Islamic groups and movements are meeting with some success in attracting prisoners and inner city dwellers, though only after a period of decline and trial and error, according to two studies published in the current issue of the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (June).
The two groups that are most effective in this area in the last two decades are rivals and even antagonists in the Muslim world—the Sunni Salafis and the Shi’as. The Salafis are African-American Muslims who follow the strict Wahhabi tradition from Saudi Arabia. In the mid1990s, Wahhabi Muslims targeted inner cities with their teachings, frequently offering scholarships to students to study the religion in its Saudi birthplace, writes Shadee Elmasry. The Salafis became a powerful force in American Islam during this time, but by the new millennium rivalries and competition among the leaders within the movement and then 9/11 brought a sharp downturn to the movement.
Elmasry writes that it was particularly the isolationist and exclusive practices of the Salafis, requiring distinct dress and separatist lifestyles, that discouraged upward mobility among its poor members and cooperation with other Muslims, as well as led to abuses in the leadership. The author notes that the Salafis have recently rehabilitated the movement and are particularly effective in drawing prominent rap artists to its ranks.
Elmasry concludes that “one is hard pressed to find any organization or movement besides the Salafis that is focused on the inner-cities. Thus, by default the Salafis will continue their success (if not dominance) over this sector of the American Muslim community.” In another article in the same issue, Liyakat Takim finds that the smaller Shi’a black Muslim movement has kept a low profile, yet has achieved currency among blacks in American prisons. Due to its dependency on the Shi’ite immigrant community, black Shi’as have yet to forge a strong identity and have met charges of heresy from their AfricanAmerican Sunni counterparts.
The anti-American stance of Shi’ism from Iran and its strong protestsocial justice thrust has been a draw to African-American converts who feel marginalized and discriminated against in the U.S., writes Takim. Most prisoners who have joined the black Shi’as have done so through their own seeking rather than from a concerted effort by Shi’as to target such a population. In fact, inmates who have converted complain that Shi’ite mosques and leaders often do not respond to their inquiries about the faith. Black Shi’ite prisoners have reported discrimination (not allowing the different diet of Shi’as) and violence carried out by Sunni inmates, sometimes with their imams’ approval.
(Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 4 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, OX14 4RN, UK)