Warith Deen Umar

Warith Deen Umar


* Muslim cleric
* Former Islamic chaplain of New York’s prison system
* In 1971 was a member of the Harlem Five, and was tried on charges of conspiracy-to-murder

Born Wallace Gene Marks in 1945, Warith Deen Umar is a Muslim cleric who, prior to his retirement in 2000, spent some twenty years helping to run New York’s growing Islamic prison program, recruiting and training dozens of chaplains, and ministering to thousands of inmates himself. With help from the Saudi government, he traveled to Saudi Arabia and brought that country’s harsh form of Islam to New York’s expanding ranks of Muslim prisoners. He continues to visit New York state prisons as a volunteer chaplain.He believes that the 9/11 hijackers should be honored as martyrs, and that the U.S. risks further terrorism attacks because it oppresses Muslims around the world. “Without justice, there will be warfare, and it can come to this country, too,” he says. Viewing black prisoners as the natural candidates to help initiate such an attack, Imam Umar says the focus of his preaching usually “is on work, family and getting an education,” but he also says that prison “is the perfect recruitment and training grounds for radicalism and the Islamic religion.” Umar adds, “There is more happening in this country than most people know about,” he says regarding the Muslim anger that is quietly building behind bars and on the outside. “Prisons are a powder keg. The question is the ignition.”

“Even Muslims who say they are against terrorism secretly admire and applaud” the hijackers, Umar wrote in an unpublished memoir. The Koran, he said, does not condemn terrorism against oppressors of Muslims, even if innocent people die. “This is the sort of teaching they don’t want in prison,” he said. “But this is what I’m doing.”

A prison chaplain since 1975, Umar has seen Islam grow among inmates, mirroring the vast increase in the incarceration of blacks, some of whom adopt the religion as inmates. As the most influential Muslim prison chaplain in New York, which has the fourth-largest state system in the nation, he and some of his trainees adopted the fundamentalist offshoot of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. Rooted in Saudi Arabia, it stresses a literal reading of the Koran and intolerance for people and sects that do not follow its absolutist teaching. The chaplains have operated with little supervision from state prison officials, who say the constitutional protection of religious freedom prevents them from closely monitoring religious services. Imam Umar — born Wallace Gene Marks and later known as Wallace 10X — twice has traveled to Saudi Arabia for worship and study at the expense of the Saudi government and its affiliated charities, part of an extensive program aimed at spreading Islam in U.S. prisons. He and other prison chaplains also have studied and attended conferences at an Islamic school in Virginia that U.S. officials raided in 2002 in a probe of organizations suspected of helping move Saudi money to Middle Eastern terrorists. Umar and some of his colleagues have brought Wahhabism’s harshest prejudices to their captive flock.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the chaplain at the men’s prison in remote Cape Vincent, N.Y., preached that God had inflicted his punishment on the wicked and the victims deserved what they got, according to a labor arbitrator’s subsequent ruling upholding his firing. Shocked officials at the prison didn’t intervene for fear of sparking a riot. About six weeks later, the chaplain at the Albion Correctional Facility for women told inmates that Osama bin Laden “is a soldier of Allah, a hero of Allah,” prison officials say.New York also has seen a rash of complaints from inmates who adhere to the minority Shiite sect of Islam. The tension reflects a centuries-old split between Shiites and the Sunni majority. Imam Umar and other chaplains have imported into New York prisons Sunni absolutist perspectives, some inmates say, including a bias against Shiites. Nearly all the chaplains he helped hire are Sunni. Imam Umar helped pioneer government-paid Muslim prison ministry in the 1970s, but his earliest experiences behind bars were as a teenage criminal. He says he spent his 15th and 16th birthdays in Illinois jails for purse snatchings and drug crimes. “I went to jail too many times to count,” he says.Wallace Gene Marks, as he was then known, moved to New York in the late 1960s and befriended a group of fledgling militants in Harlem. He and his friends talked “about taking off pigs [police officers] and spreading guns and weapons to people,” he says. They were overheard by two undercover police officers.He and four others, dubbed the Harlem Five, were tried on conspiracy-to-murder charges in 1971. “We only had my 9mm handgun, another defendant’s 30-30 rifle and some crude hand-made bombs, fashioned with gun powder and nails,” he says. The Harlem Five argued that their talk had been just bravado and beat the conspiracy charges. Wallace Marks, however, was sent to prison for possessing weapons. “If it happened today, I would have been called a terrorist,” he says.

Before beginning his two-year prison term, he visited Nation of Islam kingpin Louis Farrakhan, who promised that Allah would protect him. Mr. Marks became a Nation of Islam leader in prison and later changed his name to Wallace 10X. In 1975, shortly after he was released, New York put the 30-year-old parolee on its payroll as one of the state’s first two Muslim chaplains. Some of the other early Muslim chaplains also were ex-convicts. Eventually he moved to the more orthodox Sunni school of Islam and changed his name to Warith Deen Umar.

This profile was adapted from the article “Criminal Fifth Column,” written by Paul Barrett and published by FrontPageMagazine.com on February 5, 2003.

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