The federal government is willing to give it a go.

The New York Times reports that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has been purging prison libraries of religious books. Why would the government seek to restrict prisoners’ access to religious books? Apparently, the Justice Department (yes, the same Justice Department headed up first by John Ashcroft and then by since-disgraced Alberto Gonzalez) decided in 2004 that this was a good way to prevent prisoners from becoming terrorists.

The plan, in brief, works like this. First, you select a secret, undisclosed panel of religious experts. Next, you divide the vast religious spectrum into twenty religions or religious categories, and you then dictate that for each category, only 150 books and 150 multimedia resources can be made available. The shadowy panelists make those determinations, with no process for review or appeal of their decisions. Give the whole thing a chilling name like the “Standardized Chapel Library Project”, and walk off saying that you seek to limit prisoners from getting at material that could “discriminate, disparage, advocate violence, or radicalize.”

Needless to say, the government is being sued over this, though experts say that the case is not as clear-cut as outraged progressive liberals like myself may perceive it to be.

Notably, the panel of experts may not be fully representative of the various religions. Of the 120 Jewish books, fully 80 are published by the same Orthodox publisher (the Times doesn’t report which publisher, but I’m sure we can all guess…) I wonder if the Judaism ‘expert’ was a Aish guy.

To me though, the most offensive thing about this is the assumption that lies at the core of the plan: that exposure to religious material breeds terrorism. It’s like the recent drivel by CNN’s resident Antisemite, Christiane Amanpour – a series called God’s Warriors, which profiled terrorists by religious affiliation, including an episode each on Jews, Christians and Muslims. There’s no evidence for the claim, as best as I can tell, that religion drives people to terrorism, any more than there is evidence for the claim that atheism is linked to depression and suicide. But saying something closer to the truth, namely, that Muslim teachers, writings, and role models abound for the would-be terrorist (which is not true of Judaism or Christianity on any similar scale), is a little too judgy for our society. Instead, we have to cloak our desire to limit prisoners’ exposure to a corrosive, ahteful, and dangerous ideology in a more general ban on religious ideas – as though the religion is the common denominator.

Shouldn’t we just limit access to all inciting material in prisons? What precisely is the added benefit of grouping these materials based on a religious dimension?

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