Today's Wall Street Journal leads with an article about Imam Warith Deen Umar
, who teaches and preaches Islam in New York's state-prison system. The article details how this practice, coupled with the natural inclination of prisoners towards criminal enterprise, has turned the American prison population into a fertile recruiting ground for Islamic terrorists like Al Qaeda. This isn't just conjecture -- it's actually happening. Alleged 'dirty bomber' Jose Padilla
was such a case. He was a disenchanted American citizen, who through his experience in prison, converted to Islam and decided to become a terrorist.
Ordinarily, religious fervor in prison is no big deal. Indeed, prisons often co-opt religion as a means of social control, to help prisoners take responsibility for their actions and add order to their lives. However, the Islamic penetration of American prisons has tapped into something that could pose great danger to America's safety. Prisoners have natural advantages over terrorists from other countries:
1) They're American citizens, which confers legal advantages in dealing with America's legal system
2) They know the streets and the operational environment, and are less likely to be detected for making a stupid mistake that owes to cross-cultural difficulties (no Middle East accented English, for example)
3) They are already inclined towards dangerous, criminal activity, and likely have the means/tools/connections to conduct more of it.
4) They often have little to lose in the way of social standing or connections, and possibly stand to gain great stature through terrorism.
Imam Umar doesn't just accept terrorism as a distant cousin of the Islam he preaches; he embraces terrorism as a meaningful weapon against the West:"Even Muslims who say they are against terrorism secretly admire and applaud" the hijackers, he wrote in an unpublished memoir. The Quran, he said, does not condemn terrorism against oppressors of Muslims, even if innocent people die. "This is the sort of teaching they don't want in prison," he said. "But this is what I'm doing."
The greatest irony of all is that New York -- a state terribly ravaged by terrorism -- is inviting this man into its prisons and paying him
to spread the message of fundamentalist Islam. California and many other states are doing the same thing, co-opting Islam and other faiths as a way of promoting social control within their prisons' walls.Prison officials in New York and many other states long have welcomed Muslim imams and clergy of other faiths. Religion provides structured activity that reduces security problems in prison, they say. It encourages inmates to accept responsibility for their actions and turn their backs on crime upon their release.
But there is another side to Islam behind bars. While Imam Umar says the focus of his preaching usually "is on work, family and getting an education," he also says that prison "is the perfect recruitment and training grounds for radicalism and the Islamic religion."
A prison chaplain since 1975, he has seen Islam grow among inmates, mirroring the vast increase in the incarceration of African-Americans, some of whom adopt the religion as inmates. As the most influential Muslim prison chaplain in New York, which has the fourth-largest state system in the nation, he and some of his trainees adopted the fundamentalist offshoot of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. Rooted in Saudi Arabia, it stresses a literal reading of the Quran and intolerance for people and sects that don't follow its absolutist teaching.
Ready for the kicker? The U.S. Constitution forbids prisons from exercising more than general oversight over Imam Umar's activities -- or those of any other religious fundamentalist (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or other) who preaches behind prison walls:The chaplains have operated with little supervision from state prison officials, who say the constitutional protection of religious freedom prevents them from closely monitoring religious services.