Jailhouse Islam – The Radicals Among Us

Last May, Philadelphians were stunned when police officer Stephen Liczbinski was shot in cold blood during an altercation with burqa-wearing robbers. But that murder, and other recent violent acts in the city, has its roots in a form of Islam being taught in our prisons — and being funded by Middle Eastern extremists

Two of Philadelphia’s most respected Islamic leaders have been contemplating their role in the city, and their responsibility to counter the proliferation of radicalized Islam in local prisons. Riad Nachef, founder of the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects in America, and Omar Dimachkie, its current president, meet me in an upstairs office in their group’s West Philly mosque.

The two men know about radical Islam in an all too personal way; four of their group’s leaders have been murdered by extremists. One of the problems facing the Muslim community, the men have realized, is the reluctance of one Muslim to criticize another, regardless of how egregious his behavior. They say that’s why, in the days following September 11th, so many Westerners felt that the condemnation from Islamic leaders failed to rise to the horror of the moment.

Islam doesn’t require silence in the face of evil, Nachef says. Whether global or local, he says, it’s every Muslim’s responsibility to report radical dogmas to legal authorities. Both of the national reports mentioned earlier — by the U.S. Justice Department, and by the universities — concluded that the best way to stamp out radical Islam in America’s prisons is to provide more moderate, fully vetted clerics to guide prisoners toward more disciplined, productive lives. It may be such clerics, alongside the police and courts, who stop thousands of Philadelphia’s young men from cycling through the overloaded prison system.

Dimachkie takes off his shoes and bends to his knees on the prayer rug in his office, whispering toward the east. While he does, Nachef speaks with unusual candor.

“In the early ’90s, the networks of the Wahhabi movement in this country, managed under the umbrella of freedom of speech, ended up having their own chaplains in the prisons. And that school of thought moved through the prisons throughout the U.S.,” he says. “We found our own channels to get into the prisons and try to teach counter to that dogma. And we were successful to some extent. But our voices were muffled.”

Without the support of oil-rich benefactors, he says, it’s tough to compete.

“If somebody would come to me and say, ‘You are a Muslim basher’ because I am criticizing, I can produce incidents throughout history where the Prophet criticized people for ill-doing,” he says. People who suppress honest criticism are succumbing to a false “tribal solidarity … . This is not Islam.”

Dimachkie stands from his prayer rug and joins Nachef; he speaks about the death of Sergeant Liczbinski in particular. “Those guys who dressed up in women’s clothes,” he says. “Truly, you cannot let something like that go” — for the sake, he says, of both non-Muslims and Muslims alike.

From the outside, it seems like a small step, just like Muhammad Kenyatta’s first criticisms of the powerful Mosque No. 12 more than three decades ago. But now, as then, it may offer the community hope of salvation from within.