by Zainab Cheema (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 5, Rajab, 1432)
Peter King’s recent attempt to assert cultural legitimacy, through his June 2011 Congressional witch hunt on Islam’s presence in the prison industrial system, has unfortunately fizzled.
Peter King’s recent attempt to assert cultural legitimacy, through his June 2011 Congressional witch hunt on Islam’s presence in the prison industrial system, has unfortunately fizzled. Like reality stars who must continuously jack up the shock value in order to maintain ratings, King risked losing the political momentum he gained through the March 2011 House hearings on the “radicalization” of the American Muslim community. While the US has been largely preoccupied with careening on the tightrope of fighting unsustainable wars while papering up cracks in the economy, King’s inquisition largely fell on deaf ears.
King’s belly flop wasn’t for lack of trying. “The Obama Administration recognizes prison radicalization is a serious threat and that prisons are a fertile ground for [terrorist] recruitment,” he declared, like a bad scriptwriter for the Kiefer Sutherland drama 24. Officer Michael Downing of the LAPD, one of the summoned witnesses, ominously pointed to the fact that chaplains and imams were making copies of The Noble Qur’an available to inmates, in addition to tapes and lectures by Anwar Al-Awlaki. “Radical literature and extremist translations and interpretations of the Qur’an have been distributed to prisoners by groups suspected or known to support terrorism,” he warned, sketching an Armageddon scenario right out of the dire spoutings of Pat Robertson’s 700 Club.
King’s inquisition largely fell on deaf ears.
Not only was the American Muslim witch hunt 2.0 mostly ignored by the media, King drew plenty of flak from his own colleagues. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee countered that gangs posed far graver public threats than radical Muslims, while Rep. Laura Richardson declared that radical Muslims posed no greater threat than radical Christians and that it was “racist and discriminatory” to blame “one particular group on the basis of race or religion.” The threadbare evidence was thrown in relief by the fact that King and Co. had to dredge up every issue for public conflagration in the War on Terror, ranging from Jose Padilla to Shari‘ah law in the US.
The fact is, Islam has a reformative, regenerative effect on prisoners that has long been noted by sociologists. As Mary Harmer once noted in a 2010 article on prisons for CounterCurrents.com, the US uses prisons as failed solutions for social, economic and political problems. Disguised beneath the rhetoric of rehabilitation and corrective justice is a vicious system that physically and mentally destroys the men, women and children who enter its walls. Most of them end up with mental illnesses, tuberculosis, AIDS, and other crippling diseases.
“Prisons are violent institutions that only perpetuate violence,” Harmer states, noting the frequency of prisoner rape on which guards turn a bind eye or even encourage. One gruesome example publicized by human rights activists in 1999 concerns a California state prison locking up a 120 lb. prisoner in solitary confinement with a sexual predator known as the Booty Bandit. The predator proceeded to rape the prisoner over a 2-day period, while guards passed by the door, laughing. Most ex-cons are unable to rebuild even the semblance of a normal life after leaving prison.
Islam’s transformative effect on hardened prisoners has been documented through the valuable contributions they have made to the civil rights movement and community organizing. The need for Islam in the carceral atmosphere of despair and degradation is such that conversion has become a feature of the prison landscape — prison officials have dubbed the slammer “Prislam”.
King obsesses over the image of prison walls “porous” to Islamic influence and becoming “an assembly-line of radicalization”. However, prison walls are remarkably dense, blocking all light that will enable a corrective gaze at this Frankenstein institution and its place within US society. The prison industrial system usually targets ethnic and racial minorities, even the US government offers passes to white collar crime as epitomized by Wall Street robber barons being rewarded with public cash after the 2008 financial crash. For instance, blacks account for 50% of the prisoners, Hispanics 15%, in addition to a ballooning percentage of Muslims clustered in supermax prisons under draconian restrictions. Not only is it a “racial caste system,” in the words of Michelle Alexander, but also a mechanism of religious purging after 9/11.
As human rights activists have noted, the US prison system has little to do with “rehabilitation” — rather, it focuses on punishment, disciplining bodies and creeds, which the mainstream society fears for some reason, into subjection. When multinational pillagers are walking free, it is safe to say that US prisons are more like pillories for fears, fantasies, and obsessions of other bodies in society, rather than the judicious exercise of law enforcement. Peter King wants to evangelize the suffering masses of the incarcerated, not to any one religion in particular, but to governmental power.