“But They Are Nothing Like Us”: The Politics of Muslim Men in Prison

By | August 2, 2012

Orlando Wright, center, listens as the Imam speaks to the group of Muslim inmates, Friday, June 20, 2008 in Monroe, Wash.

(Kevin Nortz, The Herald/AP Photo)

“They think that they are us, but they are nothing like us.”

An insight or two into the politics of Muslims in prison might be gleaned from unpeeling this short sentence, which was said to me off the cuff by a man I know well and whom in prose I call Baraka. Like all parties in this brief account, Baraka is to be found at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Graterford, a maximum-security prison not far from Philadelphia. Starting in 2005, in pursuit of my doctorate, I spent sixteen months doing ethnographic fieldwork in Graterford’s chapel.

So I ask: who are these two theys—the they who are doing the mistaking and the they who are being mistaken for another? And who is us? Let us tackle the first person first.

US IS BARAKA’S OWN Muslim faction. If imperfectly, this group is best designated “the Warith Deen guys” after its one-time affiliation with the defunct Graterford mosque, Masjid Warith Deen Muhammad, which was named after Elijah Muhammad’s son. As is a common profile for African-American Muslims of a certain age, these men grew up in the Nation of Islam (NOI) before converting en masse to Sunni Islam in 1975 at Warith Deen’s behest following Elijah’s death.

Once these men were fearsome. As part of the Nation, they raised consciousness by boldly telling the truth about race in America, and they amassed a paramilitary order in case things should come to that. Meanwhile, as foot soldiers in the NOI’s notorious Temple No. 12—the so-called “Top of the Clock”—which Malcolm himself founded, they ran a good portion of Philly, too, through running numbers, extortion, and eventually drugs. But this history is by now as ancient as Attica, and the men are not far behind. While the Warith Deen guys do attract some new adherents—mostly younger men from the neighborhood with whom they have family ties—the group is disproportionately populated by elderly men serving Life without the possibility of parole. Baraka, who is pushing 60 and has been locked up for going on forty years, is in these respects representative of his crew.

In spite of the drag of years and the seismic lurch from homegrown American sect to membership in the global community of Muslims, the Warith Deen guys retain many of their youthful predilections—not the spectacular and gruesome things that made them famous—but other, subtler yet simultaneously more indelible marks of their seminal tutelage in the Nation. They remain cultural nationalists, concerned primarily with the historical trajectory of black people in America. Unsurprisingly pessimistic about the ability (or design) of mainstream mechanisms like electoral politics to ameliorate longstanding social and economic injustices, the group is nonetheless political in the sense of being avidly engaged in the public practices of citizenship. They are activists, and they seek through a slew of organizational structures and autonomous projects to improve their people’s lot.

While the Nation of Islam is properly remembered for its militancy and rhetorical fire, it was also a movement fueled by petit bourgeois aspirations—more in the tradition of Booker T. Washington than Nat Turner. It is this strain that animates the Warith Deen guys. Far short of Malcolm X’s famously threatening “by any means necessary,” their recipe for social change is incrementalist and conservative, stressing the value of education, entrepreneurship, and other unflashy means of self-improvement. Rather than talking up any sort of revolution, the faction self-consciously affirms the core national doctrines of free market capitalism, American exceptionalism, and democratic pluralism. While their social critique is sweeping, then, it is by no means absolute. They merely want their people to get the fair share of the pie that has long been denied them.

Not as an oversight have I thus far omitted “religion” as narrowly conceived. While among the Warith Deen guys one finds some spiritually minded folk and a handful of scholars of the tradition, as a general rule, such concerns are for this clique secondary. Indeed, while Islam’s disciplinary regime of daily prayer, fasts, and other bodily abstentions is celebrated as conducive to the self-mastery prerequisite for uplifting oneself and one’s people, unchecked religious zeal is, for these men, an object of suspicion. Because religious hopes are frequently exploited by the powerful to exhort the downtrodden to endure the unendurable (a tactic to which black people, having been stripped of their culture by slavery, are said to remain especially susceptible) a man must engage his faith critically and pragmatically with a mind toward what tools it can provide him for getting ahead in the here and now. As one Warith Deen guy put it: “Religion is just a cover, a tool for extracting emotions. What’s really going on is economics.”

THAT THEN IS US. The second they—the they who are nothing like us—is comprised of those who currently call themselves “the Salafi.”

Back during the Nation’s 1970s heyday, the Salafi would have been found only at Graterford’s margins. While the Nation at Graterford numbered in the hundreds, these men—back then they would have been known as “Orthodox Muslims”— prayed discreetly by the handful. This group became Salafi in the nineties, having assimilated this self-proclaimed identity via a network of early African-American adopters who went to the Middle East to study Islam and brought the indigenous Salafi and Wahhabi practices back with them. Disseminated through mid-Atlantic social networks, these ideas and styles gained special traction in the city of Philadelphia and, by now, the Salafi are far and away Graterford’s predominant Muslim group.

For the Salafi, being a Muslim is about toeing closely in the footsteps of the salaf—the salaf being the pious predecessors of the first three generations of Islam. To be a true Muslim, one must study the Qur’an and the traditions of the Sunnah, which means that one must also abide by the correct religious authorities. Due to Salafism’s geographic and intellectual roots, in practice this roster includes some of the tradition’s most hard-line and proscriptive jurists. In two relevant senses, then, the Salafi are purists. They are purists because as Muslim reformers they seek to expunge from the tradition fourteen centuries of innovations and deviations, and they are purists because they dedicate great energy to hedging off their bodies and practices from the contaminations of error. As practitioners of an anti-modernist, post-secular ideology in which the Sunnah is regarded as complete and totalizing, this policing of error pertains not merely to the Salafi’s ritual practices, but to also to the practice of everyday life. Just as praying in a manner other than the way the Salaf did is a problem, so too is it objectionable to deviate in one’s care for his beard and length of his pant legs.


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