With the organization that trained and selected Captain James Yee to be a military chaplain under investigation for terrorism, Senator Charles Schumer blasted the Defense Department Inspector General today for failing to follow through on a promise to conduct a probe into the groups who train and select Muslim clerics for the military. Although the IG's office wrote a letter to Schumer in March saying that it would examine these groups, spokesmen for the military said that no such review is being conducted.
"The Defense Department informed me in writing six months ago that it was launching a review to determine whether changes need to be made in the groups we rely on to train Muslim ministers and whether a violent form of Islam is being preached in the military," Schumer said. "So it's shocking that the Defense Department has been silent on this issue and is now issuing public comments that no such examination is underway.
"The fact that a chaplain who was detained for supposedly stealing classified documents was trained by a group under investigation for terrorism should set off alarms at the highest levels, Schumer continued. "You have to scratch your head in wonderment as to why nothing is being done on this, especially after the Department's internal watchdog was warned about potential problems six months ago and acknowledged that those warnings merited a review."
In order to become a chaplain in the US Army, a prospective candidate must obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement from his faith group that certifies that person as a qualified member of a clergy group who is sensitive to religious pluralism and able to minister to people of all religions.
The Defense Department allows only the Graduate School for Islamic Social Sciences (GSISS) and the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council (AMAFVAC), a subgroup of the American Muslim Foundation (AMF), to provide Muslim clerics with that ecclesiastical endorsement. The US Bureau of Prisons, the other federal entity that hires religious ministers, also relies on the GSISS as well as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) to hire Muslim clerics for the federal prison system.
According to the Office of the Armed Forces Chaplain Board, Captain Yee was "trained" by the AMAFVAC and certified by Qaseem Uqdah, organization's executive director. AMAFVAC, the AMF subgroup, has trained five chaplains for the military. Two of these chaplains, including Yee, are in the Army, one is in the Navy and two are in the Air Force. Overall, there are 12 Muslim chaplains in the Armed Forces, seven of whom are in the Army, two of whom are in the Air Force, and three of whom are in the Navy.
These groups, however, appear to have a number of disturbing connections to terrorism. The GSISS and the AMF are both under investigation as part of US Customs' Operation Green Quest for their alleged role in helping to funnel $20 million to terrorists through offshore financial institutions. In addition, a number of ISNA board members appear to have checkered pasts. One member, Siraj Wahhaj, was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the WTC '93 bombings. Another board member, Bassam Osman, was previously the director of the Quranic Literary Institute, an Oak Lawn, IL organization that had $1.4 million in assets seized by the Justice Department in June 1998 on the grounds that it was used to support Hamas terrorist activities.
Professor Ali Asani of Harvard University, author Stephen Schwartz and other experts have asserted that AMAFVAC, GSISS, and ISNA are funded generously by Saudi Arabia and hew closely to the religious tenets of the radical Wahhabi sect of Islam, Saudi Arabia's official state religion. Far from promoting a pluralist approach to the world, Wahhabi Islam is widely acknowledged to be exclusionary and extreme, denigrating not only other religions but also other forms of Islamic belief held by Shi'a and moderate Sunni Muslims.
In June 2003, the websites for the Navy and the Air Force chaplains were found to have links to Islamworld.net, a website that espouses Wahhabism, and contains links to lectures by fundamentalist clerics, some of whom advocate jihad against the United States and denigrate Christianity and Judaism as "forms of disbelief." The websites described Islamworld.net as "rich in information about the Islamic faith," including "an introduction for non-Muslims" and "basics for new Muslims." After news reports publicized the extremist connection, the Air Force removed the link and the Navy issued a disclaimer saying it has no control over material published on independent Web sites. The AMAFVAC has also trained Muslim clerics who serve in both the Air Force and the Navy.
As a result of these revelations, Schumer asked the Inspectors General at the Defense and Justice Departments in March to open inquiries into the three groups and was told informed that reviews would be forthcoming.
In a letter to the Defense Department IG this week, Schumer wrote that "In light of the recent arrest of Muslim chaplain Captain James Yee, I would like an update on the request I made to you in my letter of March 10th, 2003 asking for an investigation of the groups the Pentagon uses to select Muslim chaplains to serve in the armed services. As I wrote to you in March, I fully support the teaching and worship of Islam in the military but want to ensure that the groups in charge of such activities are of the highest caliber, have unimpeachable reputations, and endorse religious pluralism so that Muslims of all sects are able to follow their faith.
"It is disturbing that organizations with possible terrorist connections and religious teachings contrary to American pluralistic values hold the sole responsibility for Islamic instruction in our armed forces. It is certainly disappointing given that there are numerous American Muslim organizations with pristine reputations who are able to perform such activities," Schumer continued. "Captain Yee’s arrest and his connection to the AMAFVAC only underscores the need for a comprehensive investigation of these groups." [Sen. Schumer press release]