Conversations With A Young Islamist In A Prison Library

10/15/2010 02:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Akh, as he was called by his fellow inmates, worked the prison library detail. As a staff prison librarian - an experience which I chronicle in my new memoir "Running The Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian" - I was his supervisor and worked closely with him in the library every day, for many months. Naturally, we developed a rapport.

One day, during a lull at the check-out desk, I asked him about his nickname. After his brother was murdered, gunned down in the streets of Boston , Akh had converted to Sunni Islam, he told me. This had happened roughly a year earlier. Now, with his new religion came his new nickname, short for the Arabic akhi, my brother. The new name replaced his old drug-dealing moniker, TY. Akh was very happy to have made this exchange. "That name ain't me," he said of TY. "I ain't that guy."

But who, exactly, was Akh? He was still working on this question. For him, the prison library was a convenient place to explore the possibilities. From afar, I could tell that he'd adopted the awkward ardor of a recent convert: he was fervent but, at the same time, embarrassingly ignorant of even the most basic facts of his new faith. He was vulnerable and defensive and utterly humorless about the whole process. Akh read what he could and discussed his questions with other inmates, usually with older inmates. He spoke with Muslims and with
Christians. And he also spoke with me.

My background as an Orthodox Jew fascinated Akh. His ignorance of religious history was, ironically, an asset. He apparently hadn't received the memo that pious Jews and Muslims were at war and that they shared nothing in common. From his reading it seemed that Islam and Judaism in fact had a great deal in common, particularly in the emphasis each placed on the primacy of ritual law. To the dismay and bewilderment of some of his prison "Sunni brothers" Akh and I entered into an alternative ongoing theological discussion in the prison library. The questions we discussed were not abstract but practical. We talked about the function of dietary laws and the value of religious education. Akh asked me about growing up unable to eat what other children ate, observing different holidays, dressing differently. Just being generally sheltered and strange. "That's got to be hard for a kid, right?" When Akh got out of prison, he wanted to raise his children as Muslims but didn't want them to be outcasts.

There was only one problem. In his studies, Akh was dabbling with some dangerous ideas and some extremist texts. The stridently anti-Christian, anti-Jewish and anti-Western sentiments that I started hearing from him didn't sound remotely like his voice. And, in fact, they weren't. He was repeating the vile nonsense he'd read in some propaganda tract. He would naively present these "ideas" to me for discussion in the prison library. He would dispute with me but he would also listen. For every argument he put forward about how "Islam teaches x..." I would counter that "But in the hadith it says y." I introduced him to the history of religion, which included influential, progressive forms of Islam. I too was doing my homework.

We went on like this until his prison term ended. When he left, he thanked me profusely for our conversations and wished me all the good blessings of Allah. We shook hands and that was it.

I thought about Akh in 2007 when the Federal Bureau of Prisons, pointing to a supposed rise in prison religious fundamentalism, issued a list of permitted religious books for prison libraries--all other books were to be purged from the bookshelves. If ever there were a self-parody of prison censorship, this was it. Among the many thousands of now banned classic and contemporary titles, the program would have outlawed such works of incitement as Reinhold Niebuhr's A Study in Ethics and Politics and Robert Schuller's Living Positively One Day at avTime. But beyond the glaring absurdity of this approach was a serious question. How could a penal system, structured as it is today, deal with the potent problem of religious radicalism? I don't have an easy answer but wonder if the hint was with Akh: that the discussion of books and the human relationships that were formed around these discussions were as important as the content of the books themselves.

I don't know whether I ultimately succeeded in moderating Akh. Perhaps the forces pushing him in the other direction were stronger or more persuasive. But I can honestly say that if Akh did become a radical Islamist in prison it was despite the education he received in the prison library. It is just as likely that our conversations--simply the example of an open and respectful dialogue--planted a seed. It was, after all, a kind of tolerance that kept him coming back enthusiastically to the prison library and that kept our conversations honest and alive. In prison, and even in the balkanized world at large, this alone is a rare achievement.

Avi Steinberg's book, Running The Books: The Adventures Of An Accidental Prison Librarian," can be ordered here.