NEW YORK – It’s Friday on Rikers Island, time for weekly worship for nearly a quarter of the city jail’s 14,000 inmates.
The men, Muslims, file quietly into a classroom of white cinderblock that serves as their mosque. Incense burns to chase away a sour smell from the hall, as the inmates sit quietly on sheets stamped “Department of Corrections” covering the linoleum floor.
Imam Menelik Muhammad is delivering the day’s sermon. As he stands beneath a Quranic prayer on the wall facing Mecca, he urges the prisoners to reform. “You will not be considered a Muslim,” he admonishes, “unless people are considered safe from your hands and your tongue.”
Across the United States, tens of thousands of Muslims are practicing their faith behind bars. Islam is most likely to win American converts there, according to U.S. Muslim leaders, and the religion has for decades been a regular part of prison culture.
But the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have brought new scrutiny to Muslim inmates, many of whom are black men focused on surviving incarceration. While prison chaplains of various denominations argue that Islam offers a spiritual path to rehabilitation, others say it has the potential to turn felons into terrorists. The FBI calls prisons “fertile ground for extremists.”
The reality is harder to read: Those on opposing sides have such divergent views they seem irreconcilable. Who’s right matters not only for national security, but for the development of American Islam itself, which is struggling to be accepted alongside the major faiths in the United States.
Ever since the 2002 arrest of Jose Padilla, a felon and American Muslim convert who authorities say planned a “dirty bomb” radiological attack after he left jail, law enforcement officials, politicians and even a few evangelical leaders have warned that Muslim inmates are ripe for terrorist recruitment.
Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, has said: “Wahhabi influence is inculcating them with the same kind of militant ideas that drove the 9/11 hijackers to kill thousands of Americans.” Wahhabism is a strict form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, which was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers.
Chuck Colson, founder of the evangelical Prison Fellowship Ministries and a Nixon administration official, predicted that “radical Islamists will use prisons, packed with angry and resentful men,” to avenge Islam.
“Prisons continue to be fertile ground for extremists who exploit both a prisoner’s conversion to Islam while still in prison, as well as their socio-economic status and placement in the community upon their release,” FBI director Robert Mueller said Feb. 16 to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.
Prison chaplains and others, however, say such warnings are dangerously ignorant.
In interviews with The Associated Press, chaplains, prison volunteers, correctional officials, inmates and former inmates all insisted that there was no evidence of terrorist recruitment by Muslims in their prisons – although banned pamphlets and books sometimes slip in.
Chaplains describe the typical inmate convert as a poor, black American upset about racism, not Mideast politics; someone who turned to Islam to cope with imprisonment. When they get out, these men are so overwhelmed by alcoholism or poverty that the crimes they are most likely to commit are the ones that landed them in jail to begin with, chaplains say.
“They don’t care about Osama bin Laden,” said Imam Talib Abdur Rashid, who worked for years as a chaplain in New York state’s prison system. “They have their own beefs that have nothing to do with shariah (Islamic law), the Taliban or Wahhabism, and everything to do with slavery, segregation and the history of U.S. racism.”
In other parts of the world, such as England and France, there is growing concern about militants trying to recruit inmates, which in turn is fueling fear about American prisons. Historically, radicals have consistently tried to gain followers behind bars.
But if extreme teachings are reaching U.S. prisoners, experts say small-time operators acting alone are more likely to be responsible than an underground movement or someone in the ranks of professional chaplains.
Just defining the scope of the Islamic presence behind bars in the United States is tricky.
Though on the federal level they comprise about 6 percent of roughly 150,000 inmates, there are no nationwide statistics on Muslims in state prisons.
Experts believe the largest numbers in state prisons can be found in New York, where Muslims comprise roughly 18 percent of the 63,700 inmates; Pennsylvania, where the figure is about 18 percent out of 41,100; and California, where state officials don’t tally religious affiliation but the figure could easily be in the thousands.
The bottom line is that the percentage of American Muslims in prison is almost certainly higher than it is in the general population, where the number of Muslims could be as high as 6 million, or roughly 2 percent.
Islam took hold in prison in the 1940s, through the Nation of Islam. Leaders of the religious movement, which mixes Muslim traditions with black nationalism, were imprisoned for refusing to fight in World War II and, as a result, their teaching spread behind bars. Among their most famous prison recruits was Malcolm X.
