A review of Islam in American Prisons, by Hamid Reza Kusha

A few years ago a friend of mine, a doctor working in a British prison, was asked by a member of the Parole Board why he thought so many prisoners changed religion while incarcerated. "It's for the change of diet, I expect," he replied.

In those days, of course, one took such matters lightly, and the member of the Parole Board laughed. A change of religion was either to Buddhism or to some sect with dietary requirements difficult or impossible for the prison authorities to comply with (that was the point). In my own experience as a doctor working in a prison, the new Buddhists often wore a ponytail, spoke quietly so as not to frighten the insects, and had committed crimes of the most frightful violence. With regard to the justification and necessity for such violence, they had undergone a welcome Gestalt switch.

But the specter of radical Islam in our prisons has made the matter of conversion to another religion altogether more serious. We fear that our prisons are becoming recruiting grounds of, and schools for, extremists and terrorists. A book on the subject of Islam in American prisons, therefore, could hardly fail to be of interest.

Nonethless, the author of this book has found a way to make such a book uninteresting. It is not his fault alone: a lot of the blame must attach to the publishers. It is abundantly obvious that Hamid Kusha's first language is not English, and it may not even be his second, which of course is not his fault; but the publishers, secure presumably in the number of libraries around the world that, given its title, will feel obliged to acquire it, and more or less certain that they will not be able to sell it to anyone else at such a high price, have not felt it necessary to go to the expense of using a competent editor to correct the hundreds and hundreds of grammatical errors and malapropisms in the text. "Conscientious" is used for "conscious," "mannerisms" for "manners," "canonized" for "canonical," and so forth: the list is nearly endless. But why bother with correction when it would not have increased sales?

In short, Islam in American Prisons is by far the worst-edited book put out by a reputable publisher that I have ever read.

The book might nevertheless have been redeemed had its content been worthwhile. Alas, Kusha, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of East Carolina, thinks no more clearly than he writes, and only about a third of the text is of indubitable relevance to its title. The first two thirds consists of an irrelevant, murky, disorganized, meandering history of American jurisprudence from colonial times that neither analyses nor synthesizes, but only confuses. Insofar as a consistent or fundamental argument can be made out, as through a glass darkly, from this book, it is this: the American legal system offers, theoretically, equal protection under the law. But young black males find themselves incarcerated out of all proportion to their demographic weight in the population. They experience this as an injustice; Islam is a universalist doctrine that offers such young men a way out of their existential impasse. Therefore, they convert to Islam in considerable numbers.

Kusha is not, in general, a great examiner of his assumptions. For example, he repeatedly refers to the experience of imprisonment as "criminogenic," that is to say, that criminals sent to prison become even more criminal as a result of contact with worse or more experienced criminals than they. But two lines of evidence from England, at least, suggest that prison prevents the further commission of crime rather than promotes it. First, prisoners in England have rates of recidivism inversely proportional to the length of their sentences; those sent to prison for longer have lower rates. Second, criminals in England who are sent to prison on their first conviction have half the rate of recidivism of those given other types of sentence on their first conviction. The same might not be true in America, of course, but it would have to be shown not to be true, and Professor Kusha is unaware of this.

* * *

In asserting that young black men are disproportionately sent to prison, with the implication that they are therefore unjustly sent to prison, the author uses crude rates of imprisonment per overall population. But nothing at all can be concluded from such statistics. One might as well say that the equally disproportionate number of Jews among Nobel laureates for science is evidence of a world-wide Zionist conspiracy, or that the prominence of black sportsmen is the consequence of unfair positive discrimination. The question is vastly more complex than the author allows, or is even aware of.

Moreover, his assumption that an injustice is done to a man if he is sent to prison when another man, who has committed exactly the same crime, is not sent to prison, is not warranted. Suppose, for example, that I have committed a burglary and am sent to prison for it. I hear of another man who has done the same, and who moreover is as likely to be a recidivist as I, but who is not sent to prison. Assuming that imprisonment for burglary is not itself unjust, am I right in feeling that an injustice has been done me? Surely the injustice consists of the failure to imprison the other man, not in my imprisonment; in other words, the injustice has been done him (and, of course, his victim). It is the merest superstition to suppose that, if justice were done, everyone would be better off than he is, and that consequently there would be fewer prisoners.

Kusha talks of the absent male syndrome: the fact that, in so many black households with children, there is now no male authority figure. It is precisely here that a little historical analysis might have been useful, for the fact is that the syndrome, if that is what it is, is not immemorial, but of comparatively recent origin. His suggestion that the excessive imprisonment of black males adds to this problem is implausible, since it seems to me inherently unlikely that if the young prisoners were not in prison they would be providing careful moral and social guidance to their offspring.

