At least two of the Muslim ex-convicts arrested last week in the Bronx on charges of planning to bomb synagogues and shoot down airplanes came to Islam while in prison. Their arrest has raised the point that America’s prison system often serves as Evangelism 101 for Islam.
But not all converts become bomb-throwing radicals.
A few years ago, I visited several Muslims in a state penitentiary in Culpeper, Va., and combed local mosques for former inmates to learn why so many prisoners choose Islam.
Dantes Augustin, a former Catholic, told me of a “humble, meek and very pious” Muslim prison chaplain he met in a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa. The chaplain took the time to explain the basics of the religion and Mr. Augustin converted within a year.
In Islam, he explained, “Cleanliness is highly recommended; you should not use profanity, you should be courteous. I always wanted to practice virtues and Islam gave me the tools.”
Mr. Augustin added, “I met Muslims from all over the world in American prisons: Indonesians, Palestinians, Egyptians, even Chinese. Islam is the fastest growing religion in prison because people there see it for what it really is.”
There are anywhere from 200,000 to 340,000 Muslim inmates in local, federal and state prisons, or 9 percent to 15 percent of the nation’s incarcerated population even though they are 2 percent of the total U.S. populace. The federal Bureau of Prisons told me Muslims comprised 5.7 percent of their inmates, and a spokeswoman for the District’s jail system told me 18 percent of its inmates were Muslim.
Prison is a fertile ground for inmates who already feel victimized by American society, according to Roy and Niger Innis of the Manhattan-based Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
“Prison is the best recruitment ground imaginable,” Roy Innis said. “Young black men change their so-called white Christian slave names to a Muslim name. Then they are told it wasnt their crime, it was racism that put them in jail.”
Conversions to Islam, they said, are considered the ultimate rebellion against a white-controlled system. Black Christians, they added, are called traitors to their race and Christianity is labeled as a weak and powerless faith because of the killing of its founder. Islam, which honors Jesus as a prophet but denies that He rose from the dead, is portrayed as the religion of power.
“Criminals are made to feel they are political prisoners and revolutionaries in the criminal system,” Niger Innis said. “Once people are released, they go back to Watts or Harlem and integrate themselves into the black community. So, if they are part of a terrorist cell in prison, they spread that into the black community.”
Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society and the founder and former director of the National Islamic Prison Foundation, had a different read on why inmates convert.
“Islam is organized in prison; there’s prayer five times a day; and things that are organized run better,” he says. “There’s needs for boundaries and needs for certainties. Machismo has an important aspect in prisons and Islam has a strong concentration on being manly. That really resonates with people who come from homes without fathers around.”
Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.