Muslim Radicalization in Prison: Responding with Sound Penal Policy or the Sound of Alarm?

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Muslim Radicalization in Prison: Responding with Sound Penal Policy or the Sound of Alarm?

Article Abstract:

This article assesses radicalization among Muslim prisoners in the post- 9/11 era by analysis of ethnographic data in light of the available research. There are two primary motives that drive this inquiry: (1) to determine whether prisons are “fertile soil for jihad” as claimed, and (2) to the extent prisoner radicalization does occur, determine the ideological motives. In the last decade, politicians and analysts have clamored about the “danger” and “threat” posed by Islam in American prisons. Yet these characterizations sit in tension with several decades of sustained Islamic outreach in prison to support inmate rehabilitation and re-entry. They also sit in tension with the fact that since the 1960s, Muslims have been proactive about using American courts to deal with disputes and grievances. Today, Muslims are arguably the most proactive litigants among religious followers in prison. Overlooking these important developments misses a longstanding pedigree of Muslim inmates helping shape prison law and policy; it is a history that flips the discourse on its head by suggesting that Islam brings peace, rather than violence, to inmates, and that the true “threat” posed by Muslim inmates is the threat of a lawsuit. Despite this positive influence, penal institutions have implemented suppressive interventions against Muslim inmates. Unfortunately, some have backfired and worked to stoke radicalization instead. The final part of this article considers the top prospects for reform in this area. Long-term strategies include: supporting religious pluralism in prison, reforming educational policy, and working to stabilize prisoner re-entry. These prescriptions correspond to the fact that violent extremism among Muslim prisoners, although relatively rare, does not mean radicalization does not occur—it does and perhaps always will. Institutions thus have a great stake in reducing prospects for extremism generally, and fostering normative religious practice within its confines. Sustained strategic planning in these areas will help keep this relatively small problem, small.

SpearIt is an ISPU Fellow and an Associate Professor at Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University.

Originally published in the Gonzaga Law Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, 2014. Complete article is available for download here.

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