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Islam, prisons and Latinos

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Posted: Thursday, February 2, 2012 12:05 am

Jose Pimentel's recent arrest by New York City police for plotting a bomb attack has kindled debate about Latinos and terrorism. In the polemic, some see the relationship between Latinos and extremism as tenuous at best, serving only to foment fear and new layers of anti-Latino sentiment amidst increasingly fierce beliefs about immigration. From this view, being branded "Muslim" is yet another way of marginalizing Latinos. 

Other critics, however, take a different position and see the string of post-9/11 terrorist acts as disproportionately involving Latino Muslims. From Jose Padilla to Daniel Maldonado, Antonio Martinez, Carlos Almonte and Bryant Neal Vinas, Pimentel's activities represent a trend that is taking shape despite the small percentage of Latino Muslims in the United States.

A more nuanced look at Latino conversion offers insight into the debate by positing Latino converts as radical by nature. Here, use of the term "radical," which means "root" or "origins," is not a hyped-up rhetorical flourish, but rather, a description of how some Latinos embrace Islam as a way of connecting with their Hispanic heritage. Hence the nature of conversion is "radical" due to the reclaiming of Islamic Spanish roots. In other words, something more profound occurs: when Latinos convert to Islam, they are not simply turning to a new faith, they are reconnecting with an uprooted past.

The face of radicalism appears more extreme when converts also harbor feelings of oppression. For some converts, social discrimination and police profiling may be sources for these feelings, while others look at Christianity as the fountain of their woes. In such instances, Islam can become a strategy to distance oneself from the Church's sordid past and sex-scandalous present. Yet arguably more so than any of these factors, the prison experience defines Latino oppression. In fact, the traumas experienced by inmates may be a direct cause of conversion, and the logic is simple: dangers and deprivations force inmates to turn to God for help.

Historical and present oppression, and most prominently, unfairness in criminal justice give prison converts plenty of fuel for resentment. NPR reports that officials have been tracking an increasing number of prison converts who "redirect their criminal energies and engage in terrorism." Moreover, the spread of "Prislam" groups, which are guided by religious elements and gang values, offer a model of organization that may resonate with Latinos, who run the largest prison gangs in the country. Thus, despite that some political pundits point to foreign jihadists as the source of resentment and anger among American Muslims, the more likely source of oppression is homegrown, much of which is sown in the American criminal justice system.

This analysis posits Latino conversion as more than the adoption of a new worldview - it involves the bonus of rediscovering one's roots, making the conversion "radical" in the truest sense of the term. The combination of radicalism and feelings of oppression makes for a volatile mix that can produce extreme results. As Islam continues to make inroads in Latino communities, it will become clearer if this proposition proves an insight to Latino involvement in post-9/11 terror, and rather than historical blips, Padilla, Pimentel, and others are prologue to a new chapter in American jihad.

SpearIt is assistant professor of law at SLU Law.

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