As promised, New York Republican Peter King is back with another hearing on Muslim radicalization in the United States.
Wednesday’s hearing focused on the radicalization of Muslims in prison, and served as a follow up to an all-day hearing back in March in which Rep. Keith Ellison’s tearful tribute to Muslim American patriots stole the show. King has insisted he will press forward with his planned series of hearings, which some have compared to Joe McCarthy’s Cold War-era probes, despite widespread criticism. On the importance of yesterday’s event, King said, “It is a hearing which is necessary because the danger remains real and present, especially because of Al Qaeda’s announced intention to intensify attacks within the United States.”
Much of the testimony focused on black males who convert to Islam in prison—or, as one witness put it, “Prislam,” a new bit of lingo that committee members began repeating. The idea is as awkward as the word: These converts, insisted another witness, “are primed to become terrorists.”
This kind of paranoia isn’t anything new. William Jelani Cobb, a Cold War historian and professor at Rutgers University, says that throughout U.S. history, “Black people represented some vulnerable flank in American society.” Comparing today to the 1950s and ’60s, when conservative attempts to thwart the civil rights movement meant painting black leaders as scary Communists, Cobb adds that there was a pervading belief that blacks “are these people who are less American, and less loyal, and are thereby more easily recruited.”
History repeats itself. There’s little more evidence tying Islamic conversion in prisons to domestic terrorism today than there was tying civil rights activists and black Muslims to Communists plots generations ago.
Natalie Y. Moore, a Chicago journalist and co-author of “The Almighty Black P. Stone Nation,” a book that explores radicalization of imprisoned gang members, offers a parallel from 1987. At the time, a black Islamic faction of a famous Chicago gang, calling themselves El Rukn, were the first Americans convicted of domestic terrorism.
“The federal case stemmed from wiretaps and a supposed relationship with Libya’s Col. Muammar Qaddafi,” Moore says, and “the El Rukns were convicted of plotting to blow up U.S. buildings on behalf of Libya. There was no proof that money exchanged hands or that any buildings were targeted. Observers see it as a case of a gang hustling. But the temperature at that time made Qaddafi a U.S. enemy and the El Rukns fueled federal concern.”
As Seth Freed Wessler has reported here, the FBI uses similar concerns today to deploy undercover agents in so-called terrorism stings that look a lot more like entrapment to critics. The agency has routinely targeted disaffected young men of color by creating fake terrorism plots that agents posing as friends lobby the men to endorse. They then launch a public bust on the nonexistent plot for acts of violence that existed only in the FBI agents’ minds.
Michigan Democrat Rep. Hansen Clarke seemed to think that the hearing was missing the point, as he gave an impassioned speech calling for prison reform. Clarke, who is of Bangladeshi descent and was raised in Detroit by his black mother, talked about childhood friends who went to prison and said that young black boys who go to jail end up “hardened criminals, by virtue of their time in prison.”
He added that conversion to Islam was a security measure for many inmates. “I asked someone who spent time in prison why they converted to Islam and why other people do,” said Clarke. He was told that they do it for three reasons: “For protection from other inmates, for protection from guards … and to break away from their criminal pasts. To become a new man.”
Rep. Yvette Clarke, a New York Democrat, picked up this thread, getting one of the witnesses to admit that the Nation of Islam often focuses on rehabilitation of felons. And Patrick Dunleavy, a former New York corrections inspector general, even noted that “Islam in prison can have a positive effect.”
The hearing lasted only a few hours—possibly because other than the back-and-forth of “are they or aren’t they bad?”—there was almost no empirical evidence to prove that prison radicalization is a credible threat.