Another boom came two decades later, when Muslim inmates sued prison administrators, accusing them of violating religious freedoms. The inmates won, and transformed jailhouse practice of all faiths.
Starting in the 1980s, get-tough sentencing laws filled jails with a disproportionate number of blacks, leading to another spike in conversion. But by this time, many blacks who once belonged to the Nation of Islam had embraced orthodox Islam instead – and that is what the majority of inmates practice today.
Or, at least they say they do.
Some inmates become Muslim in name only, either to seek protection from prison gangs, enjoy privileges like holiday meals, or escape the monotony of prison life through classes and weekly worship. Mika’il DeVeaux, a Muslim convert who spent 25 years in New York prisons for murder, encountered inmates who converted but had little or no understanding of the religion. One inmate, he recalled, thought converting would allow him to circumvent prison rules and wear a hat that looked like a turban.
But for some prisoners, the change is authentic, and correctional officials say Islamic observance actually helps them maintain prison security.
Said Anthony Windle, who converted to Islam at Rikers Island while awaiting trial on a drug conspiracy charge: “The more you learn, the harder it is for somebody to feed you untruths and lead you in the wrong direction.”
Duval Rafq, who was convicted of rape and became Muslim two years into his Connecticut prison sentence, said converting led him to accept responsibility for his crime. Released five years ago, he worships at Masjid Al-Islam in New Haven, and works while attending night school for heating and refrigeration repair.
“My behavior all of a sudden changed and other people’s attitude and behavior toward me changed,” Rafq said.
Despite such success stories, some lawmakers and analysts remain convinced that radical Muslim chaplains, prison volunteers and Muslim prison outreach organizations are escaping notice of law enforcement – and they note that just one militant inmate could create enormous risk.
The Institute of Islamic Information & Education, based in Chicago, was one example cited at a 2003 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on terrorist recruitment in prisons and the military.
The traditionalist institute sends books on Islam to prison chaplains and says it responds to more than 3,000 letters from inmates annually, inquiring about Muslim dietary laws and teachings.
But its founder, Amir Ali, also runs another Web site.
In those postings, he calls al-Qaida leader bin Laden a “true Muslim” who wouldn’t hurt anyone and contends Hollywood producers fabricated the videotapes that have been broadcast over the last few years of bin Laden threatening more violence.
Ali, who left Pakistan for the United States four decades ago to earn a doctorate, says Israel committed the Sept. 11 attacks to force changes in U.S. immigration laws so that fewer Muslims would be admitted. He has posted the names of Jews with links to the Bush administration as evidence of Israeli manipulation and referred readers to the Web site of David Duke, who has led several white supremacist groups, to back up Ali’s argument that Jews control the media.
As startling as his opinions are, it’s unclear what danger they pose inside prisons, because the breadth of Ali’s reach to inmates cannot be measured.
Despite attracting the Senate’s attention, several Christian, Jewish and Muslim chaplains around the country said in interviews that they had never heard of Ali or his institute.
Inmates are barred from using the Internet, and Ali’s books and pamphlets – like all material sent to prisons – are vetted by chaplains and correctional officials. Literature that could agitate prisoners is prohibited, but officials also concede that banned publications sometimes get through. In the New York state system, some inmates who are among the tiny minority of Shiite Muslims behind bars said in lawsuits that Sunni chaplains handed out literature condemning them.
Ali, in a phone interview, insists he keeps his political views separate from his religious outreach, which at one time was partially funded by a Saudi Arabian organization.
“As a citizen of this country, I believe I have a right to my views,” said Ali, adding he’s never been contacted by the FBI. “There’s nothing secret about it. None of this material goes to prison and none of this material goes to anybody except those who visit this Web site.”
The Islamic Correctional Reunion Association, a one-man operation based in Tinley Park, Ill., was also cited as a potential source of radical thinking in the same Senate hearing.
Mohammad Firdausi, a retired Illinois prison chaplain who still works directly with state inmates, has been sending prisoners pamphlets on Islam since founding the organization in 1979. Samples that he sent to AP primarily explained basic Muslim teachings.
