Pardon my language, but I would like to say something blunt: Thank God. You know that something is going on in this world when people in conservative talk radio and the folks at Sojourners are upset about the same issue. And you know that a veteran religion-beat reporter like Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times is going to know that this left-right-middle concern about a basic civil liberty issue is a story. Period.
We are talking about that federal Bureau of Prisons list of approved religious books in U.S. prisons -- which means there is a list of unapproved books -- created by a government committee somewhere. Click here for a flashback to the first GetReligion post on the topic by young master Daniel Pulliam. And here is the crunch material from the new Goodstein report:
Outrage over the bureau's decision has come from both conservatives and liberals, who say it is inappropriate to limit inmates to a religious reading list determined by the government.
The Republican Study Committee, a caucus of some of the most conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives, sent a letter on Wednesday to the bureau's director, Harley G. Lappin, saying, "We must ensure that in America the federal government is not the undue arbiter of what may or may not be read by our citizens." ...
The bureau, the target of a class-action lawsuit by prisoners because of the book purge, is hearing criticism from a broad array of religious groups and leaders. Sojourners, a liberal evangelical group based in Washington, sent an alert to its members, who within 48 hours sent the bureau more than 15,000 e-mail messages urging it to scrap the policy. The issue is also a hot topic on conservative Christian talk radio shows.
Spokesmen for the Bureau of Prisons said it was not reconsidering its policy.
Well, that's not good news. But it's hardly a surprise.
The real issue lurking in this story is rather obvious. The goal appears to be to limit the access of prisoners to books that are linked to groups that advocate violence or smear other faiths. But to do that, in this day and age, seems like a value judgment (and it is). It is hard to say that you want to limit access to Milestones by Sayyid Qutb, but do not want to limit the religious works of provocative Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or agnostic writers.
The bureau admits it is looking for dangerous books. That's understandable, but there are all kinds of books that are dangerous in different ways. What is the bureau specifically afraid of? That is the subject around which officials, and journalists perhaps, are dancing.
Still, is this current policy the solution to any problem? Religious liberty issues are always tough, as this detail in the Times story notes.
Initially, the bureau set out to take an inventory of every book and item in its chapel libraries. When the list grew to the tens of thousands, the bureau decided instead to generate lists of acceptable books and materials -- about 150 items for each of 20 religions or religious categories. It calls that plan the Standardized Chapel Library Project.
So the Koran stays on the shelves, which is good. But is it one of the Wahhabi editions of the Koran? Are we allowed to ask that question? Why should we ask that question? Here is a clip from a Weekly Standard piece on this topic:
The Wahhabi Koran is notable in that, while Muslims believe that their sacred text was dictated by God and cannot be altered, the Saudi English version adds to the original so as to change its sense in a radical direction. For example, the opening chapter, or surah, is known as Fatiha, and is recited in Muslim daily prayer and (among non-Wahhabis) as a memorial to the dead. The four final lines of Fatiha read, in a normal rendition of the Arabic original (such as this translation by N.J. Dawood, published by Penguin Books): Guide us to the straight path, / The path of those whom You have favored, / Not of those who have incurred Your wrath, / Nor of those who have gone astray.
The Wahhabi Koran renders these lines: Guide us to the Straight Way. / The Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of those who have earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians). The Wahhabi Koran prints this translation alongside the Arabic text, which contains no reference to either Jews or Christians.
There is nothing to indicate to the uninformed reader that these interpolations, printed in parentheses, are absent from the Arabic.
So you can see why some people would believe that this prison problem is real. We need to know more information.
Meanwhile, it is good news that a broad religious coalition is getting some attention as it protests the current policy, the "Why ban 100 books when you can ban 100,000 books?" policy.
This whole case was strange from the get go, as we would say in Texas. It still is strange, which makes it an important story.