Writer's Blog

#TakeAKnee: Sports, Politics and Civil Religion

October 1, 2017

Take a Knee Sunday represented a major rejection of President Donald Trump’s attacks on players in the NFL. In a rally just days before, he railed against football players who decided to kneel rather than stand for the national anthem. Trump’s tactic is an attempt to tap into the forces of American Civil Religion and one of its dominant rituals, the singing of the national anthem.  Philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville aptly described this form of American religiosity in the 1800s when he wrote, “Americans so completely confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to have them conceive of the one without the other.” The president is trying to harness the power of civil religion by portraying the kneeling players as a desecration of the ritual. Whether he will succeed seems doubtful.

Trump’s escalation of the tiff came with his “son of a bitch” comment, which sent shock waves across the media.  Reporting suggested that a critical mass of NFL players were planning to take a knee that coming Sunday to protest Trump’s insults. This, and more, happened.

More than 250 players knelt that day, and there were other demonstrations as well. For example, many teams locked arms in solidarity during the singing of the anthem. The owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars locked arms with his team, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys knelt with his, while the Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans’ entire squads simply stayed in the locker room. In the Seattle vs. Tennessee match, even the singer of the National Anthem took a knee after her performance.

These surreal spectacles took place amid verbal attacks from the president against other Black athletes and sports personalities. Trump suggested that ESPN fire anchor Jemele Hill because of her comments calling him a White supremacist. He also rescinded an offer to Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry to visit the White House, after Curry had already rejected the offer, which provoked Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James to call Trump a “bum.” Thus, going into Take a Knee Sunday, the odds were already stacked against Trump.

A look at the anthem

The anthem’s lyrics are an ode to the country and God, demonstrating how civil religion binds the two. The song is a powerful relic of the country’s origin story and is an important part of the civil religious tradition. It is performed at sports and entertainment events, and all sorts of public gatherings and ceremonies.  But as Manifest Destiny and Providentialism would have it, the country’s birth cannot be separated from God’s will for a city on a hill. Hence, the full lyrics reveal that one cannot revere the country without honoring God either:

Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land

Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto — ‘In God is our trust,’

And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave

As a side fact, the anthem’s author, Francis Scott Key, owned slaves and seemingly nods to their death at the hands of American troops in a different passage of the song: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.” This passage has been understood to refer to the killing of those slaves who abandoned the American side to fight for the British in the Revolutionary War. Hence, the raw racial animus of the lyrics is telling, particularly that the most sacred song of freedom even mentions the word “slave” at all.

Mixing sports and politics

On multiple levels, Trump’s rally around the anthem tugs at heart-strings for Black Americans, not to mention those who associate the anthem with military service and sacrifice. Trump’s frame of the issue is that players are disrespecting the country, rather than respecting themselves.

The turmoil has caused some commentators to suggest that sports and politics shouldn’t be mixed. However, this suggestion is ingenuous. First, the notion is impossible because sporting events are already heavily politicized. Military ceremonies, gun salutes and heavy military recruiting are a constant at these events. Sports are thus already politicized, and in turn, politics has always had to contend with Black athletes and their political influences, from Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight boxing champion, to Muhammad Ali, and now, the originator of the anthem protest, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

This notion is particularly uncritical when considering that Black success in America has been largely limited to sports and entertainment. Without these platforms, Black people would have even less opportunity to express their political voice.  For example, aside from these platforms, the only political foundation for Black people has been religious, such as the church or mosque.  Former President Barack Obama, who came from none of these backgrounds, is the rarest of exceptions.

Thinking of Obama in this context is useful when considering the depth of White privilege in America. One need only imagine the political backlash if President Obama would have called anyone a “son of a bitch” during a public speech. Trump’s Whiteness and wealth allow him to say things that would have likely destroyed Obama had he uttered the same.

... trump taking a veiled shot at colin kaepernick, says owner should say: "get that sonofabitch off the field right now... he's fired!!"

Perhaps the greatest difficulty with Trump’s use of the anthem to push his agenda is the potential conflict with other religious forms.  That is, kneeling often accompanies prayer in general, an obvious point that Trump should have recognized. Accordingly, in an interview, Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis said that when he knelt for the anthem, he was “praying,” not protesting. The anti-kneel campaign will seemingly be doomed if more players decided to pray during the anthem. After all, the idea is not new since Tim Tebow was already famous for his kneeling and praying during games. Moreover, it is not like standing for the anthem is an absolute since every Sunday, countless Americans are content to sit through the ceremony while watching TV at home.

