King’s Hearings of Islam, Part Deux

Last week, Senator King started the second round of hearings for the Department of Homeland Security on radical Islam (for my post about the first set, see here), this time focusing on ‘prislam’.

Okay, now before I explain that, and before I give you a link about the hearings themselves, be honest . . . does anyone (who hasn’t read about this already ) have the slightest clue what the word is supposed to mean?

Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Bueller?

Apparently it’s a port manteau of prison and Islam.  As in, the commonality of people converting to Islam in prison.  Now, I recognize that not all made-up words are going to be as pretty as ‘slythy’ or ‘mimsy’, but the point of a port mateau is that it is supposed to convey the meaning of both words at once.

Sorry, /end rant.

Anyhoo . . . so yes, Senator King has apparently latched onto the fact that many people convert to Islam in prison as a sign of . . . something.  Terrorism?  Hate culture?  Kittens?  It’s hard to say.  As noted by Loonwatch, actually there were several productive comments from other senators pointing out that this may say more about the prison system than about Islam, but this doesn’t appear to have sunk in with Senator King.

I’ve always found it odd, as someone who studies Islam, that even within the larger field of religious studies (and certainly in conversations in the wider world in the US), conversion to Islam in prison is one of the only circumstances in which people think of Islam at all.  I was reminded of this fact recently whilst re-reading Alan Wolfe’s work, The Transformation of American Religion – an altogether fascinating look at the sociology of American religion, but one that, despite being written in 2003, mentions Islam only once, in the context of prison conversion.  Indeed, Wolfe makes the same basic argument as the assembled senators at the hearing, that Islam offers an alternative to the lawless nature of prison life – “Islam among African American prisoners frequently takes the form of a total institution within a total institution; it offers an alternative to the immorality surrounding it by substituting a morality strikingly secular in its attachment to using discipline as a form of punishment” (Wolfe, 143).

There are several problems with this perspective, even if writers, like Wolfe (I’d assume) are aware that Islam is not a prison movement.  Firstly, it fails to differentiate between Islam and Nation of Islam – a subtle distinction, but an important one when it comes to things like cultural and social dynamics [1].

Secondly, I would argue that – like with the belief that there is some intrinsic link between Islam and terrorism – this internal association that so many Americans seem to have between Islam and prison actually comes from television[2].  Along with terrorist-fightin’-shows, ‘real’-prison-life shows seem to have become incredibly popular in the last two decades, and often protray ‘prislam’ (I feel so dirty for having just used that word . . .) if not as central to ‘real’ prison life, than certainly as ever-present to ‘real’ prison life.

I say this in part because I honestly can’t think of where else people might have encountered prison-conversion to Islam.  I wouldn’t think most people have day-to-day exchanges with inmates, and certainly Nation of Islam in any form is predominately confined to major cities with substantial African American populations (thus, it was a tremendous help to me, as an infant Islamicist, to study Islamic history in the southside of Chicago!).  Indeed, the relatively less visible status of both Islam and NoI no doubt contributes to Islamophobia – like homophobia, it appears there are large portions of the American population who can say, in all sincerity, that they have never met a Muslim (or member of the Nation of Islam), and are thus more likely to believe silly things about them, as they lack any ready evidence to the contrary.

I have little doubt that this round of hearings will be as directionless as the first (although, honestly, if they did succeed in shining light on the terrible state of the American prison system, that would be a blessing), but it does seem strange that the hearings should fixate so readily on this one particular aspect of Islamic life.  And, in doing so, has created a monster worse than America has seen since ‘jeggings.’

Please, my dear, small circle of readers, I beseech you – do whatever you can, but slay ‘prislam’.

That is all.

[1] At some point I want to do a post on the relationship between Islam and Nation of Islam, but it’s a subject that has proved remarkably difficult to research as there has been very little good scholarship on NoI.

[2] On the ‘all Muslims are terrorist’ front, I have had conversations in which I swear the other person quoted Jack Bauer as evidence.  Seriously.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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3 Responses to King’s Hearings of Islam, Part Deux

  1. Uzza says:

    Oh do please, I’d love to see a post on NOI, well-researched or not. Are its adherents really religious or is it more of a social empowerment movement, as it sounds like to me, who’s never met one. Do people really believe that about a mad scientist on Patmos creating white people? No crazier than transubstantiation I suppose, but I’d guess most of them kind of ignore that part. ?? Also, how do real muslims feel about them?

    Re Islam in prisons, I hear about islam all the time, but then I don’t watch tv and I keep up on the news more than most people. Proselytizing in prisons is a common problem, by Abramists of either stripe.

  2. Effendi says:

    The NOI is not orthodox, by the standards of both Sunnis and Shi‘ites. The overwhelming majority of Muslims would probably regard many if not most of their official beliefs as a bit heretica if not downright crazy

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