Islam in Prisons: A Coping Mechanism or Fuel For Terrorist Action?

Many people believe that the presence of Islam in prisons poses an inherent threat because it can lead to violent radicalization, but this is not a Muslim issue. This skewed view of Muslim prisoners evolved through the use of small amounts of anecdotal evidence.  Although Islam is the most popular religion for conversions in prison (80% of all conversions) there have been very few instances of terrorist activity (Waller, 2003). Instead, radicalization in prisons is fueled by a number of other circumstances independent of religion.


Image from Rami Nsour’s article  “Islam and Muslims in the U.S. Prison System.”

To begin, prisons are inhospitable places where violence runs rampant with 21% of prisoners experiencing assault in a 6-month period from both other prisoners and staff (Wolff, 2009). In these harsh conditions, new prisoners find themselves lacking their traditional mechanisms of support, frequently making them more willing to adopt a radical belief system (Mulkahy et al., 2013). This, is combination with a lack of religious leaders available, exacerbates a prisoners risk of radicalization (Hamm, 2009). In the US particularly, the racial divides and violent atmosphere push many minority groups, in this case Muslim inmates, into either Muslim gangs or across racial lines into non-Muslim groups. It is here that prisoners become even more likely to be radicalized (Jones, 2014). These pressures however are not particular to Islam. In fact two notorious historical figures, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, developed their radical belief systems while incarcerated (Mulkahy, 2013).

One of the most utilized examples in the alarmist narrative about the rise of Islamic terrorism in prisons is the Jam’iyyat Ui-Islam Is-Saheeh (JIS) group that came out of Folsom prison in California. (Hamm, 2009). Folsom prison is a maximum-security prison where problematic inmates are sent. Here prisoners face terrible overcrowding, 40% of inmates have hepatitis C, there are no rehabilitation programs, and violent gangs run out of control. Kevin James, who was the leader of JIS, gained his following within this context. Members were excited by JIS because it provided an outlet for their rage about their current situation and the systems that they felt put them there. As one inmate involved in JIS put it, “When our back is against the wall, we will seek justice”(Hamm, 2009 pg. 674).


Image from Max Whittaker’s series on Folsom Prison.

It is clear that there were many factors leading to the development of JIS that were not due to the Islamic religion itself. In fact, many studies have suggested that Islam does not post an inherent threat of radicalization in prisons (Mulkahy, 2013; Hamm, 2009). Rather, Islam was found to be a positive influence on prisoner’s transition, and ability to cope with the stresses of incarceration (Hamm, 2009).

In fact, at Folsom prison a man named Akil, who is currently serving a lifetime sentence for murder, found himself delving into Islamic religious texts. He says, learning about Islam “ taught me to have respect for others. It taught me to understand the true nature of humanity. It keeps me from doing the bad things of my past” (Hamm, 2009. p. 676).

Akil has gone onto develop a program called The Islamic Studies Program, which actually uses Islamic teachings to counteract the threat of radicalization. The positive effects of a program like this goes to show that Islam itself is not the underlying issue here.

The Islamophobia which surrounds Muslim prisoners, especially post 9/11 frequently leads to the mistreatment of Muslims by staff and other inmates creating a sense of insecurity surrounding prison life for Muslims (Liebling et al., 2011). It is not that this anecdotal evidence should be disregarded; it is to say that there is something more at play than Islam in radicalization. It is very important to investigate these fundamental causes if the root of the problem is to be addressed. One thing is for sure; marginalizing Muslim prisoners is certainly not the solution that is needed.

Work Cited

Hamm, M. S. (2009). Prison Islam in the Age of Sacred Terror. British Journal of Criminology, 49(5), 667-685. doi:10.1093/bjc/azp035

Jones, C. R. (2014). Are prisons really schools for terrorism? Challenging the rhetoric on prison radicalization. Punishment & Society, 16(1), 74-103. doi:10.1177/1462474513506482

Liebling A, Arnold H and Straub C. (2011). An Exploration of Staff–Prisoner Relationships at HMP Whitemoor: 12 Years On. London: UK Ministry of Justice National Offender Management Service.

Mulcahy, E., Merrington, S., & Bell, P. J. (2013). The Radicalisation of Prison Inmates: A Review of the Literature on Recruitment, Religion and Prisoner Vulnerability. Journal of Human Security, 9(1). doi:10.12924/johs2013.09010004

Waller, M. (2003). ‘Terrorist Recruitment and Infiltration in the United States: Prisons and Military as an Operational Base’, testimony before the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 14 October.