Trump’s attempt to use civil religion is backfiring because it is bringing out what Americans hate most about religion: When followers tell you their way is the only way. In this instance, it is particularly distasteful coming from a draft-dodger who has too many videos of him bumbling around when the anthem is playing and it is hard to take him seriously. It may be time for us all to take a knee, for the sake of rising above this hatred, and before the First Amendment becomes a relic of the past.

*Image: The Dallas Cowboys kneel during the pre-game anthem. >YouTube/NFL

The President’s Playbook:
Fearing Islam, Friending Russia

(unpublished piece, written 6/13/17)

Donald Trump’s attitudes toward Islam and Russia reveal a stark double-standard.  On one hand, the Trump campaign to vilify the Muslim religion is very real and ongoing, yet on the other, he has done and said nearly nothing about Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential campaign.  Unfortunately, the president’s attitudes are reinforced by his base, which has also stayed silent on the threats posed by Russia.  That Muslims are viewed as a great threat to democracy while Russian aggression is ignored not only reveals deep-seated cultural biases, but also puts American democracy in jeopardy.

The president’s vitriol against Islam needs no introduction.  Indeed, his own presidential campaign was largely built on promises to implement a Muslim ban.  In addition, he has disparaged a Gold Star Muslim family, and professed belief that Muslim judges could not be trusted to make fair court decisions.  He has also attacked political leaders for not singling out Muslims with the term “Radical Islamic Terrorism.”

Despite that in recent speeches he has tempered use of this phrase, his followers remain intent on singling out Muslims for malicious treatment.  Whereas Trump has attacked Muslims verbally, some of his followers have attacked physically, even harming civilians who defend their fellow Americans.  More recently the group ACT for America organized anti-Muslim marches across the country, which were particularly vile since these “march against Sharia” demonstrations were orchestrated to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan.

While Trump and some of his fellow Americans remain steadfast in oppressing Muslims, his treatment of Putin and Russia sits in sharp contrast.  Despite that Putin is widely viewed as a brutal dictator with an atrocious human rights record, Trump openly praised Putin during his presidential campaign.  Although the full scope of Trump’s involvement and investment in Russia is unknown, there is plenty that is, from Paul Manafort’s connections, to Michael Flynn’s, to Jared Kushner’s attempt to establish a back channel to the Kremlin.  Recent testimony by former FBI head, James Comey, further indicated that over several different meetings with Trump, the president did not so much as express concern about Russia’s role in the elections.

What sense should be made of this double standard?  Whereas Muslims are subject to ongoing hostilities, the acts of Russian aggression have hardly captured the imagination of Trump or his followers.  This question takes on greater urgency in light of Comey’s testimony that the Russians undoubtedly interfered in the election, and his ominous warning that “they will be back.” 

More importantly, what are the implications for democracy in America?  In the case of Russia, American intelligence is unanimous that this foreign power worked to influence the outcome of the presidential election.  Americans should take a moment to ponder this—Russia attacked the very process by which American leaders are elected—that is, attacked the foundation of democracy itself.  Although extremist Muslim attacks on American democracy have been mostly rhetorical, Russia’s are real.

These attacks might rightly be viewed as a subtle species of terrorism, and as such, should be condemned just like physical attacks or cyber attacks aimed to inspire fear.  For those concerned with the life of democracy, Russia’s acts are indeed terroristic, even if they evade such description.

So, with this clear-cut attack on American democracy, where is the outrage?  Where is the same sort of harsh policy blowback and brimstone rhetoric to which Muslims are subjected?  In all fairness, one might expect to see a terrible backlash against all things Russian.  This would include executive orders vetting the entrance of all Russians to the country.  It would also include anti-Russia marches, or at the very least, anti-Putin marches, or more drastically, a full-blown cultural war against all things Russian.  Yet, to date, there has been no killings or physical attacks against Russian-Americans, no vandalism or burning of Russian Orthodox Churches, no profiling and patrolling of Russian-American communities, no violence against those mistakenly believed to be Russian, no flyers telling Russian-American citizens to go back to their own country.  Nothing of the sort.

The point, of course, is not to encourage such acts be carried out.  Rather, it is to underscore that they are not happening at all.  The omission doesn’t make much sense if this is the sort of stuff that happens in the name of protecting democracy.  It instead makes one wonder why Muslims are vilified and Putin is praised.  More critically, it suggests either that the focus on Muslims is overblown and that attitudes toward Russia are far friendlier than should be.

Prison: A Sacred Space in American Islam

August 23rd, 2017 6:47 am

Reliance on mass incarceration as a response to crime has reached critical heights in recent decades. The numbers need no rehearsal: The U.S. leads the world in incarceration rate and population size, with well over 2 million under lock and key; the country is less than 5% of the world’s population, but holds almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners; meanwhile the Texas prison population alone is larger than almost every other country in the world, as is California’s. This great turn to mass incarceration, however, has provided a mass captive audience for the message of Islam. In turn, great successes in Islamic outreach behind bars have made prisons a critical factor for the growth of Islam in America.

