Little Falls Evening Times, Feb. 7, 2003
By MAT RAPACZ Evening Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON — For 20 years, the state’s top Muslim cleric, Warith Deen Umar, has been allowed to appoint Muslim clerics to New York state prisons who preach a militant brand of the religion, Wahhabism, while barring moderate Muslim clerics from serving.
In a telephone press conference Thursday, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer expressed his concern over the practice. “I’m just utterly amazed this has happened,” Schumer said, later adding, “it’s been going on for about 20 years but it’s been getting worse and worse.”
On Tuesday, the state banned Umar from ever setting foot again in a state prison system for saying the 9/11 hijackers should be remembered as martyrs. As administrative chaplain of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, Umar had the sole responsibility for recruiting the prison system’s clerics until his retirement two years ago.
There are about 13,000 Muslims in New York state prisons, Schumer said. There is evidence the state prison system in Pennsylvania, the federal prison system and maybe even the military itself faces a similar problem, he said.
The problem surfaced when some Muslims who oppose the radical views of the Wahhabi sect objected. “Some excluded Muslim groups came to us and as we looked into it deeper we were amazed,” Schumer said. Non-Wahhabi inmates complained of brutal attacks by Wahhabi inmates. “Many of those he appointed preached a great deal of violence,” he said.
Moderate Islamic chaplains also complained that they were not allowed to enter prisons and preach to Muslim prisoners.
Schumer feels the state Corrections Commission needs greater oversight into the cleric selection process; that more Muslim pluralism be allowed and that no-one should be allowed to preach violence in the prisons.
Schumer said he would like an explanation into what happened from Corrections Commissioner Glenn S. Gord, suggesting he could be in “hot water.” In a letter, he called on Gord to dismiss all clerics hired under Umar’s supervision and to reconstitute Muslim leadership inside the state’s prisons to reflect a more moderate brand of Islam that represents the diversity of belief within the Sunni, Shia and Sufi sects that make up the Muslim community.
“My worry is within our own prison system we are potentially recruiting more troops for al-Qaeda and may have done so already,” Schumer said.