Islam advisor cites 'calmer' Guantanamo

Times Staff Writer

Some prisoners call him "Brother." Others call him an enemy of God. Some don't speak to him at all.

But the 48-year-old Arab American cultural advisor brought here 14 months ago believes he is making a difference as he works with terrorism suspects and their military jailers on ways to avoid religious and cultural conflict.

It's a work in progress, he concedes, having witnessed recurring hunger strikes, a May riot among previously well-behaved prisoners, and three suicides in June that were the first deaths among nearly 800 prisoners the U.S. government has sent here.

The advisor, who cannot be identified because of military rules and concerns for his family's safety, attributes the suicides to a misguided rumor that an act of martyrdom would result in the rest of Guantanamo's prisoners being freed.

"They thought they were doing good, that they were sacrificing themselves," he said. "They thought there would be planes lined up to take the others away."

Since the suicides had no effect, "I don't think it will happen again," he said. "The world didn't respond the way they thought it would."

The advisor, who has lived in the United States since 1981, is a civil engineer by training and formerly the owner of a retail business. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said, he wanted to go back to Iraq. Eventually, he got a job as a linguist with the U.S.-led occupation. He believes his 2 1/2 years of service with U.S. forces gave him an edge over three competitors for the $250,000-a-year job here.

He says the prisoners' behavior has improved since he arrived in September 2005, two years after a Muslim chaplain here was arrested and accused of aiding the enemy. The lay advisor attributes the "calmer" environment now to revised detention practices proposed by himself and the Joint Task Force commanding the network of camps and prisons.

"They see we are making an effort in understanding them," the advisor said of the detainees. "I sit down with them, one on one. I let them know I don't care how they got here."

He describes himself as independent of the military and says he speaks his mind "whether it is to the guy on the cellblock or to the admiral," referring to the task force commander, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr.

His suggestions for more sensitivity in a detention environment deplored by human-rights groups and European allies have resulted in some bizarre bows to religious tradition.

During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, for instance, hunger-striking prisoners were force-fed only after the daytime fasting period had ended. And out of respect for the cultural taboo against exposing the male body from the waist to the knees in the sight of others, prisoners thought to be suicide risks are stripped of cotton clothing that can be torn into ligatures and instead outfitted in Velcro-fastened green nylon pads that cover them from the chest to the ankles.

Complaints from the prisoners about guards making noise during the prayer calls five times a day led to the use of yellow plastic cones stenciled with a P. When a muezzin's recorded call sounds from speakers around the camps, the prayer cones are positioned in each cellblock corridor to remind guards to be quiet.

The advisor also plays a role in the kitchens, suggesting traditional meals for Muslim holidays and ensuring that meat ordered for the detainees is certified as halal by the Islamic Society of North America.

To ease boredom for the prisoners, who spend all but an hour or two each day alone in cells or cages, the advisor and fellow contractors in the intelligence field have more than doubled the prison library offerings. There are now more than 4,500 titles of religious writings, literature, history and politics available for the weekly library-cart rounds.

"We want to give them things to pass the time with and not nourish extremism," the cultural advisor said of his selections from a spring book-buying trip to Detroit's Muslim neighborhoods.

Neither he nor library administrator Capt. J.M. Henderson would talk about specific subjects or authors, saying only that works encouraging extremism, violence or holy war were excluded. A perusal of the shelves reveals mostly innocuous stories and classics such as the Harry Potter series, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "The Good Earth" and the poetry of Khalil Gibran. There are no stories of unjust imprisonment, dramatic escapes or resistance -- no works about Gandhi, no copy of "Papillon," nothing by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn.

Prayer, censored letters from family, and the weekly library call might soon be augmented with movies, taped TV programs, a weekly bulletin of vetted news items, and English classes. Harris said he was working with the cultural advisor to provide prisoners with more options within the limits of security concerns.

Keeping the prisoners focused on their faith has helped them cope with prison, the advisor said. He also believes the occasional releases and transfers engender hope of eventual freedom from a detention that for most will reach the five-year mark in 2007. At least 60 have left Guantanamo this year, joining more than 200 released in previous years after panels of U.S. officers deemed them "no longer enemy combatants," or NLECs in Guantanamo jargon.

The cultural advisor was brought in to fill the role of the Muslim chaplain previously stationed here to minister to the prisoners -- a job that has been empty since the September 2003 arrest of Army Capt. James Yee. A West Point graduate who was one of the U.S. military's first Muslim chaplains, Yee was jailed in isolation for 76 days and initially threatened with the death penalty on espionage charges.

However, he was not prosecuted, and a year later he was honorably discharged. In a book released last year, "For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire," Yee blames his ordeal on a general mistrust of Muslims in Washington power circles and on the fears of the commander of the detention operations at the time, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, that Yee knew too much about abuse and mistreatment of the terrorism suspects.

"What the military and U.S. government doesn't want is a person with a sense of moral and ethical standards who will speak out against injustices," Yee said in an interview, explaining his view of why the Muslim chaplain's job was eliminated.

Yee is critical of the cultural advisor, saying he is not a trained cleric and therefore not qualified to help prisoners in spiritual matters.

Chris Molnar, a Lutheran pastor who served as head chaplain at Guantanamo last year, said that the advisor was not then very popular with the Muslim detainees but that he was skilled in "the practical stuff. That's what we really needed."

Most of the prisoners are of Sunni or Salafi-Wahhabi sects and are unlikely to trust any American military imam, said Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi who directs the Institute for Gulf Affairs, a Washington think tank. He said he thought the government had erred in sending a chaplain -- a mistake that reflected Washington's ignorance of the complexities of Islam, he said.

Ahmed said that the prisoners tended to look more to religiously trained fellow detainees for spiritual guidance and that the replacement of Yee with the cultural advisor was probably a more effective approach to easing tensions behind the wire.

Having no spiritual leader for the 430 prisoners still at Guantanamo isn't a problem, the advisor says, because the Islamic faith doesn't require an intermediary for prayer.

carol.williams@latimes.com

Times staff writers Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez in

Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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