The Making of an Extremist

Essay Twelve

This essay is prompted by Patrick T. Dunleavy’s book, The Fertile Soil of Jihad: Terrorism’s Prison Connection (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2011). In striking if not startling terms, Dunleavy describes how Islam in prison spreads in its many forms, including the Nation of Islam, the Dar-ul-Islam movement, and Prislam, a cultic form of Islam that sees its flock more as gang members than fervent converts. Muslim evangelism in prisons is growing, sponsored by both international and grass roots Islamic organizations. Its expansion over the years has been both phenomenal and disturbing. I am a firsthand witness to this.

My Prison Experience

During my thirty years as a volunteer at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California, I saw Islamic Da’wa (evangelism/recruitment) in action. While coaching the baseball team there for seventeen years, I sometimes arrived early and sat by a garden-type fountain (usually broken) that faced the building housing both the Jewish synagogue and the Muslim Mosque. Yes, a strange combination, but that is how it was and still is.

Over the course of five years, I listened to many sermons in English (unlike the sermons given in Arabic at the local mosque that I often visit), and I could easily follow along with the message. The messages by the imams were most often angry tirades about the persecution Muslims received over the centuries. Their hate speech frightened me from time to time, and I was tempted to speak to prison authorities about it, but I never did. (During that time, I did not understand as much about Islam as I should have.) In total, I probably heard ten or fifteen hours of outright expressions of rage and calls for revenge aimed at all that was non-Muslim.

Muslims began showing up to try out for the baseball team and the eight-man flag football team I formed. Every one of the Muslims were African Americans, and they were generally good players and reliable. One of them was my most trusted team member, a person I could rely on to tell what was going on with the team, if anything. We became friends, and the week after he was released from prison he came to our Sunday morning church service, stood before the congregation, and spoke to us for ten minutes; what he said was completely appropriate—and from a kind and generous spirit.

I correspond frequently on Facebook with this man who converted to Islam in prison, but I still do not know much about his background or how he became a Muslim. Recently, he dropped his Muslim name acquired in prison when he made his profession of faith, and he has gone back to his given name; I am not sure what that means, but I intend to speak with him about it.

Many African Americans have taken the path to Islam for several reasons. They find the doctrine compelling and the close-knit community welcoming, but there are also material benefits: they and their families on the outside often receive financial assistance, and a job and maybe a car will be waiting for the convert upon release from prison.

Dunleavy speaks about the selection of Islamic clergy for chaplain positions and the inadequate vetting process that allows imams with extremist views to enter the prison environment. Muslim evangelists able to find their way into prisons are almost always on the radical fringe.

The radicals begin their work little by little, and it is not just African Americans who are targeted. Hispanic and Anglo-American inmates are also pursued in Islam’s prison outreach movement. To be counted as a Muslim in prison can be advantageous. There is a certain safety and special handling that often accompanies being in the prison’s Muslim brotherhood. After all it is part of human nature to want to belong to a group that gives both purpose and meaning to one’s life, no matter how misdirected that purpose is. Dunleavy’s book speaks of the role of religion in the fertile soil of prison. They say there are no atheists in foxholes or prison cells, but theology and doctrine play a very minor role in conversions of convicts.

The irresistible draw is to be part of a world-wide brotherhood of like-minded people who have a compelling mission. And this Muslims certainly have. Here is a young convict with a messed up past and not much hope for the future, and along comes a group that offers great enticements and a sense of meaning. I am not surprised that many African Americans and other people in our world jump at the chance to be a part of it all.

The Whys

John Grisham, in his book, Rogue Lawyer (New York: Dell Books, 2015), gives a brief but accurate rendition of what drives African Americans, among others, into Islam. In the story line of the book the rogue lawyer is visiting his bodyguard’s son who is in prison. Reading from page 109: “Young and black . . . in for nonviolent drug offenses . . . average sentence seven years . . . three years later 60% are back . . . convicted felons a branding they will never be able to shake . . . .”

These are Grisham’s words, but there is more, and my summary of the felon’s situation is this: Filled with anger and a desire for revenge, with no job skills, no real education to build upon, no family to lean on for support, and no sense of wanting to build his own family; his only friends are ex-cons or partners in crime; he finds peace only in drugs and lives with an expectation that his life will be short. Grisham sums up with, “One million young black men now warehoused in decaying prisons, idling away the days at taxpayer expense.”

I might add that now there are far more than just young blacks who fit this narration; growing numbers of Hispanics and whites are mixed in, and these numbers are growing. This is not an indictment, but it clears up any mystery of why Islam is growing in our prisons. If radical Islam feeds on the emotions of hate, anger, revenge, and alienation, this is a perfect storm condition for recruiting converts.

Recruitment and Motivation

Anyone can be radicalized and end up committing horrible crimes as a result—and not only born Muslims. By radicalized I mean someone who goes to prison for burglary and ends up willing to die in violent jihad for the sake of Allah. This is far different from someone who goes to prison for burglary and learns how to perfect the art thereof. Anyone who kills in the name of God is an ideologue and has been radicalized.

If you are in one group, members of another group will likely be viewed as an enemy. It is safe to say that religion and politics are prime categories of people groupings and identity that have traditionally and historically produced real trouble. The Irish Republican Army is an example of political terrorism. ISIS and Al Qaeda are examples of religious terrorism.

