11:00 A.M. ET Sept. 15, 2011 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
Imam Abu Ishaq Abdul Hafiz (far left), a Muslim chaplain who was senior chaplain at Terminal Island federal prison in Los Angeles, walks with Native American inmates in celebration of Native American Heritage Month. UMNS photos by Greg Price, courtesy of Abu Ishaq Abdul Hafiz.
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In prison, a place where real evil resides, the only glimpse of a loving and forgiving God may come from a chaplain.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, fear made it harder than ever for people to remember that redemption is available to everyone, said two faith leaders—one Christian and one Muslim—who feel called by God to be that holy presence in prisons.
The fear of Islam that gripped the nation caused a major shift in how prison chaplains could relate to inmates. The fear resulted in new regulations that made pastoral care more difficult, said the Rev. Bruce Fenner, a United Methodist chaplain, and Imam Abu Ishaq Abdul Hafiz, a Muslim chaplain.
“As the fear gripped the country, one of the outliers of the fear was that prison was the hotbed of the radicalization of the inmates,” said Fenner. “In prison, because people tend to be looking for structure they tend to gravitate to that which would be seen as fundamental. Part of the fear was the question, do our chaplains and volunteers espouse a radical message … and do we really understand the tenets of Islam and the different schools of thought?”
In 2003, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called a congressional hearing concerning the vetting of prison and military chaplains.
Because of Schumer’s questioning, all Muslim chaplains employed by the Bureau of Prisons were called to Washington to determine whether they were radical. Fenner was deputy chaplain administrator for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington at the time.
“Some brought their families;” Fenner said. “Not only did they bring their families, some brought their luggage, not knowing what was going to happen as a result of that meeting. That was the fear.”
Hafiz was one of the Muslim chaplains called to Washington. At that time he was senior chaplain at F.C.I. Terminal Island in Los Angeles.
Chaplain Imam Abu Ishaq Abdul Hafiz, center, shares Eid ul-Fitr, a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, with Eddie Bishop, right, and Mohamed Johnson at Terminal Island federal prison in Los Angeles in this 1999 photo. A UMNS photo by Greg Price, courtesy of Abu Ishaq Abdul Hafiz.
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“Sen. Schumer was castigating that Muslim chaplains in the system were radical. There were about seven or eight chaplains that had been in the system for eight, nine, 10 years or more whose reputations preceded all this. For those accusations even to be thrown out there had all people looking at us differently, and it was totally incorrect,” Hafiz said.
That investigation led to strict regulations calling for chaplains to monitor all religious leaders, volunteers and written and audio/video material coming into the prisons.
Suddenly the chaplain was required to monitor –every 15 minutes – many religious meetings organized by volunteers or the inmates themselves. Chaplains became more like prison staff than a pastoral presence, Hafiz said.
Monitors and sound systems were installed in chaplains’ offices and meeting rooms.
“It literally went from being a pastoral caregiver to turning into like working at the casino somewhere, where you had all these monitors and screens and you are watching what the inmates were doing and listening to them in ways that totally had not been the traditional way that the chaplain did his work,” Hafiz said. The effects of the hearings changed the dynamics of prison chaplains.
Fenner said that at the time of 9/11, there were more than 100 Islamic volunteers and about 65 contracted Muslim leaders coming into the prison system on a weekly or biweekly basis. That number dropped by 60 percent after the terrorist attacks.
“So a population that was already underserved was now further underserved,” Fenner said.
“Sen. Schumer made these accusations that radicalism was in place in prisons,” Hafiz said. “Ninety-five to 98 percent of the Muslim inmates are African-Americans incarcerated for drug dealing or bank fraud, robbery. They had no political agendas.”
Rev. Bruce Fenner
During the hearing Muslim chaplains were questioned about their education overseas “There was this assumption that because we had studied overseas that we had been propagandized or that we would only talk one way,” said Hafiz.
Hafiz was born in the United States and attended Tuskegee (Ala.) University. In 1978, he participated in a study program for American imams at Umm Al Qura University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. He received a certificate for Arabic studies for non-Arabs at Riyadh University and Islamic Education at King Ibn Saud University in Riyadh.
“Being in a university overseas is no different from being in a university in the United States. You go to a religious school, they teach all the schools of religious thoughts … we weren’t taught just by Saudis on just how Saudis look at the Islam faith.”
Hafiz and Fenner said that despite the difficulties, being a prison chaplain is a great ministry. Being God’s representative is important for the inmates and the staff.
“In an environment where evil is real and negativity is real, to have this positive presence that is always bringing and keeping that humanity there is so significant,” Hafiz said. “We are a reminder that these are still humans and there is still an opportunity for God to do work with them to enhance their life and to let them be the gift they were born to be.”
Hafiz retired from the Bureau of Prisons and is living in Lompoc, Calif. Fenner is director of extension ministry and pastoral care for the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville, Tenn.
“It has been 10 years since we have had a radical event happen in this country,” Fenner said. “I don’t know what will happen if we have another radical event somewhere in this country if it relates to Islam. Chaplaincy is not the same as it was when I came in 1988; it changed radically on that day.”
Fenner said he often thinks about a monument to the Japanese-Americans that used to be outside his office in Washington.
“On that memorial are the words by Ronald Reagan: ‘Never shall we let this happen to a people again.’ And yet, when fear grips a country, how quickly we forget.”
* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.