muslim chaplains. Colson wrote in a June 24, 2002 Wall Street Journal article entitled “Evangelizing for Evil in our Prisons,” that Islam in prisons is radical, violent and supported by Saudi Arabia. His solution? First, “prison officials have ample legal authority to deny radical imams access to inmates,” (in other words, get rid of the Muslim chaplains); and second, convert Muslims to Christianity. Evidentially Colson’s problem is not that prisoners embrace religion as a means of reform, but that they may choose Islam over Christianity.
The floodgates of attack upon the Muslim chaplainry opened wide following the arrest of Jose Padilla (Abdullah al-Muhajir) for his alleged association with al-Qaedah. Many articles and right-wing talk shows pointed to the conversion of Abdullah to Islam in an Illinois prison as the source of the problem, inciting fear and backlash against Muslims by painting an ominous picture of a growing and dangerous presence of Islam in prisons.
The Attack on Imam Umar
The most vicious and influential attack was the front-page, Wall Street Journal article of February 5, 2003 by Paul Barrett against Warith Deen Umar, the former, long-time head of Muslim chaplains in New York state. On the pretext of writing an article about Islam in prisons, Barrett spent long hours interviewing numerous NY Muslim chaplains, but his article focused on twisting the words of Imam Umar and concocting a picture of a Wahhabi plot to radicalize Muslim prisoners.
Imam Umar vehemently denies all the accusations in the article. In fact, he has retained counsel and plans to sue the Wall Street Journal. According to Imam Umar, the most blatant distortions were Barrett’s statements that Umar said that the hijackers of 9/11 should be honored as martyrs and that African American inmates would be natural candidates to continue the terrorists’ attacks. Imam Umar says he was quoted correctly from his forthcoming book to say: “Even Muslims who say they are against terrorism secretly admire and applaud…” but Barrett’s added “’applaud’ the hijackers,” which completely alters what Umar actually wrote. In fact, Imam Umar did not say that Muslims applaud the hijackers; he was in fact discussing the Palestinian resistance and suicide bombers. And, it is a fact that Muslims do have sympathy for the Palestinian struggle against the illegal Israeli occupation, although being against terrorism in general.
Refuting Barrett’s second distortion that African American Muslim prisons are candidates to continue the terrorism, Imam Umar states that what he did say was that Islam offers them (Muslim prison converts) a new life, but if they are abused, oppressed and pressured, and derangement occurs, then they might do anything.
Barrett’s article also claimed that Imam Umar had adopted Wahhabism and that with the support of Saudi Arabia was bringing this “harsh form of Islam to NY’s expanding ranks of Muslim prisoners.” What was the proof of Imam Umar’s Wahhabism and radical Islam? His Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) was financed by Saudi Arabia. In Barrett’s twisted logic, somehow going to Hajj is sinister—a time of indoctrination to extremist Islam. Such claims would be laughable if they were not so pernicious. Saudi Arabia provides financial assistance to help thousands of Muslims attend Hajj every year. If Barrett had done any investigation, he’d know that the rites of Hajj are physically demanding and time consuming, so as to preclude any logical assumption that Hajj could be used as a time of indoctrination.
Those who know Imam Umar find it incredulous that anyone thinks of him as Wahhabi. Of course, Barrett defines “Wahhabi” in a vague and inadequate fashion as “one who takes a literal interpretation of the Quran and is intolerant of those who disagree.” However, even using this definition, it is clear that Imam Umar is neither a literalist nor an intolerant hater of others who disagree with him. Imam Umar himself says that he does not consider himself a Wahhabi. He says, “I am just a Muslim. I am not on any campaign against Sufism, Shi’ites, or Minister Farakhan.”
Neo-conservatives obviously have little clue about the history and dynamics of Wahhabi thought. As usual with Islam bashers, they don’t find it necessary to get the facts straight; instead they are building up the term “Wahhabism” as an epitome of evil—a catchall bin into which they can then dump any committed Muslim they have a need to discredit.
The most compelling argument against the accusations of Barrett is simply the fact that Imam Umar has had a long and distinguished career within the prison system and, if there were a conspiracy to turn prisoners into terrorists, there would be clear and ample evidence of terrorism and radicalism among ex-prisoners. The reality is that there is none.
Immediately after Barrett’s article appeared, Muslims chaplains were forced into a glaring light of investigation. Politicians such as Senator Schumar (D-NY) called for hearings on Muslim chaplains and neo-conservatives, and Christian right-wingers called for their dismissal or at least a re-examination of their beliefs. Imam Umar suffered greatly as a result of the article: NY state barred him from state prisons and the federal system fired him as a part-time contract chaplain. These actions were taken without even discussing the charges with Imam Umar—unbelievably, state and federal agencies accepted Barrett’s accusations on face value.
Most prison systems did take a second look at their Muslim chaplains but in this first round, Muslim chaplains have emerged unscathed. NY State did not fire any Muslim chaplain due to the accusations in Barrett’s article. The NY Commissioner of Prisons, Goord, held a meeting with the Executive Committee of Muslim Chaplains and repeated what he said in the article, “Muslim chaplains have been very, very positive for us.” Prison officials know the great contributions that Muslim chaplains have made in guiding the large and influential Muslim prison population toward a more constructive relationship with prison authorities. Historically, as in the 1970s Attica rebellion in NY, the influence of Muslim inmates prevented wild excesses, which anger and frustration can breed.
The federal Bureau of Prisons has also supported their Muslim chaplains. Most Muslim chaplains in the federal system have 10 years of service and they have proven themselves as effective leaders. The Bureau did initiate a full review and background check of all Muslim contract chaplains and volunteers. However, the review did not lead to the dismissal of any other chaplain besides Imam Umar. Muslim chaplains have, therefore, survived these initial attacks but the ballgame is not over.
The September arrest of the translator Ahmad al Halabi and the detention of Muslim chaplain James Yee and translator Ahmed Fathy Meholba have opened the door further for those intent on attacking Muslim chaplains. James Yee and Ahmad al Halabi are known within the Muslim community as sincere, balanced Muslims. All three have denied any wrongdoing. In the view of many Muslim observers, these charges are nothing more than misunderstandings (maps of the base could be simply used for direction) or innocent breaches of protocol (harmless messages to be sent to families of detainees).
In the wake of the arrests, Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) called for and received a Pentagon promise to review the endorsement process for Muslim chaplains. Presently Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and American Muslim Foundation (AMF) are the endorsers, and each has delegated the endorsing responsibility to other groups: Graduate School of Islamic Social Sciences headed by Dr. Taha Alalwani for ISNA and American Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council led by Qaseem Uqdah for AMF.
Daniel Pipes in a recent Wall Street Journal article outlined what the neo-conservatives want: break off relations with the present Muslim endorsers, suspend all Muslim military chaplains, and give the endorsement of Muslim chaplains to “anti-Islamist” organizations such as Kabbani’s Islamic Supreme Council and a little known Shi’ite organization called American Muslim Congress. Talk show hosts Kudlow and Cramer along with the notorious Muslim basher Steve Emerson as their “expert” guest called for the dismissal of Muslim chaplains especially those in the military.
At a Senate subcommittee hearing on October 14th, Kyl, Schumer and Diana Finestein (D-CA) took turns accusing ISNA and AMF as suspected supporters of terrorists and questioning whether they should be endorsers. The pressure is mounting.