Prisons are institutions structured and built to maximize control and exercise absolute domination over the incarcerated population. Society’s primary and professed approach to prisoners is centered on a rehabilitation model in which the individual is locked up for a period of time before being allowed back into cities and towns to mix with the “normal” population. The other and more pernicious approach practiced often at the same time and toward targeted ethnic, racial, and political groups is constructed punitively, so as to teach the individual involved or the group a lesson on “proper” conduct and establish social, political, economic, linguistic, and religious boundaries.
In both approaches above, and within the confines of the prison, the prisoners are placed on a highly controlled regiment with every minute of the day accounted for and intensely regulated. The system is managed by the guards and the prison’s administration with the involvement of psychologists to guide and analyze the societal rehab program at every turn. What the prisoners eat, drink, and do inside the prison is controlled with a system of privileges and punishments used to elicit cooperation from the incarcerated population.
The prison is an apt metaphor and analogy that describes the American Muslim predicament in the current period. In more than one way, the similarities between the regulated and controlled daily life of a prisoner resembles the contours of the American Muslim’s experience in civil society. What can be said by an American Muslim is already prescribed. The scope of engagement is highly regulated and departure from it is subject to punishment or withholding privileges. Despite the fact that prisoners inhabit and control 95-98% of the space in the prison, nevertheless, the guards and the warden control and regulate every aspect of daily life of the incarcerated population.
Consequently, the way to evaluate and approach the American Muslim community in the current period should be approached within a prison-prisoner lens. Here, the ability to move around and enjoy privileges should not be confused with freedom, equality, constitutional rights, and dignity in the full sense of the word. Let us be honest for a moment and detail the Muslim predicament in today’s America: a community subject to structured governmental control, surveillance, entrapment schemes, guilt by association, and punitive measures instituted to elicit “correct” conduct and proper political and religious speech.
Take for example, the levels of intrusion into Muslim religious space, whereby the government admits to deploying informants and monitoring leaders within these institutions. Religious freedom becomes vacuous if government intrusion is constant and presumption of guilt without evidence is how the Muslim community is regulated and controlled. The introduction in the US of CVE programs and Prevent in England are symptoms of the prisoner-prison relationship. The key question: What other community in the US has such programs to prevent and counter extremism?
Just like the prisoner needing to adhere to prison’s regulations as far as clothing are concerned, Muslims distinctive attire is a suspicious act that requires intervention by civil society guards. The subject must be induced by institutional intervention, so as to rehab it away from such clothing since they imply individuality, distinctiveness, and rejection of established cell block rules. In this sense, the clothing run contrary to civil society’s constructed “norms” and change must be undertaken, and if need be, enforced to remedy.
The more critical civil society control structures are those that operate at the level of ideas and shaping consciousness. Muslim bodies are marked and controlled in civil society, so as to discipline and produce a prisoner mental state of mind that begins to regulate on the inside, that which was placed by the institution on the outside. The constant demand on Muslims to condemn every terrorist act, problematizing Muslim critique of foreign policy, and the constant insinuation of double talk or taqiah with the only speech magnified and permitted is the one affirming empire and interventionist policies. Muslims are to be spoken for, and not to speak on their own terms. Could Muslims speak in civil society? And if they do, are we ready to listen?
A more insidious aspect of this civil society prison construct, is the ongoing criminalization on the one hand, as the punitive measure and the intensive rehab program directed at the youth to shape their worldview and identity. Muslim youth are the site of a civilizational rehab program with the intended goal of birthing a new breed content with subjugation and ready to celebrate on the one hand his/her cultural inclusion at the expense of political agency, dignity, and freedom on the other. Culture and identity divorced of religious and political content is a mere commodity sold and bought by the highest bidders.
Muslims, as a class of people, are prisoners of civil society in the west and are subject to hyper structures of control that negate the basis on which membership in society is founded upon. In more than one way, the Muslim today is an unequal citizen, and the citizenship even when it is allowed to be exercised, is probationary and subject to limitations. Just like released prisoners wear a bracelet to monitor their whereabouts and check regularly with their probation officers, so are Muslims in civil society made to wear an imaginary bracelet and check with security institutions, so as to ascertain if the rehab program was successful and no more ‘inducing’ is needed.