Oftentimes, zakat is sent abroad to various countries suffering with injustices—but it is important to show that some of that same brutality is happening in the United States to people in jail,” said Nabihah Maqbool, an organizer with Believers Bail Out (BBO) and law student at the University of Chicago, earlier this month at a gathering of Muslim organizers at Augustana Lutheran Church in Hyde Park. BBO, a recently-formed coalition of Muslim organizations working with the Chicago Community Bond Fund, collects zakat—the portion of income Muslims are required to donate to charity—for the purposes of freeing Muslims in Cook County Jail who can’t afford to post bond.
The gathering, titled “Muslim Perspectives on Prison Abolition,” was co-hosted by BBO and Masjid al-Rabia, a Lakeview mosque that provides “spiritual care for marginalized Muslims,” and attracted around thirty participants.
Traditionally, those eligible to receive zakat are in debt, enslaved, low-income, new Muslims and friends of the Muslim community, fighting in the cause of God, or stranded with few resources. Though American Muslim communities have largely not considered individuals in pre-trial detention as being eligible for zakat, organizers say they are, because they can be considered in debt and enslaved.
“Alleviating someone’s burdensome debt and freeing them from the bondage of incarceration both apply to people who can’t afford to pay their debt,” said Maqbool.
So far, BBO’s fundraiser has been a success: the group passed its initial goal of $80,000 to raise $103,262 with 2,016 supporters by the time the fundraiser closed on June 15. A few days previously, BBO announced its first bail-out, for a father of four. BBO is just the latest in a series of campaigns, lawsuits, and other efforts to reform or abolish cash bail in Cook County since the 1970s, but is the first, potentially in the country, to frame the argument explicitly around religious charitable obligations.
Mahdia Lynn, director of Masjid al-Rabia, said this opens the door for a lot of people to talk about an under-discussed issue.
“After we bail people out, we can continue these conversations. [The Inner-City Muslim Action Network, one of the organizations behind BBO] has set up a re-entry initiative, and it is interesting it took so long for us to get to the [pre-trial] side of the issue. We now have Muslim organizations at every step—pre-trial, trial, incarceration, and re-entry,” she said. (At the trial stage, organizations like the Muslim Legal Fund of America help provide legal funds. For incarcerated people, there are Muslim chaplains.)
BBO plans to match people with community members and resources after they’re bailed out, in order to help them through trial with a support network.
Along with that, a large part of BBO’s strategy for tackling this issue involves starting the conversation on anti-Blackness within the Muslim community. Roughly fifty-eight percent of American Muslims are first-generation immigrants, having been born in another country. For many of these immigrants who came to the United States in search of a better life, the concepts of police misconduct and mass incarceration in America can be hard to fathom. BBO hopes to challenge that belief and show that abuse and oppression can be an everyday occurence in the “land of the free.”
“Immigrant Muslims have to realize that, while they fled their countries and came for a better life and it worked out, that isn’t the case for many Americans, and it can lead to a cycle of poverty and incarceration fed by anti-Blackness,” Maqbool said.
As the discussion continued, individuals talked about the stigmas they face and ways to convince more Muslims of the need for prison abolition. In the U.S. criminal justice system, the Black incarceration rate is five times what it is for white people. On top of that, Islam is one of the fastest growing religion in prisons, according to a Pew Research Center study. With roughly twenty percent of the American Muslim community being Black, organizations like BBO aim to argue that mass incarceration and anti-Blackness are Muslim issues inherently, and not just Black issues, even though non-Black Muslims might have had a very different experience with the criminal justice system. (Twenty-eight percent of American Muslims identify as Asian, twenty percent as Black, and forty-one percent as white, a number that includes Arab, Middle Eastern, Persian, and Turkish people).
“One side of the community has a lived reality with behavior being policed and incarcerated whilst the other side is ignorant and passive,” Maqbool said. “Some people believe crime happens in a vacuum and is dependent on individual character. But in fact, it has to do with state violence and lack of mental health treatment.”
Zaynab Shahar of Masjid al-Rabia added that, as a result of different experiences with police and prisons, there are “Muslims aligning themselves with the Rahm Emanuel administration and not realizing the harm it does to other Muslims.” At his 2016 annual Iftar dinner, Emanuel was praised by North Side activist Salman Aftab, who said that Emanuel “sits here with us against those voices who try to separate us” in his introductory remarks. This year’s Iftar, however, was disrupted by activists from the #NoCopAcademy campaign and others who urged Emanuel to take a stance against the violence in Gaza.
Along with bailing Muslims out of Cook County Jail, a goal for BBO is starting these conversation within Muslim circles about anti-Blackness, prison abolition, and incarceration. The group offers tools for supporters to hold fundraiser iftars (feasts at the end of every day during Ramadan) to raise money, talk about incarceration, and make more people aware of anti-racism work within the community. For its next steps, BBO hopes to continue the effort in more Chicagoland mosques and expand it to other cities across America.
Isra Rahman is a contributor to the Weekly. She is a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying African-American studies and urban planning, with a strong interest in criminal justice, restorative justice, and activism within the Muslim community. This is her first piece for the Weekly.