By Anatta Oknokwo
“Allahu Akbar!” Mack Trimble, Jr. enthusiastically calls his fellow inmates to prayer. Soon the chapel of Jackson State Prison will hum with the melodic recitation of the Holy Qur’an as the community of Muslim males prostrate before their Creator—a Creator that seemed so distant in the cacophony of crime and poverty that shaped their lives in the free world. Now, in the confines of incarceration, God seems just as inescapable as the correctional facility itself. He is The Creator, The Inspirer of Faith, and alas, the Source of Peace that many young minorities from troubled backgrounds have been searching for: Allah.
But while the chapels of penitentiaries around the United States permeate with Islamic praises; another “chapel” has not been so welcoming. The echoes of Craig Hicks’ firearm still seem to echo quite fervently with the undertones of Islamophobia. The Chapel Hill shooting, resulting in the deaths of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, three Muslim students in North Carolina symbolizes a much deeper issue: fear.
It becomes increasingly difficult to utter, “Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest)!” when you’ve been informed that the Paris gunmen reportedly yelled out the same phrase as they proceeded to execute twelve Charlie Hebdo associates in retaliation to published illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
And why wouldn’t you be hesitant to conduct outward expressions of Islamic faith? Western media has successfully managed to interweave the Abrahamic religion of peace and surrender with the infamous likes of Al Qaeda, Boko Haram; and ISIS so that the words “Muslim” and “Terrorist” become interchangeable in the Western psyche.
But if terrorism is defined as “the exploitation of fear,” then wouldn’t the Western media with its guerrilla tactics of fear-mongering fit the description?
Thanks to the sensationalized media, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram; and ISIS have become the “faces of Islam” much to the Muslim world’s irritation. Islamic super villains like Osama bin Laden and Jihadi John saturate much of western coverage, leaving little to no voice for the 1.6 billion adherents to Islam. Bias at its finest. And with media being the non-Muslim’s only insight into the Islamic faith it’s little wonder that mosques are being burned in the south.
The idiot box dupes the masses into believing that Islam is somehow a dangerous and violent philosophy that threatens the family structure, livelihood; and safety of Western society—a philosophy that stands in sharp contrast with inmates across the United States.
“Islam [instilled] in me discipline. It helped me mold a positive attitude about myself that I’ve always had in me, but I didn’t [know] I had before…Islam was a shining light in my life,” inmate Mack Trimble, Jr. attests.
Many other Muslim converts serving time share his esteem of Islam.
“Whenever I go to the mosque or Jumma service it always makes me stop and [think]: ‘Is this right or is this wrong?’ It’s the best thing for me. Stay outta trouble,” says Abdul Ali Rabu, another inmate convert at Jackson State Prison.
Inmates, upon release, may find the anti-Islamic sentiment in the free world to be one obstacle too many in conjunction with the stigma of being an ex-convict seeking re-entrance into society.
“The real question is: how many continue to practice their faith on the outside? And then I fear its not a very high percentage,” laments Paul Rogers, former President of American Correctional Chaplains Associations.
This poses a real issue for the Black parolee who has abandoned his former street culture of turf rivalry, gang retaliation, and criminality. To embrace Islam is to embrace the concept of reversion: returning to God’s natural laws of self-discipline, ritual prayer, and ideals of modesty. If the inmate enters into a free world that is unwelcoming to the very faith that reformed him during incarceration then what basis does he have to distance himself from recidivism?
“Sixty percent come back to prison within the first two years of their release,” Rogers lays out the grim statistics of how inmates are cycled through the penal system.
The probability of a terrorist act being carried out by a Muslim parolee is far and in-between. Muslim parolees, like any other civilian reintroduced into society, are concerned with family, securing employment, and building an independent and dignified life for themselves. It makes little sense to perpetrate a violent act against the communities and the country that they call home.
One of the main things that non-Muslims in Western society need to process is that Muslims, like the next man, are collectively rational people whose mentality does not mirror the actions of extremist groups.
“We really struggle with extremism from the religious point of view in other groups more than we do in the Islamic community,” says Imam AJ Sabree, Director of Reentry Services at Georgia Department of Corrections.
The Muslim inmate, upon release, has the new challenge of upholding the deen, (or faith)of Islam. The inmate and Islam: both misunderstood. Both stigmatized.
Anatta Oknokwo is majoring in Broadcast Journalism and is the incoming President of UIUC’s Prison Justice Project.