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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

King Hearing on “Muslim Radicalization” in Prisons: Less Condemnation and More Information, Please

This morning Representative Peter King (R-NY) conducted a hearing on Muslim radicalization in prisons. Testifying at the hearing were four panelists: Mr. Michael Downing, the commanding officer of the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department; Mr. Patrick Dunleavy, the former Deputy Inspector General of the Criminal Intelligence Unit of the New York State Department of Correctional Services; Mr. Kevin Smith, a former Assistant US Attorney for the Central District of California; and Professor Bert Useem, the head of the Sociology Department at Purdue.

The testimony from Downing, Dunleavy and Smith consisted primarily of anecdotes, describing specific incidents of prisoners who had converted to a violent, radical form of Islam. Among the incidents discussed was the rise of Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheed (JIS), a terrorist network which recruited prisoners. Smith was involved in investigating and preventing a terrorist plot by this organization. Other topics of discussion included distribution of Islamic literature to prisoners, prisoners’ ability to communicate with the outside world to build terrorist networks, and the lack of a sufficient screening process for Muslim prison chaplains that would ensure that no violent radicals shepherd Muslim inmates. Interestingly, incidents of Muslim prison radicalization are very few. Downing admitted that “this still remains a phenomenon of low volume; however,” he continued, “the radicalization of even a small fraction of this population holds high consequence for Americans and innocent people around the world.” Professor Useem elaborated on this point, saying that prisons have not been a major source of Muslim radicalization for several reasons, including the effectiveness of prison security, limitation of inmates’ contacts to the outside world, and a sense of patriotism that many inmates share.

Several Democratic committee members pointed out that prison gang radicalization also poses a significant threat and wondered why King was targeting Muslims in particular. In his opening statement, ranking Democratic member Bennie Thompson (D-MS) stated that “[l]imiting this Committee’s oversight of radicalization to one religion ignores threats posed by violent extremists of all stripes.” He also mentioned that individual terrorists can easily purchase guns at gun shows without background checks and suggested that the committee would do well to work on “clos[ing] this known security gap.” Representative Cedric Richmond (D-LA) said that he hoped the discussion could be expanded to include other radical prison groups. Representative Laura Richardson (D-CA) called the hearing racist and discriminatory, saying that the scope of the investigation ought to be broadened to include other prison-bred threats.

We are concerned that this inquiry will foster continuing misimpressions about and hate and prejudice toward the American Muslim community. Although conservative members of the committee and the panel noted that violent radical Muslims are in the minority, King’s targeting of a specific religious community and associating it with violence is unacceptable. As Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) stated: “Information is welcome. Condemnation is not.”

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