Fighting back and getting revenge are compelling reasons for joining a group, though they may not be in the conscious mind at the point of recruitment. Almost all of us have these emotions in us, sometimes buried deep, and they are powerful motivators driving some to ignore or disregard the consequences of their actions. The promises made by the group for security, power, belonging, and meaning, even material wealth or outlandish notions such as seventy-two virgins awaiting the jihadist martyr hero, are all enough to blind the eye and stop the thinking.

It is nearly an everyday event now that some extremist blows himself or herself up in the hope of killing and maiming as many as possible; and is it all for the glory of Allah!

Haram and other Motivators

Haram is Arabic for prohibited or forbidden.

There are two distinct world systems in the Muslim mind. There is Dar-ul-Islam (the world of Islam) and Dar-ul-Haram (the forbidden world). Much of the Western lifestyle is forbidden and seen as threatening the faith of a Muslim, particularly the young, through its seductions and enticement to things forbidden in the Qur’an. For the pious Muslim, it is a duty to attack the degradation of the West, especially American style degradation now that most of the country has embraced homosexuality. The excesses of contemporary civilizations are a motivator for those who want to live in the seventh century with Muhammad and his early companions.[1] 

In my time, I have known Christians who were seduced by the immorality around them. This is the reality of our world, and it is unlikely to change much despite efforts to sanitize the culture. It is not a simple task to live for Jesus when all those around us demean it. (I live in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, so I know whereof I speak.) My experience is that Christians learn how to keep their footing regardless of the culture in which they are embedded. We understand that we are “in the world but not of the world.” While not always easy, it is doable, since Christians have the indwelling Holy Spirit, the written Word of God, and hopefully a supportive church community.

What about the crusades? They were far away and long ago, and it is far from clear if the crusaders were “crusading” to lift up the name of Jesus. Mostly not. Nevertheless, Muslims use the battle cry “Crusades” to build anger toward Christians that will directed to acts of revenge; the charge need not be historically accurate.

What about colonialism? This is a major motivator for those who do not understand the development and expansion of nation states, most of which were not motivated by solid Christian and Biblical directives.

Oppression comes to mind. Muslims have been repressed; although, what people group has not been oppressed or repressed at some time in their history? This is too big a topic for this essay, but simply saying Muslims are being oppressed is enough of a trigger to set hearts and minds yearning for revenge. As I understand it, domination over Muslim countries, especially following World War I, flowed from the Western democracies.

But there is something else that may be a major if not the most important reason for Islam to be what it is today.

Fear of Failure in the Spiritual Marketplace

Extremists can be born out of a fear that Islam itself is inadequate to compete with other world religions, particularly Christianity.

One of the great contrasts with Christianity and Islam is that Islam’s ultimate goal is to dominate the world—Dar-ul-Islam—to see to it that all people live under Sharia Law. No Muslim who really knows the Qur’an would deny this in private, yet some do publicly.

The goal of Christianity is to present the message of Jesus to all peoples on the planet. As I have heard it said, Christian evangelism is “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” And we know some will be convinced of their need of a Savior and turn to Jesus to save them from their sins. We also know that no amount of coercion, even slick persuasion, will yield a genuine new birth.

My sense of it is that only a small percentage of Muslims know much of what their religion teaches beyond the rituals, rites, pillars, and attendant cultural traditions. (This is also true of many in Christian churches. There is a difference between being religious and having true faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord.) I have met so many people who identify with Islam but are practical, if not actual, atheists. They will go through the motions, but their heads and hearts are empty. These people may be in danger, because the honor brigades in the mosques, the zealous and pious musclemen, will know who they are and will label them as “weak.” Please note, I am not implying that this phenomenon exits only Muslim-dominated cultures. This exists wherever there is a mosque.

The message of Islam is not a comforting one. I am writing this essay after completing the basic content of this present book. A person, whether in prison or not, has a void in his or her life, a hunger and thirst, and will unconsciously attempt to fill it with something, somehow. Islam seeks to draw the thirsty with a false promise of water. I have pointed out the horrors that Allah has in store for non-Muslims and for Muslims as well. The Qur’an states that all Muslims will enter hellfire and will maybe escape it after a time. Allah is, after all, a deceiver and may lead even a faithful Muslim astray. Even those who die in violent jihad or who build a mosque have no real assurance of making it to paradise or escaping a temporary stay in hellfire. Allah’s mercy and compassion are quite fickle, making the true message of Islam rather unattractive after all.

With any awareness of this reality, Muslims must fear that Islam is unable to compete in the spiritual marketplace of life. Today there are numerous former Muslims busy presenting Jesus and the message of the cross to Muslim communities. The Gospel is inescapable, and the draw is a Creator God who loves us and sent His Son to die in our place. Many Muslims are converting to Christ when Jesus is revealed through the faithful witness of believers and the drawing of the Holy Spirit. God chases down those whom He will. Conversion to Jesus is an event not a decision.

Death, and this is not merely physical but eternal death, is the end result of sin, yet the Christian has gone from death to life. Everyone dies, and then comes the judgment. On the cross, Jesus has taken our judgment upon Himself. We call this grace. We pray for it for our Muslim friends and neighbors. We do not pray for revenge or retaliation.

[1]     Those Muslims who want to return to the time when Islam first began are called Salafists. It comes from the Arabic word salafi meaning forefathers or the time of the forefathers.

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