However, they also included a pamphlet from the Al-Huda Islamic Center in Georgia, whose literature has been banned in some state prisons. The pamphlet’s authors condemn terrorism, but write that “sometimes violence is a human response of oppressed people as it happens in Palestine.”
“Although this is wrong, this is the only way for them to attract attention,” the pamphlet’s authors said.
Firdausi, a native of India who emigrated for graduate work, said in a telephone interview he opposes violence and supports interfaith dialogue, but believes Muslims have the right to defend themselves if they are under attack in places like Israel and Kashmir. Asked about bin Laden, he said, “I don’t think he even exists.”
“We have so much advanced technology and with all this power we cannot find this person? That is hard to understand,” said Firdausi, who said an FBI agent visited him twice after Sept. 11, but nothing came of it.
Paul Rogers, president of the American Correctional Chaplains Association, an interfaith group, had not heard of either organization, but said self-styled missionaries of all faiths commonly set up one-person outreach efforts consisting of only a Web site or post office box.
Many are either on an “ego trip” or trying to bilk money from prisoners, he said. He discovered one such group that offered inmates free Qurans, then charged them $15 to be kept on a mailing list.
Another issue is the background of chaplains who have face-to-face contact with inmates.
Since Islam has no central authority or the equivalent of a major seminary in the United States, Rogers said most prison officials turn to local Muslim leaders to evaluate these outreach organizations and chaplain candidates.
In New York state prisons, which are separate from city-run Rikers Island, some say those safeguards failed.
Imam Warith Deen Umar, who worked for nearly two decades as leader of the Muslim chaplaincy program for New York state before retiring in 2000, expressed support for the Sept. 11 attacks in a 2003 interview with The Wall Street Journal. The newspaper found two other New York prison chaplains had made similar comments.
Umar, who said he was misquoted and insisted he did not support the hijackings, was subsequently banned from New York prisons and lost a contract for chaplaincy work in federal prison.
Some chaplains insisted Umar should not be seen as typical of prison imams. Before becoming a chaplain, Umar, a one-time Nation of Islam leader, spent two years in prison on a weapons possession charge related to an alleged conspiracy to kill police, and was hired at a time when former convicts were allowed to hold the job. But ex-convicts have been barred from the chaplaincy for about two decades.
The secrecy surrounding terrorist investigations makes it hard to know whether the government has found new evidence of radicalization among prison converts.
In September 2003, FBI supervisory special agent Andrew Black told a conference for correctional officers in Ohio that there have been no documented cases of U.S. inmates joining al-Qaida in prison. Asked if that was still the case now, an FBI spokesman in Washington said the agency could not comment.
Meanwhile, 10 full-time Muslim chaplains in federal prisons told Justice Department investigators in a report last year that they had witnessed no attempts by al-Qaida or other terror groups to radicalize inmates.
Gary Friedman, a lay chaplain and chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International, said irresponsible politicians and religious leaders have trumped up the idea of a Muslim threat behind bars to score points with voters or promote conservative Christianity.
“It’s a crusade,” Friedman said. Neither Colson nor Schumer would comment.
A related, and some say even bigger, challenge for law enforcement is monitoring inmates when they get out. Padilla, who has not been charged, turned to radical Islam after he was released, federal agents said.
The same occurred with Richard Reid, who was convicted of attempting to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight with explosives in his shoes. He was a prison convert in England who became involved with militants after he was freed.
In the United States, chaplains say a culture change in prison makes the spread of extremism less likely.
Back in the 1970s, many Muslim inmates were veterans of black nationalist movements who felt a connection with Third World anti-colonial struggles and antipathy toward U.S. government policies. Many linked their plight with that of the Palestinians.
Jimmy Jones, a Muslim who worked for about 25 years as a chaplain in a New Haven jail and still counsels inmates, said that way of thinking is no longer the norm. Jones said he heard a couple of young inmates cheer the Sept. 11 attacks, but he contended their response came from “adolescent bitterness” about being incarcerated.
“I think people are confusing what people say with what people might do. The younger inmates don’t know anything about the Third World or about Egypt or the Middle East. They’re not making those kind of connections,” said Jones, a professor of world religion at Manhattanville College. “Al-Qaida would have more success recruiting at a college than in prison.”