Conversion behind bars

Although recidivism plagues American criminal justice, religion behind bars has offered solutions for some to keep out of prison. Islam specifically is known for having a strong presence behind bars, and it has been posited that more inmates convert to Islam behind bars per capita than any religion, with Muslims representing about 10% to 15% of all American prisoners. These impressive estimates are rooted in generations of Muslim outreach, which has provided prisoners opportunities for education, mentoring, training, and transitioning back to society.

There are multiple factors that catalyze genuine religious conversion. Genuine conversion may be distinguished from joining a particular religion for perks, protection or other purposes. Conversion in general is known to result from personal crisis, which for prisoners includes the mental and physical pains of imprisonment, as well as the lack of movement, goods, services and sexual relations.

Having hit rock bottom with no one to turn to, some turn to God. Supporting the point, one study found that inmates were more likely to convert in the harsher and more dangerous maximum-security institutions than in minimum-security facilities. Experiences of acute physical crisis, mental breakdown and the “terror of time” may set conditions for inmates to turn to religion as a personal resource and support system.

The reasons individuals are drawn to Islam specifically are more complex. Although converts are obviously drawn to the message of Islam and the religious tenets, there are many paths to this point. Muslim outreach plays an important role and has been recognized as some of the most consistent and persistent prison ministry the country has ever seen. Indeed, by the time Malcolm X converted in the 1950s, there was already notable Islamic outreach in prisons. Muslims have been willing to do the thankless work of prison ministry, and in turn, prisoners have made the legend of the prisoner-turned-Muslim a piece of Black Americana.

Others are drawn to Islam through cultural attractions. For African American and Latino prisoners, Islam links to a glorious civilization and history that traces to ancestries in Africa and Spain. For this reason, converts sometimes refer to themselves as “reverts” since they see themselves as returning to their original religion. Latinos in particular embark on a path of discovery that leads them to names like “Medina” and words like “ojala,” “may God will,” which affirms Islamic influence on the Spanish language.

Other undeniable influences on the lives of prison converts include hip-hop and gang culture. A majority of prison converts are African American, many of whom come from a street/prison gang lifestyle, saturated in hip-hop music. Muslim artists represent a major faction in hip-hop and have had great influence.

As such, Muslim hip-hop artists have pushed Islamic ideas, themes, symbols and names through music. By default, some of these Islamic elements have filtered through to gang culture. As Robert Dannin’s pioneering work Black Pilgrimage to Islam details, inmates come in contact with Islamic symbols through gang culture long before incarceration, which sets the table for genuine conversion once the individual is ready for a serious quest to find meaning and value.

Muslim rapper Jay Electronica with other Nation of Islam members. > Jay Electronica Facebook

Finally, on the ideological fringe of converts are some who embrace Islam as a way to distance themselves from social mores, particularly the influence of Christianity. Some inmates view Christian followers as the cause of their misery — all the way back to slavery — and view Islam as a foil to combat Christian influence, what Dannin calls a “strategic challenge to Christian hegemony.”

Islam’s blessings to inmates and corrections

Islamic outreach contributes to inmates’ adjustment to prison life, as well as to life on the outside. Islam injects a dose of normativity into prison culture: abstinence from alcoholic beverages, drugs and cigarettes, as well as sexual restrictions and dietary regulations, among others. These positive adjustments translate into reduced participation in subcultures of deviancy, which in turn contribute to a more stable prison environment. Such findings were first reported in 1961 in C. Eric Lincoln’s classic study, The Black Muslims in America, which reported that recovering alcoholics and drug addicts were able to cope in prison more effectively after converting.

For correctional institutions, the willingness of Muslims to enter prisons for ministry is a boon because it provides programming and educational opportunities that would not be available otherwise. Furthermore, research shows Muslims who have assumed leadership roles in periods of crisis as a stabilizing force in prisons. According to some findings, no Muslim actively participated in a riot in U.S. prisons from 1971 to 1986; Muslim inmates mitigated violence and deaths in the Attica (1971) and Sing Sing (1983) prison riots; affiliation with Muslim groups improves inmate self-esteem, reformatory potential and recidivism rates more than other religious groups statewide and nationwide.

Muslims have also positively influenced prison culture through the use of law. Muslims prisoners have pushed for rights that all prisoners enjoy today and have been litigating in courts since the 1960s, when members of the Nation of Islam sued to have Islam recognized as an official religion in prison. According to current data, Muslims continue to carry the torch and are recognized as among the most litigious religious adherents in prison.

