Excerpted From: SpearIt, 9/11 Impacts on Muslims in Prison, 27 Michigan Journal of Race and Law 233 (Fall, 2021) (71 Footnotes) (Full Document)


SpearitIt is no understatement to say that September 11, 2001, is the most important date in the history of American Islam. From this day forth, Muslims would become a target for social wrath and become vilified like at no other time in American history. In one fell swoop, Muslims became the most feared and hated religious group in the country. While analysis of the impacts on Muslims tends to focus on Muslims outside of prison, it is critical to recognize that Muslims in prison were no exception to the post-9/11 hostilities directed at Muslims. They experienced similarly heightened levels of Islamophobia and discrimination. The main goal of this essay is to consider the War on Terror in the prison context in the years following the events of 9/11. The work aims to assess how fear and anger seeped into prisons and became the means of repressing Muslims and casting them as a unique threat to national and institutional security. Although time has proved these attitudes unjustified and alarmist, they have taken a toll on those in prison and made life more difficult for individuals already existing in some of the harshest conditions in the country.

When thinking about the events of 9/11, it is critical to understand that American Muslims were already engaged in cultural struggles at the intersection of race and religion. For African-Americans, the years leading up to the 9/11 were traumatic since black males were experiencing unprecedented incarceration rates. The massive prison growth occurred in part due to policing practices by which police are more likely to question, seize, and search African Americans. Prosecutors also factor in since they try and convict more African Americans per capita than any other racial group. While Blacks were experiencing the heavy hand of the law, followers of the Muslim faith were contending with different social hostilities. Only eight years previously, Muslims bombed the World Trade Center, which occurred against a backdrop of anti-Arab sentiment, bolstered by unfavorable attitudes toward individuals like Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, and polling that indicated that at the time, pro-Israel sympathy was considerably larger than pro-Palestinian sympathy. In fact, by the time the Oklahoma City bombing occurred three years later, officials were quick to float the idea that Muslims might be the culprits in connection with foreign religious extremists. Such attitudes illustrate that for black Muslims, the hostility was compounded. They experienced dual oppressions at the least, one for being black and one for being Muslim.

In post 9/11 America, attitudes and treatment of Muslims illustrate the modern mechanics of culture war. To make a case for this war, "U.S. political elites constructed and perpetuated an Islamophobic narrative that featured the larger-than-life Muslim enemy as the most significant threat to U.S. values and freedoms." In these years there have been anti-Muslim activities at various social sites of contention that pit American rage against all things Islamic. One such is the anti-sharia movement, which saw states enact bills to ban sharia law from state law and construct sharia as "foreign" or "international," and ultimately, un-American. Despite that American Muslims have proved quite content using the court system to settle civil disputes, these laws signaled out Islamic law specifically, nowhere mentioning the Christian or any other faith. This legislation was created out of a false fear that Muslims were trying to replace the legal system with sharia law. "The proposed bills were not stand alone or isolated, but part of a broader movement driven by a partnership between conservative think tanks and politicians, which looked to convert the private Islamophobia saturating the country into structural policies adopted on the state level." Even before these struggles, Muslims experienced cultural opposition in prison. They experienced multiple layers of culture war because Muslims in prison overwhelmingly tended to be Black, yet their keepers were usually not. The cleavage between these groups was wide and resulted in Muslims being constructed as "others" or "strangers" by guards who thought of themselves as superior not just simply for not being imprisoned, but because they were White or Christian. As one scholar notes, "The dominant group creates its own stories as well. The stories of narratives told by the ingroup remind it of its identity in relation to outgroups, and provide it with a form of shared reality in which its own superior position is seen as natural."

The events of 9/11 were catastrophic for incarcerated Muslims. Both Muslims and Black people experienced alterity, but for black Muslims, the persecution was heightened. And this is saying a lot since Muslims have had to struggle for decades to obtain religious rights in prison and be free from extra-legal punishments. For example, in the 1960s Muslims began litigating to establish Islam as a genuine religion and for the right to practice as Muslims. Muslims also sued to have their religion recognized by the prison administration. Often, individuals were put into solitary confinement for their beliefs, as was poignantly illustrated in the ground breaking, Cooper v. Pate (1964), instigated by a Muslim who spent multiple stints in solitary due to his faith, and who, along with other Muslims, were spied on, surveilled and signaled out for differential treatment. The lawsuits show how Muslims lived a dual existence--so invisible that they have to struggle in court to be recognized as followers of faith, yet visible enough to be suspicious and untrustworthy.

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Moving forward, it will be critical to recognize the positive impacts that Muslims have had in prison. Whether it be expanding prisoners' rights, helping individuals rehabilitate from prison, or holding prison officials accountable to the Rule of Law, the contributions are positive. The work performed by Muslims is crucial because it tempers attempts to demonize adherents in prison. But, more critical is that it reveals that sometimes roles can be reversed in prison--with the ones in prison, the alleged criminals, going to great troubles to make sure the law is followed, while prison officials play the role of the lawbreaker. In these instances, Muslims ensure that no one is above the law, especially the state itself, which instead of setting the example for those in prison, often engages in the most heinous transgressions of the law.

J.D., Ph.D., M.T.S., Visiting Professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Law.