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Unholy Prison Break
Banning books.


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In March, 2003 Senator Charles Schumer asked the Justice Department to investigate how the federal prisons selected Muslim chaplains. Schumer noted that the two Islamic groups which “endorsed” chaplain candidates promoted Wahhabism, a form of Islam especially hospitable to terrorism. At least 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers, for example, are believed to have been Wahhabis.


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Within a year the Justice Department’s inspector general produced a list of defects in how “Muslim Religious Services Providers” were recruited. The most alarming was this: the doctrinal beliefs of Muslim applicants were not examined to see if they were consistent with prison security practices. Among the recommended changes was one to check prison-chapel libraries for literature inconsistent with institutional security.

One manifestation of these recommended changes is on display at the Otisville New York federal prison: The library there contains the Koran and just two other Islamic titles.

But that is not the only result. Prison authorities removed several hundred books without even claiming they were a security threat. According to a recent lawsuit by some Otisville inmates, that prison threw out “hundreds” of Jewish books, among them When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Hundreds more Christian titles got the heave-ho. Too, including Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life. Maimonides’s Code of Jewish Law got tossed, too, as did the Zohar, a leading text of Jewish mysticism.

In other prisons thousands of non-Islamic books above suspicion were removed. According to Bureau of Prisons guidelines now in place, works by such giants of Christian theology as Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth are not permitted into chapel libraries. Neither are such seditious books as Living Positively One Day at a Time and You Can Become the Person You Want to Be, both by the popular pastor Robert Schuller.

An official of Prison Fellowship — a leading and highly effective Christian ministry — described these results as “swatting a fly with a sledgehammer”. Not quite; the fly is at least the target. It is more like weeding out a few bad apples by burning the orchard. Or like using the sledge to smash the kitchen table on which the fly is sitting. It’s the reckless destruction of all the good fruit people need for nourishment — the collateral damage — that’s wrong.

What happened? In response to Senator Schumer’s worry and the inspector seneral’s advice about baneful Muslim influences, the Bureau of Prisons started a “Standardized Chapel Library Project.” This “project” amounted to zero-based budgeting, turned loose upon the card catalog: start from scratch by asking “experts” on twenty religions to compile a list of books and multimedia resources. Cap each list at 150. Those titles may stay in prison libraries. Everything else is out. The federal Bureau of Prisons has not released the lists. But according to the New York Times, nine titles by C. S Lewis are in. Everything by leading American Catholic theologian Avery Dulles is out. Those three Muslim titles at Otisville were the sole survivors of this pogrom.



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