ISLAM BEHIND BARS
- American prisons become political and religious battleground over
ISLAM BEHIND BARS
By Rachel Zoll, Associated Press, 6/4/05
Muslim inmate Mark Anthony Aikens, in white, hugs fellow Muslim
inmate Ricardo Searles after weekly Friday worship in a room used as a
makeshift mosque at Rikers Island prison in New York. U.S. Muslim
leaders say Islam is most likely to win American converts in prison.
(Stephan Savoia/The Associated Press )
NEW YORK - It's Friday on Rikers Island, time for weekly worship for
nearly a quarter of the city jail's 14,000 inmates.
The men, Muslims, file quietly into a classroom of white
cinderblock that serves as their mosque. Incense burns to chase away a
sour smell from the hall, as the inmates sit quietly on sheets stamped
''Department of Corrections'' covering the linoleum floor.
Imam Menelik Muhammad is delivering the day's sermon. As he stands
beneath a Quranic prayer on the wall facing Mecca, he urges the
prisoners to reform. ''You will not be considered a Muslim,'' he
admonishes, ''unless people are considered safe from your hands and
Across the United States, tens of thousands of Muslims are
practicing their faith behind bars. Islam is most likely to win
American converts there, according to U.S. Muslim leaders, and the
religion has for decades been a regular part of prison culture.
But the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have brought new scrutiny to Muslim
inmates, many of whom are black men focused on surviving
incarceration. While prison chaplains of various denominations argue
that Islam offers a spiritual path to rehabilitation, others say it
has the potential to turn felons into terrorists. The FBI calls
prisons ''fertile ground for extremists.''
The reality is harder to read: Those on opposing sides have such
divergent views they seem irreconcilable. Who's right matters not only
for national security, but for the development of American Islam
itself, which is struggling to be accepted alongside the major faiths
in the United States.
Ever since the 2002 arrest of Jose Padilla, a felon and American
Muslim convert who authorities say planned a ''dirty bomb''
radiological attack after he left jail, law enforcement officials,
politicians and even a few evangelical leaders have warned that Muslim
inmates are ripe for terrorist recruitment.
Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, has said: ''Wahhabi
influence is inculcating them with the same kind of militant ideas
that drove the 9-11 hijackers to kill thousands of Americans.''
Wahhabism is a strict form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, which
was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers.
Chuck Colson, founder of the evangelical Prison Fellowship
Ministries and a Nixon administration official, predicted that
''radical Islamists will use prisons, packed with angry and resentful
men,'' to avenge Islam.
''Prisons continue to be fertile ground for extremists who
exploit both a prisoner's conversion to Islam while still in prison,
as well as their socio-economic status and placement in the community
upon their release,'' FBI Director Robert Mueller said Feb. 16 to the
U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.
Prison chaplains and others say such warnings are dangerously ignorant.
In interviews with The Associated Press, chaplains, prison
volunteers, correctional officials, inmates and former inmates all
insisted that there was no evidence of terrorist recruitment by
Muslims in their prisons - although banned pamphlets and books
sometimes slip in.
Chaplains describe the typical inmate convert as a poor, black
American upset about racism, not Mideast politics, or someone who
turned to Islam to cope with imprisonment. When they get out, these
men are so overwhelmed by alcoholism or poverty that the crimes they
are most likely to commit are the ones that landed them in jail to
begin with, chaplains say.
''They don't care about Osama bin Laden,'' said Imam Talib Abdur
Rashid, who worked for years as a chaplain in New York state's prison
system. ''They have their own beefs that have nothing to do with
shariah [Islamic law], the Taliban or Wahhabism, and everything to do
with slavery, segregation and the history of U.S. racism.''
Just defining the scope of the Islamic presence behind bars in the
United States is tricky.
Though on the federal level they account for about 6 percent of
roughly 150,000 inmates, there are no nationwide statistics on Muslims
in state prisons.
Experts believe the largest numbers in state prisons can be found
in New York, where Muslims are roughly 18 percent of the 63,700
inmates; Pennsylvania, where the figure is about 18 percent out of
41,100; and California, where state officials don't tally religious
affiliation but the figure could easily be in the thousands.
The bottom line is that the percentage of American Muslims in
prison is almost certainly higher than it is in the general
population, where the number of Muslims could be as high as 6 million,
or roughly 2 percent.
Islam took hold in prison in the 1940s, through the Nation of
Islam. Leaders of the religious movement, which mixes Muslim
traditions with black nationalism, were imprisoned for refusing to
fight in World War II and, as a result, their teaching spread behind
bars. Among their most famous prison recruits was Malcolm X.
Another boom came two decades later, when Muslim inmates sued
prison administrators, accusing them of violating religious freedoms.
The inmates won, and transformed jailhouse practice of all faiths.
Starting in the 1980s, get-tough sentencing laws filled jails with
a disproportionate number of blacks, leading to another spike in
conversion. But by this time, many blacks who once belonged to the
Nation of Islam had embraced orthodox Islam instead - and that is what
the majority of inmates practice today.
Or, at least they say they do.
Some inmates become Muslim in name only, either to seek protection
from prison gangs, enjoy privileges like holiday meals, or escape the
monotony of prison life through classes and weekly worship. Mika'il
DeVeaux, a Muslim convert who spent 25 years in New York prisons for
murder, encountered inmates who converted but had little or no
understanding of the religion. One inmate, he recalled, thought
converting would allow him to circumvent prison rules and wear a hat
that looked like a turban.
But for some prisoners, the change is authentic, and correctional
officials say Islamic observance actually helps them maintain prison
Said Anthony Windle, who converted to Islam at Rikers Island while
awaiting trial on a drug conspiracy charge: ''The more you learn, the
harder it is for somebody to feed you untruths and lead you in the
Duval Rafq, who was convicted of rape and became Muslim two years
into his Connecticut prison sentence, said converting led him to
accept responsibility for his crime. Released five years ago, he
worships at Masjid Al-Islam in New Haven, and works while attending
night school for heating and refrigeration repair.
''My behavior all of a sudden changed and other people's attitude
and behavior toward me changed,'' Rafq said.
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