Finally, Muslim communities have participated in efforts to transition individuals from prison to life on the outside. Because numerous obstacles await released prisoners, a successful re-entry often depends on resources and a support network. As recidivism rates demonstrate in most states, over half of all released inmates recidivate within three years. But as Malcolm X showed long ago, this pattern can be broken when an individual has resources and a strong community to support re-entry.

Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, New York City. > Flickr/JordiEscuer

Such support is a win-win-win for prisons, ex-prisoners and communities. There is preliminary evidence, however, that Islamic organizations are not doing enough to help with re-entry. More specifically, because Muslims in America are largely divided by race, African American mosques end up doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to supporting released Muslim prisoners, most of whom are African American themselves. Although Muslim efforts in prison have been heroic, there is a need for more heroes on the outside to help stabilize re-entry.ns contribute to the growth of Islam in America.

Conversion to Islam behind bars often serves as the entry way to yet another conversion. For many, the path to Islam may have started with a nationalist, race-based or other novel interpretation of Islam, yet that path later leads believers to a more traditional denomination. Malcolm X is the most well-known example of this: He began his post-prison career as a loudspeaker for the Nation of Islam, only later to become a devout Sunni Muslim. His initial conversion to the Nation paved the way for his entrance to a different understanding of religion, and many after him, including Muhammad Ali, have traversed this path.

Prisons are thus an important part of a conversion pattern that ultimately contributes to the growth of the more traditional strands and overall growth of Islam in America. The vitality of Sunni, Shia and Sufi denominations enjoys a boost as a direct result of prison ministries within groups like the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple. These groups, which are sometimes considered non-traditional or unorthodox, if not heterodox, in fact represent a paradox since their efforts work to augment the more traditional populations.

The influence of Islam behind bars is important and critical to behold because it represents an ongoing challenge to the toxic, anti-Muslim, “law and order” rhetoric of the day. Prisons stand as a major monument to the spread of Islam in America, and should be recognized as a special space in the history American Islam.

SpearIt is the author of a new book, American Prisons: A Critical Primer on Culture and Conversion to Islam, which delves more deeply into the issues mentioned in this article. 

*Image: The state penitentiary in Idaho. >Flickr/ThomasHawk

Finding Islam in prison

Aug 16, 2017

In recent decades, the United States has been under a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality when it comes to imprisonment. The U. S. Supreme Court has left the question of prison sentencing to the near-complete discretion of legislatures, while placing little constitutional constraint on how long inmates can be held in solitary confinement. 

This hands-off approach by the court runs parallel to federal and state lawmaking that has ratcheted prison sentences upwards-only, making criminal sentencing in America something of a runaway train.

While American criminal justice doles out some of the harshest prison sentences in the world, there are a host of negative cultural impacts on society. Given that the vast majority of inmates are ultimately released back to the streets at a rate of over 700,000 annually, the “throw away the key” approach fails to take into account the social burden on communities to which these former prisoners return.

The overarching message of my anthology, American Prisons: A Critical Primer on Culture and Conversion to Islam, is that problems in prison are not isolated from society, and unlike the Las Vegas slogan, what happens in prison doesn’t stay in prison. Prisons are not neatly cornered off from society, but rather, are partners in toxic relationships with the communities to which ex-prisoners return.

Against these sinister cultural developments, the book juxtaposes the quest for God and religious conversion. More specifically, widespread conversion to Islam over many generations has made prisons an important factor for the growth of Islam in America. The book concludes with policy prescriptions based on the notion that prison reform is not just about justice for those on lockdown, but communities on the outside as well.

One example is the serious health conditions suffered by prisoners, like HIV, gonorrhea, syphilis, and other sexually transmitted diseases. Often enough, these illnesses are spread by some released inmates when they return to their communities. Additionally, mental illness in prisons continues to be poorly treated and poses a special burden on communities when these prisoners are released. For the state, mentally ill prisoners are expensive to house, likely to face extra punishments in prison, and are likely to recidivate.

As mentally ill prisoners disrupt the order of prison administration, one might only fathom the effect when released to already-stressed communities.

This work, moreover, illustrates how violence in prison often spills over into communities in a myriad of ways.  Sometimes it is less a spill since prison gangs are notorious for orchestrating hits against individuals outside of prison. Gender violence in prison is another related problem that gets absorbed by communities and families, and translated into domestic sexual violence.

This violence along with negative economic, political, mental, physical, and health impacts, taken as a whole, denote that prisons perpetuate keeping underclass communities, underclass.


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