Wolf, N. (2007). The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

Wolff, N. and Jing S. “Contextualization of Physical and Sexual Assault in Male Prisons: Incidents and Their Aftermath.” Journal of correctional health care : the official journal of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care 15.1 (2009): 58–82. PMC. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.


The Hijab: A Symbol of Unity in a Divided Nation

“This is the time when the patience of Muslims is being tested. We’re not supposed to react how we want to. I got stared down by a cop, I’ve never been stared down… I was very scared, embarrassed, ashamed” (Sara, college student, from Peek 2010: 309).*

Today’s American Muslim community shares Sara’s feelings of fear and confusion. Although Sara gave this account following the events of 9/11, frighteningly, these stories could be easily misinterpreted as reactions to America’s current political climate. After a xenophobic and misogynistic presidential campaign fueled by public opposition towards Islam, Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 sparked uncertainty and fear amongst the Muslim community in the United States (Trump 2015).

Muslim woman wearing a red hijab, a scarf the covers a woman’s hair and neck.

Woman in a red hijab, photo courtesy Riza/Flickr

Many Muslim women in particular fear for their safety (Sakuma 2016). The hijab, a simple scarf wrapped around a woman’s head and neck, which is one of the most visual symbols of the Islamic faith, has made Muslim women a target for xenophobic attacks (Sakuma 2016; Shelbayah 2016). Immediately after Donald Trump’s election, Muslim women, including Blair Imani and Marie (@shutterpsyco), took to social media to publicly express their fear in wearing hijab.

Tweet by Blair Imani (@BlairImani) on November 9, 2016, 4:22 p.m: “I stopped wearing hijab today and turned to hats instead for fear of violence. @monaeltahawy.”

Image via Twitter

Tweet by Marie (@ShutterPsyco) on November 9, 2016, 7:16 a.m: “My friend just texted me saying she’d stopped wearing her hijab out of fear. Fear, for her safety. This isn’t right, everyone.”

Image via Twitter

These women decided that wearing the hijab made them too vulnerable to an attack; they stopped wearing their scarves. No one should have to remove a physical representation of their faith in order to comply with others’ opinions.

Remarkably, despite immense societal pressure for women to remove their headscarves, the hijab has become a powerful representation of inclusion, piety, and resistance against Islamophobia (Shelbayah 2016; Abassi 2017). Fara Arefi knows first-hand how a headscarf can put a target on your back. A few years ago Fara, who started wearing a hijab at 17 years old, got in a bad car accident because her car tires had been slashed. She admits that “it was the scariest moment of my life.” Afterwards, she felt an even stronger desire to wear the hijab (Náñez 2017). Today, her hijab is a symbol of defiance against hatred. She refuses to give into societal pressures to sacrifice her commitment to her religion. Fara’s motivations are not unique to her situation. Sociologist Lori Peek found many Muslim youth gained a strengthened religious identity post-9/11 in the face of increased discrimination (2010). The pattern still exists among many Muslims today in Trump’s America (Náñez 2017).

A sign held at a protest march with the drawing of a Muslim woman in an American flag hijab, a scarf the covers a woman’s hair and neck. The bottom of on the poster says We the People are Greater than Fear. This poster is a part of street artist Shepard Fairey’s We the People series designed to protest the election of Donald Trump as the American president in 2016.

Photo courtesy of Puro/Flickr

Professor at the College of Business and Mass Communication at Brenau University, CNN producer, and self-identified Muslim Slma Shelhayah admits that following Donald Trump’s election she wondered if it was safer to take off her hijab in order to look less Muslim (Shelbayah 2016). Non-Muslims in American society often forget that hijab is a personal choice among Muslim women in the United States, and there are various reasons why women choose to wear it (Read 2000). Whether women wear it for social reasons or to showcase their commitment to Islam, the hijab represents a woman’s self-identity as a Muslim and fights societal uniformity in America (Read 2000). Islam helped Slma realize her hijab was a powerful tool: “My faith whispers to keep it on in defiance of fear — and in my conviction that diversity is a right and a strength in this country” (Shelbayah 2016). While the hijab symbolizes diversity, it is also a reminder that religious beliefs and what one chooses to wear should not divide people.

Contemporary America is beginning to realize that discrimination against Muslim women occurs regularly. Realizing the inclusive symbolism of the hijab and its messages of unity and respect, numerous non-Muslim women have begun to wear the hijab in solidarity with other Muslim woman (Abassi 2016). The hijab, and the women who wear it, are challenging Americans to accept cultural differences and find the similarities amongst our diverse population.

*Interview conducted by Lori Peek between September 2001 and 2003.