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

By Joshua Dubler | 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.

That the differentiation between the Warith Deen guys and the Salafi is wholly mutual cannot be overstated. Just as the Warith Deen guys affirm their collective identity in opposition to the figure of the docile and pious slave dreaming of heaven, the Salafi find inspirational disgust in precisely the sort of politically minded Islam practiced by their counterparts.

One prominent Salafi elder characterized the variance between the two Muslim groups as a matter of different mindsets. “Our concept is based on religion. They don’t look at it that way. They are interested in politics, getting things together, but the Salafi position is this: We need to get our own house in order, and become good Muslims before we can do anything else. But they will say: We’ve got to deal with the real world! You will bring them a hadith, and they will say: I won’t work with that; that was then. They’ll reject verses of the Qur’an. See? Different mindsets.”

Because for the Salafi, no point exists at which the obligations of the Sunnah leave off and something like the secular sphere opens up, in their political mindedness the Warith Deen guys are seen as instrumentalizing the Sunnah for a purpose other than itself. In this read, the Warith Deen guys are guilty of the damnable sin of shirk—of putting something else on par with God, which is to say, idolatry. Indeed, some Salafi would claim that in their willful subjugation of religion to politics the Warith Deen guys aren’t really Muslims at all. But living in such close quarters, most are careful not to stoke such fires of fitna—conflict.

While it is hard not to read the Salafi’s vociferous social disengagement as a two-pronged protest both against the civic institutions of the United States and against the animating dispositions of their religious counterparts, an affirmative justification is also available. Inasmuch as they see proper submission to the Sunnah as restoring the Muslim to the state of purity into which human beings are created, devout religious observance becomes both personally restorative and collectively transformative. Whatever external factors might be oppressing black people, the task at hand is clear. First we need to get our own house in order. That process begins with the Sunnah.

IF FOR BARAKA THE Salafi are the they who are nothing like us, the other they, the one who allegedly mistakes the Salafi for the Warith Deen guys, is Graterford’s administration. As is true of the preceding parties, the administration has not been static over the years. In different times, they were quite progressive, allowing in the mid-1970s, for example, the different Muslims subgroups to construct and administer their own mosques. When they stood, the mosques had extensive libraries, and played host to an array of educational programs, both Islamic and secular. Movements were far less restricted back then, and the Muslims were allowed to remain in the mosques all day. In ways both formal and informal, prisoner groups back then were actively included in the administration of the prison. Not by all, of course, was such power used judiciously.

All of this came to an end in 1995 with the election of future Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge to the governor’s office. Ridge had run a law-and-order campaign, promising as governor tough new policies like a three-strikes-you’re-out law and a streamlined death penalty process. Once in office, he tasked his secretary of corrections with the job of “sanitizing” Graterford. That October, during a three-day incursion known at Graterford as “The Raid,” this mandate was honored. Over the course of the Raid, the mosques were destroyed, as were many other things. Staff members were fired, and prisoner leaders were shipped across the state and out of it. Through the media, the action was justified primarily as an effort to break the hold of Muslim gangs over the jail, but many at Graterford, prisoner and staff alike, remain skeptical of that rationale.

Via the Raid, the governor belatedly dragged Graterford into conformity with the times. For if as a politician Tom Ridge was especially opportunistic, his preoccupation with crime and punishment was wholly generic. Following Lee Atwater’s evisceration of Michael Dukakis in 1988, in the tough-on-crime nineties, even Democrats became shameless panderers on the issue. The social consequences were catastrophic. By the end of the Clinton administration, more than 2 million Americans were in prison or jail, concluding a 600 percent increase over the previous 30 years. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of rehabilitation was abandoned for that of corrections. This meant more surveillance, more control, and the gutting of prisoner programming. In a word: warehousing.

To this day, Graterford’s administration still relies on prisoners—on the older Lifers especially—to maintain order, but there is no longer any balance of power to the relationship. A couple of years ago a new administration came in, and security has tightened even further. Prisoners are skittish, and wary of anything that might be mistaken for political organizing. Even the perception that one has stepped out of line can get a guy shipped, which for men from Philly often means no longer being able to see their families. And so men live in fear of the administration, and, since an anonymous slip from a fellow prisoner can be sufficient cause to get one shipped, they live in suspicion of one another too.

Under such atomizing conditions, is it any wonder then that the activist, collectivist Islam of the Warith Deen guys comes to look like the historical artifact that it is? As for the Salafi, meanwhile, in an era in which to protect and serve, the NYPD feels called upon to keep tabs on Muslim college students, it is not hard to imagine the sorts of measures adopted by prison administrators to police a phalanx of convicts practicing an Arabian species of Islam. But such, for Baraka, is precisely the irony of the administration’s confusion of they for us. Unlike the Warith Deen guys, the Salafi don’t have a political bone in their body. And so, as the administration scours the scene for signs of percolating sedition, the pious Salafi (who, I should add, uniformly condemn Osama Bin Laden as guilty of shirk) struggle to conform their personal hygiene to the appropriate seventh-century standard.

IN THIS LOCAL TALE of conflated identity, there is a cautionary lesson for the rest of us. During this unceasing War on Terror in which secular nationalists are readily swapped for political Islamists, the American public has demonstrated little appetite for informational nuance. And while there is reason to hope that we might finally be emerging from our decade-long fear of what our Muslim neighbors are up to, we may be confident that the purported terrorist threat posed by Muslims in prison will one day soon again draw its share of scrutiny. It couldn’t be otherwise. Fantastically conjured in the muddled shadows of two mythic types—the black nationalist revolutionary and the Bin Ladenist terrorist—public paranoia about Muslim prisoners is overdetermined. And while past outbreaks have largely come to naught, we can be confident that the next time a handful of intemperate, feckless, and, in all likelihood, mentally ill prisoners flatter themselves with delusions of destruction, the demagogues of screen and state will be there to sound the requisite alarms, and the rest of us will quake accordingly.

And why should we not? After all, what makes more intuitive sense than the imagined fury of the incarcerated Muslim man? As one subjected to the worst excesses of American empire both at home and abroad, is he really supposed to feel any other way? And therefore, worry we must. So long as we prosecute profligate wars in Muslim lands and wastefully imprison generations of African-American men, we are simply not entitled to the easy sleep of the unburdened conscience. Even if we don’t know we know it, we know it just the same: in addition to whatever local threat he might materially pose, as a spook at the ready, the Muslim prisoner is at root the bad faith projection of brutalities done in our name.

Joshua Dubler is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester. He is the author of the forthcoming Down in the Chapel, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2013. 

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