Response to ULK 48 on Islam and United Front Organizing
I received ULK 48, thank you. From 1998 to right after the towers fell in New York, I received MIM Notes, which were instrumental in my politicalization and capacity to be critical with information. Hopefully re-connecting with MIM will aid me in similar if not greater ways.
As far as the ULK 48, dedicated to the discussion of religious organizations in prison, I would like to add a few observations, critiques and opinions that may aid in better understanding what I consider, the functional limits of prison religious organizations.
I preface the following by stating that like many young, impressionable Black males who entered the Michigan penal system in the mid-1990s, I was heavily recruited by a non-orthodox Islamic sect. It was part religious, part Black nationalist, part civic, radical in the sense that it gave it to the grey and black as well as it took it, but the religious organization was mostly philosophically and ideologically backwards. No clearly defined political lines, no effort toward developing social change theory, and no revolutionary practices or principles cognizable to a revolutionary novice, let alone a seasoned agent for change.
However, the group did introduce me to books, which I fell in love with after spending four years in solitary confinement where there was little else to do besides read to escape the attendant activities characteristic of that environment. In the beginning, narrow nationalism and Islamic related literature is all I read. Far more lasting than any specific set of facts or pieces of knowledge obtained, reading provided me with the understanding of how to acquire knowledge on my own. I learned how to read an essay closely, search for new sources, find data to prove or disprove a hypothesis, and detect an author's prejudice, among other skills, that were not promoted during my K-12 educational experience.
Considering the inescapable oppression of long term solitary confinement, it was inevitable that my attention would be turned to ideas and actions I could take to prevent future experiences of isolation, for myself as well as others. Trying to pray or wish my problems away proved extremely ineffective. I abandoned closing my eyes and hoping for a different reality when I opened them, rather quickly. But I do feel indebted to the group for leading me to books - prior to prison I had never read a book from cover to cover, or for more than entertainment.
After reading ULK 48, the first question that comes to mind is, do religious groups in Michigan prisons possess any power - real or latent - to stimulate and direct constructive social change? Or are they, too, victims of the overall U.S. capitalist structure?
While I'm aware that many people would answer these questions in many different ways, I observe that religion plays chiefly a cathartic role for the imprisoned. It provides an opportunity for followers to "let off steam," to seek release for emotions which cannot be expressed to administrators and guards without consequences. Prison religious organizations are social and recreational and a haven for comfort, no matter how illusory or temporary. Within these groups imprisoned people can assume responsibilities and authority not available elsewhere in the prison. For example, s/he can be the head of security, treasurer or public relations director. Only within the religious organization can imprisoned people engage in political intrigue and participate in decisions open to non-imprisoned people.
The potential power of religious organizations in prison is the ability to attract large numbers of imprisoned people. Although their ability to recruit is severely being challenged here in Michigan by the rise of street organizations i.e., gangs, whose numbers have skyrocketed in the last ten years. Among their more flagrant weaknesses is the fact that their potential strengths can all too easily be dissipated by preoccupation with trivial matters (e.g., did Moses part the Red Sea; did Jesus walk on water; what did Muhammad say about facial hair, eating pork, or what activities should be performed with the left hand?), and the desperate struggle for the empty status, bombast, and show of the prison world.
It is not inevitable, and virtually impossible to politicalize and transform members of these groups into social change agents when religious doctrines emphasize the idea of someone other than you/me/us possessing the power to change present reality: the instruments of escape, weapons of protest, the protective fortress behind which adherents seek to withstand the assaults of a hostile environment and within which s/he plans strategies of defiance, is prayer.
It is no wonder then why imprisoned people who have been politicalized tend to reject religious organizations as a multiple symbol of fantasy; and tend to regard prison religious organizations as basically irrelevant to challenging the hard and difficult realities of capitalism, white supremacy, police powers that can reach all the way into one's bedroom or a woman's womb, and so on.
That this is not more widely recognized by members of these groups may be in part because religious organizations are not an effective model of critical thinking. The fact that religious organizations are the most pervasive groups in Michigan prisons, and the fact that they do not play any measurable role dissenting or resisting the frustrating, oppressive, degrading experience of incarceration, are cruelly related.
If religious organizations are a powerful social force, either the facility, Central Office, or the State would severely restrict/eliminate them. The facade of power which these groups now present would be removed. Think about it, most religious meetings in prison go unsupervised.
Members of these groups hold on to the idea that an all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present being will save them at some appointed time and date, while this being had neglected their other needs as human beings. The punishment of "crime" is a political act. It represents the use of force by the State to control the lives of people the State has defined as criminal. No concerted political efforts have been made by these groups to deal with the politics, i.e., the underlying causes of incarceration.
My objective is not to argue that religious belief and political consciousness are incompatible. Speculation on that level is pointless and irrelevant for the purpose of this discussion. However, the simple truth is that the trouble imprisoned people find themselves in, the sham and corruption, the class and race biases of criminal law enforcement, cannot be solved unless imprisoned people feel obligated to learn about systems of power, privilege and oppression, and also feel obligated to do something about them.
MIM(Prisons) responds: This comrade is correct to point out that there are significant limitations to religious organizations, whether behind bars or on the streets. And ultimately only by targeting the underlying systems of oppression will we put an end to criminal injustice and imperialism. However, what this letter does not address is the distinction of some of the more anti-imperialist religious movements like Islam. As we argued in ULK 48 "Just as religion is today an outlet for many radical youth in the Third World, religion has been influenced by revolutionary politics in the context of New Afrika. In the 20th century we see a turn towards Islam by a number of New Afrikans who are searching for identity and liberation from oppression by Amerika." We do not push people towards religion, but at the same time we look to unite with those whose religion is compatible with or promoting national liberation. We have a good historical example of this united front in the Christian liberation theologists in Latin America who were a part of revolutionary national liberation struggles in that part of the world starting in the 1950s.
Uniting with organizations that do not share our political line entirely is part of united front organizing. We focus on the principal contradiction, and unite with others who agree with this goal, while retaining independence to make clear where we disagree politically. In a united front led by communists religious groups can be important allies. But we should always be clear that true equality for all people will not be achieved through belief in a higher power or any other unscientific mysticism.