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Radical Islam in Prison: Made in the USA

Posted: 06/21/11 09:16 AM ET

In March, when Rep. Peter King held hearings on "The Radicalization of Muslim Americans," there were many reasons to be moved to tears. For some, laughter at King's hypocrisy inspired the sentiment -- for his support of the IRA in its zenith of terror -- now chastising Muslims for supporting terrorists; for others, tears of anger streamed since the focus was on Muslims only, as opposed to neo-nazis or Christian militia movements; still for others it was regret that the hearing would further alienate American Muslims. Rep. Keith Ellison's tears, however, flowed for none of these reasons. The first Muslim ever elected to the U.S. Congress wept as he recounted the moving story of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a Muslim American who died trying to save his fellow Americans on 9/11. The message was clear -- Muslims are a part of America, and their vilification is neither useful nor just. Last week, when the hearings shifted the lens to Muslims in prison, the overarching message seemed to be that radicalization of inmates, to whatever extent it occurs, is largely an American manufacture.

This message sits in diametric opposition to some who have been warning that Wahhabists and other foreign radicals are infiltrating American prisons for recruitment into international terrorist rings. This alarmist position has thrived in the post-9/11 world, yet empirical evidence reveals it a house of cards built on anecdotal evidence. Still, these ideas are the bedrock of U.S. counterterrorism policy in prisons, and the urging of such thinkers has resulted in a de facto hiring freeze on Muslim chaplains in the Bureau of Prisons. The crown jewel of the alarmist argument is an Al-Qaeda text that cites Western prisoners as ripe for recruitment. While there is an obvious difference between identifying a population for recruitment and successful recruiting, much significance has been attached to this manual.

To support these claims, some point to attacks and attempts by some ex-prisoners as a reinforcing narrative: Richard Reid served time in a British prison before he gained fame as the "shoe bomber"; Jose Padilla served time in a Florida prison before becoming the "dirty bomber"; Muktar Said Ibrahim converted to Islam in a British prison before involvement in the London Underground bombing plot; some even point to Kevin Lamar James, a current inmate who founded Jam'yyat Al-Islam Al-Saheeh (JIS) and orchestrated a plot from a California prison. James' story, ironically enough, is perhaps the ultimate counterexample to the foreign invasion hypothesis.

For James, there was no foreign influence, rather, he was the product of American gang culture. Although from a distance the JIS plot seems to corroborate that foreign elements have taken root in American prisons, the case undercuts the assumption that radical views must come from abroad. James needed no help from foreign terrorists or from clerics. Indeed, America has its own ways of creating radicals -- Daniel Maldonado and Antonio Martinez are further proof, and prisoners are no exception.

Research downplays the idea of foreign infiltration, positing the threat as more likely from small pockets of prisoners falling under the spell of a charismatic fellow inmate. This point is crucial -- lack of Muslim chaplains forces inmates to take matters into their own hands, leading to cut-and-paste versions of Islam -- quite the opposite of what a fundamentalist would advocate. Criminologists refer to this as "prison Islam" or "Prislam," where gang structures appropriate Islam to justify a violent and criminal lifestyle. While JIS is the only known "Prislam" group to come close to executing an attack, "Prislam" groups have wreaked havoc inside prisons for years including the Michigan-based "Melanic Islamic Palace of the Rising Sun" and the British-based "Muslim Boys" who have waged war through assaults, batteries, and prison riots

The conversation about prisoner radicalization must move beyond the alarmist position and turn attention to domestic problems, including "Prislam." If prevention of inmate radicalization is the goal, there must be accounting for conditions inside prison, perhaps the most forceful radicalizing factor of all. Likewise, conditions outside of prison must be considered. Although Malcolm X is the most famous prison-convert, much of what fueled his fire in the 1950s, unfairness in criminal justice, discrimination, and the trauma of the prison experience, still languish. These are the pillars of radicalism -- not shadows from foreign figures. The idea that radicalism is largely American-made is not popular, especially since it obliterates the "us versus them" binary of the War on Terror; although homegrown radicals may eventually seek to work with foreign interests in the name of Islam, they need little help from abroad to reach this point. Instead, the prison experience itself and prison policies that encourage inmates to play imam are more likely suspects than organizations abroad. As Rep. Clarke stated in testimony, "It's not about Islam ... it's about this prison system -- we have to change that."