In recent years, a number of Western countries have had to grapple with the question of radical Islamism spreading behind prison walls. As authorities are beginning to realize, many of their maximum-security prison facilities, which contain the most dangerous, violent criminals in their societies, have inadvertently served as hotbeds of radicalization.
In Britain it was recently revealed that Khalid Masood, who in March 2017 murdered five people and injured dozens more on Westminster bridge in an ISIS-inspired jihadi attack, had likely been radicalized during his time in British prisons. In Australia, similar reports of ‘Jailhouse Jihad’ came out of the Goulburn Correctional Centre in New South Wales, where inmates are often violently coerced by their fellow Muslim inmates towards extreme and violent interpretations of Islam.
Here in the United States, certain programs attempt to combat extremism behind prison walls, including the adoption of federally-appointed religious chaplains responsible for curating and distributing religious material to prisoners. But among the Muslim chaplains appointed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons is one Mutahhir Sabree, who has served as an imam at prisons in Estill, Williamsburg, Bennettsville, and Edgefield, South Carolina; Jesup, Georgia; and Tallahassee and Marianna, Florida. In fact, from 2007 to 2009, Sabree held 29 contract positions throughout the US Department of Justice.
Sabree is also, however, the U.S. Director of Operations for Islamic Online University (IOU), an organization founded by the notorious Salafi imam Bilal Philips. Philips has in the past been banned from several countries including Great Britain, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Kenya, and Bangladesh for his ‘extremist views’. He was also named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. No less unsettlingly, Her Majesty's Prison Service have banned Philips’s book, “The Fundamentals of Tauheed,” from its detention facilities—putting it alongside other banned texts by prominent Islamist leaders Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
One of IOU’s programs is its Prison Initiative, launched in 2014 and directed by Sabree, which seeks to distribute IOU coursework to Muslim and non-Muslim inmates in prisons across America. According to its website, the professed goal is to assist Muslims in preparing for life after their release by offering them the “true, peaceful and authentic teachings of Islam” in the face of an increase in terrorist groups “falsely attributing themselves to Islam.” As of June 2017, Prison Initiative’s website boasted of over 1100 registered inmates, with 500 enrolled and taking classes in 22 U.S. states. (Currently, the Prison Initiative section of the IOU website seems to have disappeared; the latest archived version dates from June 2017. However, IOU's donation page still lists the Prison Initiative as a fundraising objective.)
Despite a disclaimer on its website claiming that IOU has a strict zero-tolerance policy for extremism and terrorist-related activities, a quick look through the contents of its coursework paints a very different picture. One module deals solely with “contemporary issues” and contains exactly the type of hateful and illiberal rhetoric one might expect from a Salafi whose extreme views have had him banned from six countries.
A section discussing homosexuality begins by claiming that ‘homosexuality’ was once considered a mental illness by mainstream psychiatrists, before adding that certain glands in the brains of homosexuals shrink because of their “deviant” lifestyles. Diseases such as AIDS, students are told, are a punishment for homosexuals’ behavior.
Another section denounces those who leave Islam, describing apostasy as a crime akin to treason against the state, and therefore, deserving of a death sentence in order to maintain social order.
Sabree, in addition to his own work with IOU, also has close ties with the American Salafi preacher Sheikh Yusuf Estes, who also worked as a chaplain under the Federal Bureau of Prisons through the 1990s. In November 2017, Estes was denied entry into Singapore after the authorities determined his views were “unacceptable” and “contrary” to Singapore’s secular and multi-religious values.
Government-appointed chaplains and religious organizations were placed in prisons to provide inmates with spiritual guidance and to prepare them for a functional life after their release. But organizations like IOU take advantage of this open door and, in fact, use prisons to their advantage in order to radicalize the most susceptible members of society. If the United States wishes to avoid the same problems plaguing prisons across the Western world, then it should perhaps begin by ensuring that Islamists like Mutahhir Sabree are not radicalizing a generation of American inmates — all on the taxpayers’ dime.
Ahnaf Kalam is a writer for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.