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False alarms on Islam

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Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 12:05 am

America does not hide its fear and distrust of Islam. These attitudes inform politics and public opinion, particularly visible in anti-sharia movements and political clamor about the radicalization of Muslim inmates. These attitudes played out last month against the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which faced vehement opposition to the building of a new mosque. The center suffered vandalism and a bomb threat as well as a lawsuit that claimed Islam was not a religion but a political movement seeking to impose Sharia law. Such fear has inspired several states to enact bills aimed at ensuring Sharia law is in no way considered by American courts; similar fear drives the idea that Islam is a special threat among American prisoners.

Unfortunately, politics of fear generate solutions in search of a problem. Most critically, they overlook the obvious – there is no widespread or sustained push by Muslims to install Sharia law in American courts. On the contrary, Muslims have proved quite content using American law to settle divorce and other civil disputes. Fears about prisoners likewise overlook important historical facts, including Islam’s outreach efforts to support inmate rehabilitation and reentry.  Muslim inmates have relied on U.S. courts both to protect their rights to practice their religion in prison and to protest prison conditions. Most recently, prison converts, convinced that Muslims must help stop terrorism, have helped the FBI foil terrorist plots.

In the state of Missouri, fear of Islam thrives. I have witnessed legislators sponsor anti-Sharia legislation in the guise of banning “international” law. These efforts misunderstand both Sharia and American law, especially since the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution already acts as a bar to establishing Sharia, not to mention the state’s own constitution. The misguided nature of these efforts came into sharp focus earlier this year when state Representative Jamilah Nasheed challenged state Representative Paul Curtman, a sponsor of the legislation, to cite a single case in which international law had been used in American courts; he could not recite one.

Like such baseless legal campaigns, fear-mongering over prisoner radicalization has made the issue the target of taxpayer-funded congressional inquiries, despite scant evidence of prisoners engaging in extremist violence. Rather, as of 2011, the Congressional Research Service has reported that out of 53 cases of “homegrown violent jihadist activity,” only one definitely involved inmates. This means that out of millions of inmates released since 9/11, less than a handful have been linked to terrorism.

In other words, there have been more congressional hearings on prison-related terrorism than actual instances of it.

These hearings represent much time and energy wasted trying to fix a problem that scarcely exists. This is true in Missouri, since public resources have been expended on the proposed legislation, even though the legislation accomplishes very little and diverts attention from actual problems. In fact, the new legislation is set to do more harm than good since, as presently worded, it would disrupt international business and void marriages and other contracts presently recognized by the state. It will cause additional expensive problems, since the legislation would likely spawn litigation.

In the prison context, this approach may compromise security. Since the attacks of 9/11, federal prisons have adopted suppressive tactics to counter radicalization, including restricting Muslim chaplains, censoring books, and developing Communication Management Units to restrict inmate communications. The problem with suppressive tactics is that they can backfire and stoke the very problem they seek to solve. Hence, if it is to be used at all, suppression should be reserved for times of crisis only.

Fears of prisoner radicalization and Sharia law are overblown. Americans can no longer afford to be frightened; our institutional and public policies should be set by sound principles, not the sound of false alarm.

SpearIt is assistant professor at Saint Louis University School of Law and research fellow at the Institute for Social Policy & Understanding.

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