Posted on July 8, 2004

Rise Of Islam In Jails A Risk?

Vinay Menon, (Toronto), July 7, 2004

When you’re in prison there’s lots of time to think about God.

Salvation for the sinners has a timeless appeal. And so religion remains an enduring jailhouse phenomenon, where detained criminals are free to embrace penance, piety and prayer.

Witness: “Islam Behind Bars” (CBC, 8 p.m. tonight) is a one-hour documentary that explores “the fastest growing religion in Western jails.” It does this by focusing on prisoners who have become Muslims.

We begin with Kevin Culmer, a man who robbed Toronto banks in the mid-’90s to support a cocaine addiction. After receiving an 18-year sentence in Kingston’s Joyceville Institution, Culmer had a catharsis.

“I said to myself one evening, I said, you know, `You have to find a better way of living. You have to find a more complete way of life.’”

Culmer was fascinated by Muslim inmates in his midst, whom he describes as “humble” and “at peace.” He was soon reciting verses from the Koran, modifying his diet and hewing to other religious teachings.

“I felt a moment of clarity with respect to my search for a way of life,” he tells cameras.

This sense of identity and belonging, echoed by other inmates, is a recurring theme in tonight’s documentary. But in this post-9/11 era, the narrative soon veers toward a less sanguine discussion: Are prisons breeding grounds for extremism? Are they incubators for terrorism?

Warith Deen Umar, an imam formerly with the National Association of Muslim Chaplains, says, “Osama bin Laden probably will go down in history as a hero to Muslims.”

He later adds, “You will probably find people — not just in prisons — who cheered. You will find people all over the world who cheered at the black eye that America got.”

It’s this sort of execrable rhetoric — euphemistically called “fiery” in the film — that concerns authorities in the United States, Canada and Britain.

In America, which has the world’s largest per-capita prison population, nearly half of the country’s two million inmates are black. And, according to the film, nearly a third of these people have embraced Islam.

American prisoners began converting to Islam in the 1940s, seeing it as a religion of political and cultural protest. In 1946, Malcolm Little, a petty criminal, was sentenced to 10 years for robbery.

He would soon renounce his Christianity as a religion of slave owners, change his name to Malcolm X, and turn a small religious group — the Nation of Islam — into a radical political force with 30,000 devoted followers.

Ali Mustafa, an ex-convict who now works as a barber in Harlem, is also featured in “Islam Behind Bars.”

On the subject of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he makes this observation: “(America goes) all over the world doing what they want to different countries. Don’t you think that when you’re just constantly beating on people that eventually somebody is going to come beat on you?”

Moral equivalence? Anti-Americanism? Shrewd foreign policy analysis? You decide. But this much is clear: It will take more than God to fix the mess we’re in.

The film suggests Islamic clerics in Saudi Arabia — especially those who practise such fundamentalist mutations as Wahhabism or Salafism — are spreading their philosophy into Western prisons. But aside from quoting Stephen Schwartz, the author The Two Faces Of Islam, a lack of empirical evidence makes the discussion mostly speculative. At times, it even smacks of fear-mongering.

To illustrate the danger posed by some prison converts, a considerable amount of time is devoted to Richard Reid, the infamous “shoe bomber” who attempted to detonate plastic explosives on an American Airlines flight in December of 2001.

To clarify the obvious, the narrator later says: “For every potential Islamic terrorist in jail, there are countless Muslim converts who feel that Islam is no threat to anyone.”

Well, that’s good to know.

As “the war on terror” continues, and from the Abu Ghraib scandal to the bleak realities of Guantanamo Bay, the issue of “Islam” and “prison” will only spark a new round of heated (read: polarized) debates.

It would be interesting to look at the effects of privatization within the American prison system. To explore the issue of faith-based prisons, which George W. Bush firmly supports. It would also be interesting to study the recidivism rates of prisoners who have undergone religious conversions.

“Islam Behind Bars” is relatively engaging but, ultimately, the questions raised are too complicated to be tackled in a one-hour film, especially one that tends to emulsify and homogenize an entire religion.

Prisons have always attracted religious groups. These people understand a universal truth: People who have nothing to lose and nowhere to turn will eventually look for God.