Imprisoned ‘American Taliban’ John Walker Lindh goes to court for right to pray with other Muslims

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

He's known as the American Taliban and now the convicted terrorist wants to pray with fellow Muslim prisoners in the secret, high security U.S. prison where he's being held.

Lindh is in U.S. federal court this week to sue the Federal Bureau of Prisons for the right to have a prayer group within the Indiana facility, National Public Radio reports.

The American Civil Liberties Union is taking up the fight on Lindh's behalf.

"They can sit around and talk about politics or football or whatever philosophy," Ken Falk, who's representing Lindh, told NPR. "The one thing they're not allowed to do is pray together for their daily prayers, which many Muslims believe is required or at least strongly preferred."

Falk said the prison system is impinging on prisoners' rights to practise their faith under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In its court filing, the Bureau of Prisons argued that allowing inmates to pray together daily could pose a security threat and potentially spark violence against Muslims by other prisoners who follow different religions, NPR said.

The communications management unit at the prison in Terre Haute, Ind., apparently holds terrorists like Lindh as well as neo-Nazis and other prisoners who require special monitoring and whose contact with outsiders is restricted.

[ Related: John Walker Lindh's prison life isn't so bad ]

Lindh, 31, was born in Washington, D.C., and was raised a Roman Catholic in the U.S. capital and later northern California. He discovered Islam as a teenager, around the time his parents' marriage was crumbling, at the open-learning high school he attended.

He converted in 1997 and the following year spent 10 months studying Arabic in Yemen. Later he went to Pakistan to study at a madrassa — an Islamic religious school — then went to Afghanistan in spring 2001. He joined the Taliban, which was still governing the country and fighting Northern Alliance rebels.

Lindh was part of an al-Qaeda foreign fighters unit captured by Northern Alliance forces in November 2001. By then American forces had invaded Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 terror attacks staged from there. He apparently at first pretended to be Irish when being questioned by CIA interrogators.

Lindh was wounded during an uprising at the prison and later told a journalist he was part of an al-Qaeda group financed by Osama bin Laden. Eventually he was transferred to U.S. custody to face murder and terrorism charges. In a plea deal, Lindh pleaded guilty in 2002 to two lesser charges and was sentenced to 20 years in prison with no parole.

In their court submission, prison officials said Lindh presented discipline problems connected with his attempts to pray, including violating the rule against praying with a group.

Canada's federal prison system has an extensive chaplaincy program that the Correctional Service of Canada says operates under constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, as well as international human rights conventions governing prisoners' ability to practice their faith. Muslim imams are among the clerics who volunteer their services within prisons.

But Canadian law allows prison officials to restrict religious services under the Charter for security reasons, according to a 1983 case involving Saskatchewan's prison system.

"The limiting of access to chaplains and to religious ceremonies in a provincial remand detention facility did not violate the right to freedom of religion guaranteed by this section," the Saskatchewan court ruling found.

"In the circumstances the limitation in relation to chapel service was for reasons of security. The religious programs that did exist, while not perfect, were nevertheless sufficient to allow for freedom of conscience and religion within such reasonable limits as were feasible in the circumstances."