Hearing on Islamic terror threat in US prisons divides committee

By Eileen Sullivan
Associated Press / June 16, 2011

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WASHINGTON — A congressional inquiry into the threat of Islamic radicalization in US prisons quickly devolved yesterday into a debate about political correctness, street gangs, and the quality of the nation’s prison system.

The hearing was the second in what Representative Peter King, Republican of New York and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, promises to be a series of inquiries into the radical Islamic threat in the United States.

The majority of the recent terror plots against the United States 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 attacks threatens to alienate an entire community.

A link between Islam and terrorism has not become a centerpiece of the national presidential debates, but this week some Republican presidential hopefuls, including Herman Cain, a former pizza company executive, discussed whether they would be comfortable with a Muslim in their administration.

Yesterday, law enforcement officials testified before the House Homeland Security Committee about prison inmates who adopt a radical interpretation of Islam while incarcerated and become intent on attacking the United States and its interests when they are released.

Michael Downing, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, said Islamic prison radicalization is a serious issue that law enforcement does not yet fully understand because there is no formal way to measure it in federal, state, and local prisons.

Republicans raised concerns about radical Islamic material finding its way into jail cells and about prison chaplains who espouse a violent interpretation of the religion.

Democrats asked about gangs of all kinds — Asian, Aryan Brotherhood, Latino, and African-American — that operate in prisons and return to society only to commit more crimes.

Though the focus of the hearing changed multiple times, it ended much like the first in the series: divided along party lines.

Representative Laura Richardson, Democrat of California, said the narrow focus of the hearing “can be deemed as racist and discriminatory.’’

The committee’s top Democrat, Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, said the panel should focus on the most dangerous people, not the few radical Islamic extremists who have tried to carry out plots.

“The violent right-wing ideology of many of these gangs must be discussed,’’ Thompson said.

“If we find out that Aryan Nation is allied with a foreign power, we will address it,’’ said King. “We are going to focus on a target which threatens the security of this nation.’’

The focus of the hearing should be on what’s wrong with the prison culture and how that can be changed, said Democrat Hansen Clarke of Michigan. There are problems with the prison system, costing taxpayers billions of dollars, he said.

He appealed to Tea Party movement members to get on board with that issue.

“We’re wasting too much of our taxpayers’ money,’’ he said.