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Alarm Spreads Over Remarks Of Jail Imam

Alarm Spreads Over Remarks Of Jail Imam

Author: Jill Gardiner
Publication: The New York Sun
Date: March 10, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/28920

Extremist remarks made by the head imam of the city's jail system are generating alarm about whether inmates are being recruited as Islamic fundamentalists.

Mayor Bloomberg announced yesterday that the city has suspended Imam Umar Abdul-Jalil of the city's Department of Correction until officials can get more information about his remarks and determine whether he violated any regulations.

"We can't prejudge but we are going to look at it this afternoon," Mr. Bloomberg told reporters yesterday. "Having said that, this morning, so that he would not go back into the jails, we put him on paid administrative leave at least for the day."

The move by the city came after the New York Post reported that Mr. Abdul-Jalil declared in a speech that the White House is run by terrorists and that Muslims were tortured in Manhattan prisons after the World Trade Center attacks.

He also reportedly urged Muslims in America to stop letting "the Zionists of the media to dictate what Islam is to us." The Investigative Project on Terrorism obtained a recording of his speech, a senior researcher with the organization, Tamar Tesler, confirmed yesterday.

The imam, who has been with the department since 1993 and has been overseeing all clergy members at the agency since 2004, could not be reached yesterday. He did, however, publicly deny that he was promoting extremist views and said his comments were taken out of context.

The director of Simon Wiesenthal's New York Tolerance Center, Mark Weitzman, said, if true, the statements are cause for worry about possible recruitment of Islamic fundamentalists in city jails.

"It would not be novel," he said. "There have been a lot of reports of chaplains using prisons for recruitment. The chaplaincy is there to provide support for people of every religion, but not to provide a breeding ground for religious intolerance and hate."

Mr. Weitzman said he wants to know whether the imam used the same kind of rhetoric among inmates. He said he was glad that the city took quick action.

"If it's true the city needs to review its policies," he said. "You are not going to have a minister of the Christian Identity, of the Klan, as the Christian clergyman. You would not have a rabbi who's involved with extremist Jewish groups ministering to Jews in there. The same standard should apply across the board."

The director of the Anti-Defamation League's New York office, Joel Levy, said the organization was told that Mr. Abdul-Jalil is responsible for the "Islamic studies curriculum" at the Department of Correction. That curriculum needs to be reviewed, he said. "What views does he hold about Islam? I think somebody needs to investigate that as well," he said.

Mr. Levy said the case is troubling on several fronts. In addition to making "blatantly anti-Semitic" statements, he said it is "totally inappropriate" for someone working in law enforcement to say, "the greatest terrorists in the world occupy the White House" and to question the legitimacy of the American government.

Others had a different view. A professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Todd Clear, said that while racially or ethnically charged comments are not to be tolerated, that Mr. Abdul-Jalil should be able to speak his mind about the government. He pointed out that countless others have criticized the Bush administration for its treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and that there are probably a good number of inmates who take issue with the American government.

He said that while the allegations of torture sound untrue, they should not be dismissed without review. John Jay College is part of the taxpayer-funded City University of New York.

A spokesman for the city's Department of Correction, Tom Antenen, said Mr. Abdul-Jalil will be on administrative leave "pending an investigation."

"That means that he will not be going to department facilities or having any contact with inmates," he said.

Mr. Antenen said the imam was hired in 1993 and later promoted to his current position as director of ministerial services, where he oversees 21 full-time and 19 part-time priests, rabbis, imams, and other members of the clergy. He is paid $76,602 a year.

Mr. Antenen also said standard background checks are done before hiring chaplains.

A man who answered the phone at Masjid Sabur, a mosque in Harlem, where Mr. Abdul-Jalil is imam, said the imam "is more American and patriotic than anyone I know."

"The man wears a blue uniform with brass buttons, that tells you something," the man, who declined to give his name said. "I think that they're wasting their time in the wrong areas. They are targeting people who are their support as opposed to those who are against us."

According to published reports, Mr. Abdul-Jalil, an African-American Muslim, was in Attica prison in the '70s. He volunteered with the Red Cross after September 11, 2001, and counseled victims' families and law enforcement officers.

His case is not the first of its kind. Last year the Muslim chaplain at the city's Fire Department resigned after Newsday quoted him questioning whether hijackers actually brought down the twin towers.

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