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Book Chapter

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University of California Press

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For most Americans, “prison jihad” may sound frightening and conjure images of religious militants, bearded, turbaned, and under the spell of foreign radical networks…. While this may be the immediate impression, there is nothing like that happening in American prisons. However, there has been a different type of jihad taking place, one that is real and identifiable. This is not the sensational jihad of headline media; rather, this jihad is uneventful and quiet by comparison and has persisted since the 1960s with hardly any public notice.

Despite little attention and recognition, Muslims in prison occupy a unique spot in the history of prison litigation, which is partly indebted to the influence of Islamic ideology. While the role of Muslims in this history has yet to be adequately addressed in scholarship, even decades after the dearth was recognized, less is known about how religion itself influenced the course of prison law jurisprudence.

Muslim Prisoner Litigation: An Unsung American Tradition attempts to remove some critical gaps in our understanding by chronicling a different type of prison jihad. In this jihad, the primary weapon is the ability to tell one’s story to the world beyond, to narrate the pain, suffering, and unfairness that characterizes life for some behind prison walls. By situating Muslim efforts in their rightful place in the history of American prison law, this book takes the study of law and religion in new and unexpected directions and invites consideration of Muslims, not as villains who wish to harm the country, but as upholders of the most cherished principles that undergird American law and society.

In detailing the actions brought by Muslims in prison, this book concentrates on one of the most underclass demographics in society and takes an “outsider” perspective to analyze litigation efforts. This “bottom-up” approach is a way to prioritize the views of those who endure oppression and discrimination. Analyzing this legal phenomenon through outsider jurisprudence offers a useful mode of interpreting religious repression by the state, and beyond, the response of filing a legal claim. Perhaps of all groups of people, Muslims in prison represent the most fringe of outsider identities. Intersectionally, they carry the identity of being Black, poor, a prisoner, criminal, gang member, and religious subvert. Muslim Prisoner Litigation relies on critical outsider perspectives to develop the notion that through litigation, Muslims engage in a type of spiritual activism that offers a means for marginal, outsider populations to resist oppression.