Converting In Jail? Congress Holds Hearings On Islam In U.S. Prisons

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WASHINGTON — Islamic radicalization in prisons continues to be a concern among law enforcement officials across the U.S., and countering it should not be a partisan issue, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security said Wednesday.

Rep. Peter King led the second in what he has promised to be a series of hearings on violent Islamic radicalization in the U.S. The first hearing, held in March, broadly looked at Islamic radicalization around the country and what the Muslim community is doing to combat it. That hearing drew days of protests and criticism from Democrats who said that King and the Republicans were unfairly singling out Islam.

“I would urge my Democratic colleagues to rise above partisan talking points,” King said during his opening remarks.

But the top Democrat on the committee, Bennie Thompson, said there are few instances of Islamic radicalization in prisons, the subject of Wednesday’s hearing. Thompson said the vetting process of incoming mail and prison chaplains ensures that Islam — the fastest growing religion among prisoners in the U.S. — does not inspire violence.

The majority of the recent terror plots against the U.S. have involved people espousing a radical and violent view of Islam, making it difficult to ignore the role religion plays in this particular threat. But critics say focusing too closely on Islam and the religious motives of those who have attempted terror attacks threatens to alienate an entire community.

To King, the purpose of these hearings is clear: “It’s to show and remind people that the threat is here.” Law enforcement officials from New York and California who have handled cases of prison radicalization are slated to testify Wednesday.

King said he can’t blame people in the Muslim community for a person adopting a violent interpretation of their religion. But, he said, he can place blame if someone in the community knows of such a radical — for example, a prison chaplain who preaches a violent brand of Islam to impressionable inmates — and fails to point that person out to law enforcement or community leaders.

The White House, which pushed a message of religious tolerance ahead of King’s initial hearing on Islamic radicalization, had no comment this time around.

For years, law enforcement officials have said the prison atmosphere is ripe for recruitment for any extremist cause, from violent Islamist extremism to white supremacist and Latino gangs.

Adopting the Islamic faith while in prison is not a new phenomenon. Islam took hold in U.S. prisons in the 1940s, when members of the Nation of Islam were held for refusing to fight in World War II. Malcolm X was one of their most famous prison recruits.

Many chaplains and corrections officials credit the faith, when taught properly, with being a stabilizing force that can help inmates turn their lives around.

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ACLU Sues Prison Over Muslim Prayer Limits

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