The experiences of Muslim prisoners in the aftermath of September 11 is the focus of a pioneering research project being carried out at the University of Aberdeen.
There are around 42,000 Muslims living in Scotland, of which 100 are currently in prison.
Dr Gabriele Marranci, Lecturer in Anthropology of Religion, School of Divinity and Religious Studies, spent seven months visiting Scotland’s main HM Prisons for the Scottish arm of his research, which looks at how Muslims practice their religion and how prison influences the Muslim identity.
Following this research, Dr Marranci has just received £7,190 from the British Academy and £3,000 from the University of Aberdeen, to extend his investigations by focusing on the lives of Muslim prisoners in England and Wales in the aftermath of September 11.
This unique research, entitled Living Islam in prison: the experience of Muslim prisoners in England and Wales in the aftermath of September 11, is the first of its kind in Europe.
Over the next two years, Dr Marranci will visit prisons in England and Wales to gather evidence of what prison life is like for Muslims by interviewing prisoners of all religions, as well as staff and social workers. He will also meet and interview former convicts.
Dr Marranci said his research in Scotland revealed that life for Muslims and the ways in which they were able to access their religion varied dramatically in every prison. He said: “I’m looking forward to drawing comparisons between the experience of Muslim prisoners in Scotland to those in England and Wales.
“Islam is a very powerful identity tool and it’s vitally important prisons recognise that Islam affects every aspect of Muslim life.”
Although there has been previous statistical research conducted into attitudes towards Muslims in prison, Dr Marranci’s research will focus on Muslims’ experience of their faith in prison.
He continued: “Fear is a strong part of the lives of Muslim prisoners, they fear that something else could happen and by reinforcing their Islamic identity, they are creating a sense of security for themselves.
”When incarcerated in a prison cell, they often feel they have nothing left except their Islamic beliefs and, as a result, their religion becomes a much stronger part of their identity.”
A compounding element of Dr Marranci’s research in Scotland revealed that while some Muslim convicts learnt more about their religion while locked up, some were incarcerated in a very closed society with limited access to their religion.
“A major part of my research deals with how Muslims form their view of Islam and how they develop their religion and beliefs while in prison,” said Dr Marranci.
“In Scottish prisons access to any kind of religion and religious services is organised through the Church of Scotland, which often makes life more difficult for Islamic convicts.
“However, I found that in many prisons Muslim prisoners were provided with a prayer mat and The Koran. Some of those I interviewed said they would have liked to receive education about Islam with courses similar to those available at universities as, at present, there is no education in prison which focuses on Islam.
“I was also interested to learn that in England a high proportion of Caribbean convicts choose to convert to Islam while in prison as they feel part of an active religious community. At the other end of the scale, I visited one prison where the convict hadn’t been visited by anyone from a Mosque during his entire three-year sentence.
“It’s astounding that even prisoners serving short term sentences are released from prison with a very different understanding of their religion.”
A positive aspect of the Scottish research, which Dr Marranci hopes he will experience during his research in England and Wales, is the good relationship between prison staff and Islamic prisoners.
“In general, the staff were very understanding,” he said. “They often admitted they didn’t know much about Islam – but they were willing to listen and to help and support the Muslim offender.”
Life after prison and how Muslim prisoners integrate back into society is also a key part of the Aberdeen research.
Dr Marranci added: “Social integration depends very much on the prisoners’ relationship with outside contacts and British people before imprisonment. Integration within the family group can cause problems for Muslim convicts – some Islamic families are very supportive - but some completely cut the links and the prisoner can leave prison feeling very isolated.”
Dr Marranci will undertake the first part of his research, Living Islam in prison: the experience of Muslim prisoners in England and Wales in the aftermath of September 11, this month, finishing in May 2007.
* The British Academy is the national academy for the humanities and the social sciences. With the help of a Government grant-in-aid the academy also acts as a grant-giving body, sponsoring its own research projects and facilitating the work of others, principally by offering research appointments and personal research grants.
* The Scottish part of Dr Marranci’s research was funded by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland. In accordance with Andrew Carnegie's wishes, the Royal Charter enables the Trust to support the 13 Universities of Scotland, their staff and students.