Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Will we care what John Walker Lindh thinks about prison prayer? Should we?

I must confess to having lost track of John Walker Lindh. Until reading the accounts on Monday about how he’s suing for the right to practice his religion freely, I didn’t realize he was an inmate at the federal correctional center in Terre Haute, Ind.
LINDH: From a decade ago, just after his capture

Not that anybody should get any delusions of Lindh and former Gov. George Ryan associating with each other. The latter is in the minimum-security work camp that helps service the maximum-security prison, while Lindh is in a special unit within the prison that keeps him out of circulation from the violent criminals who populate the place.

LINDH, FOR THOSE who have forgotten, is the alleged “American Taliban.” While some people like to use that phrase to denigrate Tea Party types (comparing their extremist, uncompromising behavior to that of the religious fanatics whose behavior taints Islam), Lindh is the U.S. citizen who converted his religious faith, then left this country to be among his new believers.

And back in late 2001 when U.S. troops started going into Afghanistan out of a sense that they were avenging the people who were killed when airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, Lindh was captured by local forces being propped up by the U.S. military.

For he literally was fighting in opposition to the U.S. allies and alongside the people to whom Taliban is not an epithet, but merely a label of who they are!

The rest of those people could be regarded as prisoners of war and become faceless beings whom nobody ever gave much thought.

BUT LINDH, BECAUSE of that U.S. citizenship, wound up getting criminal charges in this country and the lengthy prison time. He’s getting treated more harshly than others because he’s the white face, a northern California kid, who’d have the gall to wear a keffiyeh and not think it looks absurd.

Which is why while it surprised me to learn that Lindh is so close to Chicago (Terre Haute is about a three-hour drive by car), it didn’t shock me to learn that Bureau of Prisons officials are giving him a hard time about his religious beliefs – which I have no reason to doubt are sincere!
Who remembers the "John Walker Blues?"

It seems that Lindh, due to the security restrictions of his particular unit within the Terre Haute Correctional Center, is being denied access to group prayer, which his particular faction within Islam believes is essential whenever possible.

But Lindh is not allowed to pray while in his once-a-week group sessions. Prayer would be regarded as subversive toward proper prison conduct.

ALTHOUGH I SUSPECT if it were Christian prayer of a specific denomination approved of by the warden, then somehow the rules could be bent.

Lindh filed a complaint asking for the right to group prayer. The part that caught my attention the most was his explanation of what is wrong with him being allowed to pray in his cell whenever he wants to.

It seems that having to kneel in the presence of a toilet in order to pray would be regarded as disrespectful to Lindh and other Muslims.

For those people who are reading this and saying “So What!?!,” and shouting that a prison inmate has no right being picky, I wonder how irritable they’d be if someone in another country wanted to engage in Christian prayer, and was being forced to use the toilet for their faith.

WE’D BE ARGUING that it is disrespectful. We’d probably be looking for every euphemism we could think of to describe it.

And yes, I am a firm believer in showing respect for all beliefs. That ultimately is what gives our society the moral high ground on such issues.

When we give up such tolerance, we become no better than the opposition that we’re all too eager to demonize.

So as Lindh appears this week in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis to argue his case, we ought not to be getting all high and mighty in our outrage toward him. It only brings us down to a level that we should be ashamed to drop to.

BESIDES, EVEN IF he behaves like the perfect angel while in the misery of a federal prison, he still has another seven years to go before anyone can even think of early release for him.

And if he’s being nitpicked over aspects of his prison life such as prayer, I’m sure the rest of his life isn’t any more pleasant.


EDITOR’S NOTE: I realize that in this commentary, I provided a very truncated account of what Lindh did to warrant prison time. Much more detailed information can be found elsewhere, although one has to be wary of the partisanship of whomever chose to write any particular given account of his story.

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