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Denial of Separate Religious Services Leads to Sectarian Tension Between New York Shiite and Sunni Prisoners

by Matt Clarke

Shiite Muslim prisoners in New York state prisons have long sought their own services separate from the majority Sunni Muslims. A recent federal court of appeals decision may help them get it.

The New York Department of Corrections (DOC) has 7,987 prisoners who identify themselves to prison authorities as being Muslim. Less than 4% of them are listed as Shiite.

The Shiites cite a number of reasons for their low numbers. Chief among them are the fact that, traditionally, all DOC Muslim prison chaplains have been Sunni and many of them embraced the Saudi Arabian radical version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. Saudi Arabia has poured large amounts of money into influencing who was chosen as a Muslim prison chaplain in the past and has financed some chaplains’ trips to Saudi Arabia for religious education. This means that prisoners have to learn about Shiite beliefs from other prisoners or via mailed-in religious materials.

The DOC says that it doesn’t allow separate services for the different branches of Judaism or the different denominations of Protestantism and they see no reason to commit the additional resources it would require to allow regular separate Shiite services. It also notes that the Shiite and Sunni services are virtually indistinguishable in form, the main difference being that Sunnis usually cross their arms while praying while Shiites keep them at their sides. However, form is not substance and the DOC’s “failure to recognize that Shiite and Sunni Muslims have unique religious traditions, practices and beliefs is incomprehensible,” according to Claire Coleman, the Shiite’s prisoners’ lawyer. Indeed, it is hard to believe that the sectarians in Iraq are killing one another over a difference of how to hold their arms during prayer. Even in the DOC, Shiite/Sunni differences led to a stabbing.

Federal District Judge Paul Magnuson sided with the DOC when deciding the civil rights lawsuit filed by the Shiite prisoners. He even speculated that their might not be enough Shiite prisoners in any one prison to form a prayer quorum, which requires five men. However, the Second Circuit reversed Magnuson’s judgment, instructing him to determine whether joint prayer with Sunnis impinges on the Shiites’ religious rights and how much of a burden it would be on DOC resources to accommodate the Shiites with a separate Friday service.

Dawoud Adeyola, who retired in 2006 after 18 years as a DOC prison chaplain, admitted there were problems.

“In the places where it’s been most tense, a lot of times the chaplains have been at fault,” said Adeyola.

The DOC claims it is reaching out to New York City’s Shiite leaders for help in hiring Shiite prison chaplains, thus far to no avail. One chaplain candidate was terminated during his probationary period after he tried to bring a knife into Sing Sing prison.
Muhammad Abdulmubdi, the only DOC Shiite imam is currently barred from entering any prison pending until an internal investigation is completed on whether he violated a DOC regulation, the nature of which was not disclosed. Source: New York Sun.

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