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New York Muslim Prison Chaplains Purged

by Matthew T. Clarke

Imam Warith Deen Umar helped found the advocacy group National Association of Muslim Chaplains (NAMC) in 1976. Since then, the 58-year old cleric and NAMC have come to exercise near monopolistic influence over the selection of Muslim prison chaplains in New York state prisons, according to critics. Umar has personally recruited and trained dozens of prison clerics and ministered to thousands of prisoners. The government of Saudi Arabia helped finance Umar's two trips to that Muslim monarchy and continues to finance his dissemination of their harsh form of fundamentalism known as Wahhabism, a Saudi Arabian offshoot of Sunni Islam. Wahhabism stresses a literal reading of the Quran and is intolerant of people who do not follow its absolutist teachings.

Of his youth in Illinois, Umar says, "I went to jail too many times to count." Living in New York in 1971, Umar and a group of radicals he befriended were overheard bragging about their plans murder police. Caught with a 9mm pistol and crude homemade bombs, Umar visited Louis Farrakahn before being sent to prison for two years. That meeting led to a prison conversion to Islam and a name change from Wallace Gene Marks to Wallace 10X. Umar became one of New York's first Muslim prison chaplains shortly after his release in 1975. Later he changed his name to Warith Deen Umar.

Umar says that the focus of his preaching is "on work, family, and getting an education," but prison "is the perfect recruitment and training grounds for radicalism and the Islamic religion." Umar retired from his state prison chaplaincy in August, 2002, but continued as a contract Muslim chaplain for the federal prison in Otisville, NY. He also continued to visit New York state prisons as an unpaid volunteer chaplain. These visits continued even after New York barred him from its prisons on February 4, 2003, for stating that the 9-11 hijackers should be honored as martyrs. His statement also resulted in the termination of his federal contract.

New York State Senator Michael F. Nozzolio, Chairman of the Senate Crime Victims, Crime, and Correction Committee, is upset about the selection process for Muslim chaplains in New York state prisons which, until recently, relied almost exclusively on Umar to select its clerics. He characterized it as "too trusting, too loose and too naive."

The early 2002 arrest of Osameh Al Wahaidi, the Muslim chaplain at Auburn Correctional Facility, brought the propriety of the selection process to the front burner. Al Wahaidi, who is a citizen of Jordan residing in the U.S. on an R-visa, is charged with helping to raise money that was illegally sent to Iraq.

Two other New York Muslim prison chaplains, both selected by Umar, were fired for anti-American activity. "Sufwan El Hadi, imam at Cape Vincent Correctional Facility, was fired for saying that September 11th was God's punishment and that the victims got what they deserved," the Associated Press reported. The AP reported that the comment was made on September 13, 2001, but Hadi denied making the comment. "Aminah Akbar, chaplain at the Albion Correctional Facility for women, was fired for praising Osama Bin Laden as a hero, AP said. She also denied making the comment," which was allegedly made six weeks after 9-11. It was also political speech she had a First Amendment right to make, even if unpopular or foolish, so long as it was not inflammatory or a danger to prison security. Following labor arbitration Akbar was allowed to retire instead of being fired.

In an environment increasingly resembling a religious witch hunt, Nozzolio suggested that the prison system be forced to investigate all of its Muslim clerics. He also questions the need for 42 state-paid clerics for the 9,800 Muslim prisoners in the state's 65 prisons, noting that the federal system is able to get by with 10 Muslim clerics for 9,000 Muslim prisoners at 102 prisons.

"`This is taxpayer money we are talking about,' Nozzolio said. `Even if they are preaching the word of God and not the word of al-Qaida, we need to look at whether this is appropriate staffing."

Prisoners who are members of the minority Shiite sect of Islam also complain about the overwhelmingly Sunni prison chaplains. They claim that Sunni chaplains often stir up passions of their flock against Shiites by repeating an ancient religious slur (that Shiites began as an anti-Islamic Jewish conspiracy) in their sermons. Other complaints include Sunni chaplains calling Shiite prisoners "infiltrators and snitches" during Friday services.

In July, 1999, Frankie Cancel, a New York Shiite prisoner incarcerated at Fishkill Correctional Facility, won a ruling from a New York state judge (who is Jewish) that Shiites were entitled to their own religious services. Umar then visited Fishkill, announcing during Friday services that the ruling was a threat to Islam and Cancel and other Shiites were part of a Jewish conspiracy to undermine Islam. He said the Muslim community needed to be protected and told the prisoners to get ready for a "mission." He told them he had his "guns ready." Cancel and other Shiites interpreted this as a threat. Umar denied making the comment.

An appeals court upheld the ruling in Cancel's favor, but left much to prison officials' discretion. The prison officials have granted Shiites separate religious classes and told chaplains not to "disparage" them. See: Cancel v. Goord, 278 AD.2d 717, 181 Misc.2d 303.

Cancel filed a federal lawsuit seeking monetary damages for violations of his right to practice his religion. The judge threw out most of the defendants, but not Umar. Cancel was released from prison in 2002. See: Cancel v. Mazzuca, 205 F.Supp.2d 1281 (SD NY 2002).

It is estimated that there are 200,000 to 340,000 Muslim prisoners nationwide. They comprise 10 to 17% of state prison and jail prisoners. This seems to stir up fear in the hearts of fundamentalist Christian prison chaplains. Chuck Colson, of Watergate fame and founder of a nation-wide prison ministry, says that Christianity "is something far superior" to the Muslim faith, which he refers to as "a religion which breeds hate." This attitude is apparent in New York where the firings of a few Muslim prison chaplains threatens to become a full-scale witch hunt due more to unfounded fear than logic. A prime example of this is the March 2003, reassignment of Amin Awad, Muslim chaplain at New York City's Riker's Island Jail. Awad is banned from contacting prisoners after having served as the jail's chaplain for five years. The reason given is that Awad was recently named president of the board of trustees of the Al-Farooq mosque in Brooklyn. A February 2003 complaint in Brooklyn federal court alleges that the storefront mosque, long know for its extremism, allowed Al Hasan Al-Moayad, a Yemeni cleric, to raise funds through the mosque, some of which were then funneled to al-Qaida. There appears to be no allegation that Awad was personally involved in any of this.

Sources: The Wall Street Journal,, Legal Affairs, New York Post

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