An imam on Tuesday disputed American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh’s claim that the school of Islam to which he belongs requires him to perform his ritual daily prayers as part of a group, even though he’s in prison.
Ammar Amonette testified in federal court in Indianapolis on the second day of a trial on Lindh’s challenge of a prison policy that limits group prayer to once a week. Amonette is a Muslim convert who leads a mosque in Richmond, Virginia, and studied Islam in the religion’s holy city of Mecca.
Amonette adheres to the Hanbali school, the same school of Muslim belief as Lindh. The 31-year-old Lindh is suing the U.S. government, claiming that a Bureau of Prisons policy banning him from praying with other Muslims five times a day flouts a 1993 law restraining it from curtailing religious expression without showing it has a compelling reason.
Lindh is serving a 20-year sentence in a tightly controlled unit at the federal prison at Terre Haute, Indiana, where inmates are closely monitored and their contact with the outside world is sharply restricted. He testified Monday that his faith requires him to pray in a group unless some circumstance, such as being stranded alone on an island, makes it impossible.
But Amonette, who was called as an expert witness by the government, testified that while Hanbali stresses that Muslims worship in congregations, its believers can be excused from their religious obligations if important work or some other pressing reason prevents them from fulfilling them.
“The congregation is not considered essential by any of the four Islamic schools of jurisprudence,” he said as Lindh listened through a closed-circuit video conference. There could, however, be “deviant” schools of belief, he said.
The government says it can’t allow the daily prayers to be conducted in a group because it would pose a security risk. Officials also testified that the prison agency doesn’t have an adequate number of Muslim chaplains or guards to oversee the rituals as required by its policy.
The rule allowing only supervised group prayer at federal prisons was put in place following a 2004 Inspector General’s Office report that raised concerns about efforts to radicalize Muslim inmates after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Michael R. Smith Sr., the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ chief chaplain, testified Monday.
There are only 14 Muslim chaplains to serve more than 100 federal prisons, making it impossible to conduct supervised daily group prayer, Smith testified on the first day of trial in Lindh’s lawsuit challenging the rule.
Lindh scoffed at the government’s argument that daily group prayer would endanger prison security. He pointed out that inmates are allowed to talk, play games and engage in other activities while out of their cells, which is most of the day.
“There are no legitimate security risks by allowing us to pray in congregations,” he said. “It’s absolutely absurd.”
Lindh, who aided the Taliban during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, is one of 24 Muslims among the 43 inmates in the prison unit.
According to court documents, Muslims in the tightly controlled Communications Management Unit in Terre Haute are allowed to pray together only once a week, except during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Other faiths’ gatherings are also limited. At other times, they must pray alone in their individual cells, which Lindh said doesn’t meet the requirements of his school of Islam.
“I believe it’s obligatory,” Lindh said of daily group prayer during his testimony Monday. “If you’re required to do it in congregation and you don’t, then that’s a sin.”
Smith testified that the Bureau of Prisons consulted Muslim clerics while establishing its rules, and that they told the agency that the five daily group prayers “are a major part and in a sense, mandatory.”
Prisoners in Lindh’s unit are under open and covert audio and video surveillance, and except for talks with their attorneys, all of their phone calls are monitored. Without such strong security, the government claims, inmates would be able to conspire with outsiders to commit terrorist or criminal acts.
In 2001, Lindh was captured in Afghanistan by U.S. troops and accused of fighting for the Taliban. Raised Catholic, the California native was 12 when he saw the movie “Malcolm X” and became interested in Islam. He converted to Islam at age 16. Walker told Newsweek after his capture that he had entered Afghanistan to help the Taliban build a “pure Islamic state.”
In 2002, Lindh pleaded guilty to supplying services to the now-defunct Taliban government and carrying explosives for them. He had been charged with conspiring to kill Americans and support terrorists, but those charges were dropped in a plea agreement. He was transferred to the Terre Haute prison in 2007.He is eligible for release in 2019.