In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
The radicalization of citizens in our prisons is a real potential threat. Protecting the country against this and other threats is very important. Violent extremism must be stopped wherever it may be. But, to blame it wholly on Islam and single out American Muslims does no one any good.
Yet, that is exactly what Congressman Peter King (R-NY) did during his recent hearing about the radicalization of Muslims in American prisons. To hear Congressman King, Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, talk about the issue, one would think the problem is rampant in American prisons. The truth, however, is quite different.
George Zornick, writing in the Nation, summarized the hearing well:
The problem, however, is that there is no real problem. Bert Useem, a professor at Purdue University who was the lone panelist not sympathetic to King’s cause, noted that of the 1.6 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S. prison system, there have been only 12 terrorism cases with some evidence that the offender became radicalized in prison. “If prison was a major cause of jihadi radicalization, you’d expect to see more,” he told the committee.
King and his panelists had their own evidence. They didn’t offer any pesky statistics, but rather florid descriptions of terrorists who, while incarcerated, turned violent under the influence of prison Islam — or “prislam,” as it came to be known during the hearing.
But even this anecdotal evidence falls apart under closer inspection. For example, King raised the case of James Cromitie, who will be sentenced tomorrow for his role in planning attacks on an Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, NY and two synagogues in New York City.
According to King, Cromitie “was radicalized in a New York State prison.” He is “not alone,” King warned. But in fact, the government has made no claim that Cromitie nor any of his co-conspirators hatched their plot in prison, nor that their prison experience contributed to their crimes. Inmates and chaplains at the New York state prison where Cromitie was incarcerated said he did not take part in any of the Islamic prayer meetings.
Moreover, Cromitie’s lawyers have portrayed him as the victim of an altogether different kind of recruitment. They allege that a government informant paid Cromitie $250,000 to plan the terror attacks. When Cromitie expressed reluctance, the informant pressed on, according to court documents. “I told you…I can make $250,000, but you don’t want it, brother. What can I tell you?” he said.
King was equally dishonest when he invoked the case of Jose Padilla, who was convicted of trying to set off a radioactive bomb in the United States. King’s version of events, as described in his opening statement, is that Padilla “converted to Islam in a Florida jail,” and that “while on the inside, Padilla met a fellow inmate who led him to a radical mosque.”
In reality, the Broward County Sheriff said at the time there was no record of Padilla requesting to meet with an imam, attending Islamic classes, or requesting a name change while incarcerated there. A family friend told CNN that he converted to Islam after he married a Muslim woman in 1996 and moved to the Middle East.
King failed to prove statistically or even anecdotally that Islamic radicalization in prisons is a serious problem worthy of a high-profile Congressional hearing. And even if King were right, it would be an odd focus solely on that brand of recruitment and not also on the well-documented problem of white supremacist groups who also recruit and radicalize inmates to commit crimes, along with similar efforts by violent street gangs. Several Democrats made this point during the hearing, but were sharply dismissed by Republican colleagues. “The political correctness in this room is astounding,” scolded Rep. Dan Lungren.
Just as with his last hearing about the radicalization of American Muslims, this hearing really did nothing but stoke fear and single out American Muslims. Congressman Michael Honda (D-CA), who actually lived in an internment camp during WWII, called out the negative effect of his hearing:
In one fell swoop of his discriminatory brush, King, in his apparent attempt to root out radicalization, marginalizes an entire American minority group, making enemies of them all. To add insult to injury, King has quipped (again, speciously) that America has too many mosques and that extremists run 80 percent of them. We can only hope that Congressman King does not completely undermine all the goodwill established across this country between Muslim Americans and law enforcement officials. You can be certain that few will want to work with King going forward.
Don’t get me wrong. I support the Homeland Security Committee examining “radicalization” in this country, and in our prisons, provided it is a comprehensive review, not a discriminatory one that targets only one subgroup of America. I support the committee examining “violent extremism” in this country, including an examination of militias and the 30,000-plus gun-related deaths occurring each year. I support a committee chair that is keen to keep our homeland secure.
This is not the case with King. These hearings do little to keep our country secure and do plenty to increase prejudice, discrimination and hate. I thought we learned a lesson or two from my internment camp experience in Colorado. I hope I am not proven wrong.
I echo that hope, Mr. Honda.
Now, let me be clear: I am thankful for the Committee’s resolve to keep our country safe. And if there are American Muslims who are plotting terrorist attacks, they need to be found, stopped, and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
But, these are not reprsentative of the whole. They are a tiny, aberrant minority. And the facts show that there is no problem of radical Islam in American prisons. The incidents are just that: anectodal incidents. Singling out my community, however, like Congressman King did, did not help things at all. It will only hurt the cause of American unity, and that is truly sad, indeed.