If it is true that prison exerts a protective effect against crime—and European evidence suggests that it does, since overall crime rates in the different countries of Western Europe are inversely proportional to the rates of imprisonment per crime committed—then the high imprisonment rate of young black men is not an attack on the black population, but a benefit that it receives. Two things must here be remembered: first that the great majority of victims of crime are the poor, criminals on the whole not being great travelers, and second that, even in the most crime-ridden areas, the class of victims is very much bigger than the class of perpetrators, since each perpetrator is likely to commit many crimes. Hence failure to imprison perpetrators would mean shifting the costs of crime entirely on to those who are most likely to be its victims, i.e., the poor. High imprisonment rates per crime committed are, in fact, a form of progressive taxation.

* * *

We come now to the third of the book that deals with Islam in prison. If it is possible to be deeply shallow, Professor Kusha's account is deeply shallow. First, he makes Islam sound as if it is some kind of New Age philosophy that believes in the healing power of crystals and the tepid bath of universal benevolence. There are, of course, many liberal, tolerant Muslims, but it is intrinsically unlikely that hardened criminals—robbers, drug-dealers, murderers—would go in for such a milk-and-water doctrine. One would expect them to go the whole hog, if such an expression is permissible in the context.

Second, he sometimes treats conversion to Islam as if, in the ironic words of Gibbon with regard to the spread of Christianity over the civilized world, its first and primary cause were "the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself." Truth, like goodness, has nothing to do with it.

There is another problem with his account: not only does he provide few statistics (which may not be his fault, for they are very difficult to obtain and analyze), but there is no evidence in the book that he has ever met any of the people he is talking about. His book, which is neither truly abstract nor concrete, particular or general, suffers enormously by comparison with Farhad Khosrokhavar's brilliant, limpid account of Islam in French prisons, L'islam dans les prisons (2004).

However, he does provide two useful clues as to the nature of the phenomenon of conversion to Islam in American prisons, the significance of which he fails utterly to understand. First, he admits that conversion is overwhelmingly a male phenomenon: female prisoners do not convert. Second, he implies that the great majority of conversions are to the Nation of Islam brand of Islam, which is heretical, to say the least, for mainstream Muslims.

Let us take the first point: what does it mean? A high percentage of black prisoners have lived in a social (or unsocial) world in which men do not take much in the way of responsibility for their offspring. This means that they have their sexual liberty, which is gratifying in short, acute bursts, but not very satisfying in the long term, or conducive to self-esteem. They are important to their womenfolk only for the brief periods of their presence. Islam offers them, then, a philosophical justification for the continued domination of women, such domination being the quid pro quo for more responsible behavior. It is hardly surprising if this bargain does not appear such a good one to women prisoners, whose experience of men as the inseminators of their children is that, at best, they bring shoes for their offspring in return for continued sexual favors.

With regard to the second point, the Nation of Islam's political content is much stronger than its religious content. Quoting from one of its manifestos, Kusha demonstrates pretty conclusively that resentment is what drives the whole business:

We believe that our former slave masters are obliged to provide…land and that the area must be fertile and minerally rich. We believe that our former slave masters are obliged to maintain and supply our needs in [a] separate territory for the next 20 to 25 years…. As long as we are not allowed to establish a state or territory of our own, we demand not only equal justice under the laws of the United States, but equal opportunities—NOW!… We want the government of the United States to exempt our people from ALL taxation as long as we are deprived of equal justice under the laws of the land…. We want all black children educated, taught and trained by their own teachers…. The United States government should provide, free, all necessary text books and equipment, schools and college buildings.

This is clearly a political, not a religious, program. The great advantage of giving the program a patina of Islam, however, is that it allows converts to believe that, in changing their lives, they have not surrendered to the dominant society around them, that they can secure the advantages of conventional respectability without having to admit a personal defeat. Of course, there are many forms of Christianity that would enjoin them to such respectability; but in so far as Christianity is the traditional and dominant religion of the United States, accepting it means accepting American society, and their own heretofore inglorious part in it.

Preposterous and bad as the doctrine of the Nation of Islam might be, it is of immense value to the United States. Conversion to Islam in European prisons is more likely to be to a Salafist version of the religion, which in turn is likely to be much more dangerous in practice than Louis Farrakhan's half-baked rantings. A few disturbed individuals among converts in European prisons will try to solve their existential problems by taking others with them when they go—the shoe bomber and his ilk. Members of the Nation of Islam are less inclined to such antics, precisely because their goals are so earthbound.

A good book about Islam in America's prisons remains to be written.