The Life of an 'American Taliban' in a U.S. Jail

Michele Norris talks with Tom Junod, whose article about John Walker Lindh appears in the July issue of Esquire magazine. Junod focuses on what Lindh's life is like in prison, where he is serving a 20-year sentence.

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MICHELE NORRIS host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Michele Norris.

The enduring image of John Walker Lindh is that of a bearded, blindfolded, dirt covered young man, the American Taliban captured by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. That picture was plastered all over the world and the white Muslim convert who grew up in a wealthy northern California suburb immediately became a symbol of America's war on terrorism.

Lindh was interrogated and eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison as part of a plea agreement. The U.S. government dropped almost all the charges and in exchange Lindh pleaded guilty to two criminal charges of illegally aiding the Taliban.

A story in the July issue of Esquire provides a glimpse of Lindh's life behind bars at a federal prison. Tom Junod wrote the article with the provocative title Can America And Islam Co-Exist? The answer may lie with the fate of 25-year-old American Taliban John Walker Lindh.

Junod joined us to talk about Lindh who has now changed his name to Hamsa Walker Lindh.

Mr. TOM JUNOD (Esquire magazine): I don't know exactly why he changed his name, the original Muslim moniker that he took when he first converted was Suleyman. He was known as John Walker Lindh, as John Walker, as Suleyman. When he got to prison he changed his name to Hamsa and I think that is in honor of Muhammad's uncle.

NORRIS: Now he is in this federal prison in California, in Victorville, what do you know about the conditions of his imprisonment?

Mr. JUNOD: Well, it's a medium security federal prison. He is, has some freedoms. His main freedom that is denied him thanks to the gag order that was part of his sentencing is that he cannot speak Arabic at all while in prison.

NORRIS: And that prohibition is sort of played out in a central anecdote in your piece. It's a moment where a fellow Muslim greets Lindh with a classic greeting, asalamalakum, which means peace be upon you, and Lindh at that point faced a dilemma. He can either ignore the man, which is an insult, or he can respond, which is customary, and risk punishment.

What do you glean from his response in that predicament?

Mr. JUNOD: Well, he responds in kind with the traditional Muslim response, which is in Arabic, and he does this in front of a guard and he is sent to, well, it's called the Special Housing Unit, but it's what the prisoners call the hole. What I glean from that is that he is certainly still very much dedicated to Islam and still very much, you know, willing to pay the price for that dedication.

NORRIS: Now because of the gag order and the prohibitions that his family face, how were you able to actually paint this picture and report this story?

Mr. JUNOD: Well, it was a very difficult story to report. It took three months to do. Basically the story broke for me when I got in touch with the Muslim chaplain that was John's spiritual mentor for the first two years he was in jail and then he put me in touch with two ex-inmates who were also Muslims and were John's friends.

NORRIS: What were you able to learn about his daily routine?

Mr. JUNOD: I learned that he wakes up every morning for his pre-dawn prayer and that this is considered something of a marvel in jail because it's very difficult to wake yourself up in jail in the dark. John also wakes himself up at midnight for an optional prayer. You must wake yourself up out of a sleep in order to do it and it's known as the prayer that is your most intimate contact with God and the most pleasing contact with God. I've also learned that John fasts twice a week. So John is as pure as pure can be in terms of Islam.

NORRIS: Are there concerns for his safety?

Mr. JUNOD: Well, John has been attacked once. It was shortly after he got to Victorville. He was attacked outside of chapel by a prisoner who apparently had some sympathies with Aryan Nation or the White Supremacist groups. My understanding right now is that there is some concern for his safety and John does not spend a lot of time in the yard. Anything that is unsupervised is not something that John does too much.

NORRIS: Now this is not just a portrait of his life behind bars, it's also an exploration of his faith. And the man that you describe in this piece is not necessarily a hate-filled Jihadist, but rather someone who's quite scholarly and actually quite pious. It's certainly not the image that emerged in those first pictures that we saw in Afghanistan.

Mr. JUNOD: The portrait that was drawn of John Walker Lindh for me by his Muslim friends and associates was of actually a saintly person, a person who is extremely peaceful, extremely pious. I mean he did take the oath of Jihad while he was in Afghanistan and I do believe that he was radicalized while in Afghanistan, but as a Muslim in prison right now he sets a high and extreme standard for piety.

NORRIS: You say that he's because of this a somewhat sympathetic character and that someone who may have taken a wrong turn in his life, someone you describe as a starry eyed kid who might have been in over his head, but at the same time you note that that doesn't tell the whole story, that there might be two sides to that coin. It doesn't necessarily speak to his cunning or, what you say is his sheer will.

Mr. JUNOD: Yeah, Michele, I don't think that he necessarily took the wrong turn. I think what I tried to do with that statement is say that was the original source of sympathy for him. I think that was always a misreading of John, that he was a kid in over his head. I think that really from the very beginning he knew exactly what he wanted and set himself to do it.

NORRIS: What was it that he wanted?

Mr. JUNOD: I think that he wanted purity and thought that he could not get that in the United States and so he went to travel. In the Koran there are verses saying that what a Muslim really should do and what a Muslim should do is leave his home, leave his country and take up and defend Muslims in other parts of the world and I think that John followed that prescription to the letter.

NORRIS: So in the end do you posit this idea that Lindh is somewhat of a litmus test for how America, a country that's seeped in Christian traditions, will eventually will deal with Islam. The essential question posed in your article, can America and Islam co-exist? Why is Lindh so important in that question?

Mr. JUNOD: He is almost the perfect Muslim and he is this white kid from the suburbs of California. He became this symbolic person and I think that the persecution of John was in some way symbolic, that this was the way that we are going to deal with this challenge. And if American ideals and dreams of Muslim purity came to a collision in the person of John Walker Lindh, I think that American ideals of freedom came off the worse for it.

NORRIS: Tom, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. JUNOD: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: Tom Junod is speaking to us about his story in the July issue of Esquire. It's a story that details John Walker Lindh's life behind bars in a federal prison in Victorville, California. Tom, thanks so much.

Mr. JUNOD: Thanks, Michele.

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