Jailhouse Jihad

It was the kind of scene that, had the stakes not been so high, could have been mistaken for a skit from Saturday Night Live. A tall suspicious-looking Muslim, on a flight from Paris to Miami, once again threatened to turn an airliner into a mass grave. This time, his weapon wasn't a knife or a box-cutter. It was a bomb in his shoes, which he tried to set on fire.   Well, as we all know, the flight attendants and passengers extinguished his blazing Nikes, thankfully, before anyone was hurt. And while Richard Reid's actions may seem almost comical in retrospect, there's nothing funny about what's going on in prisons on both sides of the Atlantic.   In the mid-1990s, Reid was sentenced to prison for a series of street crimes. He served his time at the Feltham Young Offenders Institute west of London. It was there that he was converted to Islam.   But if you're thinking that it was Islam of the "peace and submission" variety we hear so much about, think again. A recent story in the Guardian newspaper reports that in British prisons moderate Islamic clergy are being pushed aside by radical Muslims. One cleric told the Guardian that "some of the people we've seen going into prisons" would never be welcome in mosques outside of prison "because of their extreme views."   One such extreme cleric is Abdul Rahman Qureshi, the Imam at the same prison were Reid was incarcerated. In the days following September 11, Qureshi made anti-American statements in his weekly talk with inmates. He called the U.S. a "big devil" and distributed literature that described America as "the great evil that must be wiped out."   After corrections officers found the literature and brought it to the Home Office's attention, Qureshi was suspended. And he wasn't alone. Another Imam working in prisons was suspended for similar activities. As the New York Times put it, "evidence seems to be building that the [British] prisons . . . have become centers of Islamic fundamentalism . . ."   And the problem isn't limited to Britain. Islam is well-established in American prisons too, especially among African-American inmates. The past few years, we've seen a troubling shift in the kind of Islam preached in our prisons. Radical clerics are crowding out the efforts of more moderate, mainstream Muslims.   The Islamic Supreme Council (a moderate Islamic group) has complained that their literature has been removed from American prison libraries by radical Imams who claim it is "un-Islamic." In words that ominously echo the Times, the group says that "the [American] prisons are becoming a breeding ground for Islamic extremism." It also cites prisoner comments that "the sermons of these chaplains are often inflammatory."   Now no one is a bigger supporter of prisoners' rights to religious freedom than I am. Muslims, like Christians, should be free to make and nurture converts within prison walls. But, at the same time, we ought to be aware of what is being preached and the possible consequences of that preaching. Prisons today can be breeding grounds for terrorists. So we're rightly concerned about security, and we're also concerned with counteracting the rhetoric that treats all religions as equivalent.   They are not, as these stories from prison illustrate. And failure to understand this fundamental truth is no laughing matter.   ========================================   Sources:   Alan Cowell, "The Shadowy Trail and Shift to Islam of a Bomb Suspect," The New York Times, 29 December 2001.   Paul Kelso, "Prison Imam suspended for anti-US stance," The Guardian, 28 December 2001.   =========================================   For more information:   Dr. Timothy George, "Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?", October 2001.


Chuck Colson



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