Dangerous Faith


Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.

On several “BreakPoints,” Chuck Colson has addressed the threat posed by the growing radical Islamic movement among America’s prison population. Unfortunately, since the last time he spoke about it, the situation in our prisons has only become worse.

The U.S. Department of Justice has just released a report about the selection of Muslim religious service providers by the Bureau of Prisons. According to this report, the Bureau has been far too lax in screening Muslim chaplains, contractors, and volunteers who work in our prisons. While these workers have to undergo background checks, drug screenings, and other similar tests, prison officials haven’t been questioning them to determine their propensity toward violence in the name of religion. Additionally, the report reads, “According to the Chief of the Chaplaincy Services Branch, the investigations do not specifically examine the candidates’ past sermons or performance in religious settings to determine whether they have given radical messages or made radical statements.”

And that’s not all. The Bureau of Prisons requires that all chaplains be endorsed by a national organization made up of members of their own faith. Until recently, the Bureau accepted endorsements for Muslim chaplains and contractors from only one Muslim organization, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). But during an intensive investigation prompted by September 11, it was discovered that several board members of the ISNA had possible ties to terrorism. Not only that, but the report also discovered a breakdown in communication between the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons about such ties between national Islamic groups and terrorist groups.

Consequently, in 2003, the Bureau of Prisons stopped accepting candidates endorsed by the ISNA. No other organization has yet stepped in to fill the void. The report states that this situation “effectively has resulted in a freeze on hiring Muslim chaplains.”

The lack of Muslim chaplains has created a need that also is all too often being filled by the wrong people. As the report puts it, “Without a sufficient number of Muslim chaplains on staff, inmates are . . . much more likely to lead their own religious services, distort Islam . . . and espouse extremist beliefs.”

We’ve already seen some frightening examples of what can happen when radical Muslims play on the sensibilities of prisoners who are feeling isolated and vulnerable. Radical Islam flourishes in prison, often because it offers inmates the chance to feel like part of a community and fuels their fantasies of vengeance. Both “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and alleged would-be bomber Jose Padilla first encountered radical Islam in prison.

The good news is that, according to the report, the Bureau of Prisons is already beginning to exercise more vigilance and will, we hope, adopt strict measures to guard against the spread of radical Islam. But even more important for us as Christians is the need to increase our own presence among these seemingly least valuable members of our society — prisoners. In prison, like everywhere else, the surest antidote to the poison of hatred and revenge spread by anyone, including some radical Islamists, is Christ’s message of love, forgiveness, and peace.

For further reading and information:

A Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Selection of Muslim Religious Services Providers, Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, April 2004. (Adobe Acrobat Reader required.)

Associated Press, “Report: Screening Lax on Muslim Chaplains,” Fox News, 5 May 2004.

Curt Anderson, “AP: Report Tells Prisons to Screen Muslims,” Duluth News Tribune, 4 May 2004.

Eric Lichtblau, “Extremism said to gain in prisons,” International Herald Tribune, 6 May 2004.

Jerry Seper, “Prisons breeding ground for terror?” Washington Times, 6 May 2004.

BreakPoint Commentary No. 040428, “Proving Their Worth: Al Qaeda and Converts to Islam.”

Charles Colson, “Evangelizing for Evil in Our Prisons,” Wall Street Journal, 24 June 2002. Reprinted at BreakPoint Online.

Charles Colson, “Terrorists Behind Bars,” First Things, November 2002, 19-21.

BreakPoint Commentary No. 030303, “Blues from Allah: Radical Islam in American Prisons.” (Free registration required.)

BreakPoint Commentary No. 020709, “Evangelizing for Evil: Radical Islam behind Bars.” (Free registration required.)

Angelo M. Codevilla, “Heresy and History,” American Spectator, 14 May 2004.

Victor Davis Hanson, “The Wages of Appeasement,” Wall Street Journal, 10 May 2004.

Become a Prison Fellowship volunteer: Call 1-877-478-0100.

Stephen Schwartz, “Radical Islam in America,” Imprimis, May 2004.

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