Living Islam in prison: faith, ideology and fear

Living Islam in prison: faith, ideology and fear

The claim that Muslims are radicalised by imams while in prison has been challenged by a pioneering new study by a University of Aberdeen researcher.

Dr Gabriele Marranci, a lecturer in Anthropology of Religion, spent four years researching how being behind bars impacted on Muslim identity and their experience of Islam – the longest study of its kind to date.

His wide-ranging findings, drawn from over 170 interviews with current and former Muslim prisoners in Scotland, Wales and England, debunk the common media representation of Muslim chaplains as ultimate 'radicalisers'.

And he claims current efforts by the authorities to curb radicalism within UK prisons are having the opposite effect.

"During my research I found no evidence to suggest that the Muslim chaplains are behaving or preaching in a way that facilitates radicalisation," said Dr Marranci, who spent up to 10 hours at a time in individual prisons across the country, as well as living with the families of  former prisoners.

"On the contrary, my findings suggest that they are extremely important in preventing dangerous forms of extremism. However, the distrust that they face, both internally and externally, is jeopardising their important function."

His study reveals that Muslim prisoners are subjected to stricter security surveillance than other inmates, especially when they adopted religious symbols such as beards, veils and caps.

"Growing a beard is, in almost all of the establishments I visited, interpreted as 'radicalisation' of the individual," said Dr Marranci.

"Muslims who openly show their Muslim identity through symbols suffer more discrimination in general, from both staff and other prisoners, than those who keep a low profile."

And Dr Marranci claims that security policies within prisons – including restricting praying in a communal space or reading the Qur'an during work breaks – are exacerbating, rather than suppressing the radicalisation process.

"In particular, the decision in high security prisons to suspend access to certain TV programmes or newspapers has produced the opposite result that the establishment desired," he said.

"The lack of freedom of expression that Muslim prisoners suffer and the continuous atmosphere of suspicion surrounding them has the effect of increasing a sense of frustration and depression that a strong view of Islam can help to overcome.

"The respective Prison Services have tried to do something to address the issue of radicalisation but they're heading in the wrong direction. This is largely because the measures put in place have been fuelled by attempts to exempt themselves from negative media coverage and criticism.

"My findings suggest that the efforts made by the Prison Service in Scotland, England and Wales to show that they are tackling issues of radicalism in prison are instead facilitating the formation of essentialist views of Islam."

This, however, should not be confused with becoming an extremist, he cautioned.

"The mass media have overemphasised, and politicians over estimated, the danger of extremism within prison as well as the danger of extremists' recruitment within prison, overlooking the real problem: the process of re-integration within society."

Former Muslim prisoners, he claims, receive less support than non-Muslims in terms of accommodation, probation and help in reintegrating within the community.

"They suffer from a serious ostracism from their Muslim community, and sometimes their own families, thus increasing their isolation. The pressure produced by the current post 9/11 climate has also led some mosques to reject former Muslim prisoners because of the fear that the mosque could be accused of extremism and then closed."

He continued, "Former young Muslim offenders are particularly vulnerable to recommit crimes and return to prison. Yet among some of them, the experience of prison and the experience of Islam as an act of identity can change the way they view criminal activity. Some of my respondents, for instance, have said that they converted their group (gang) to Islam and formed an Islamic gang, which is of extreme concern.

"My research and observations suggest that there are also single members of dissembled militant organisations which actively, but without disclosing their previous affiliation, try to 'talent scout' young former Muslim prisoners.

"The majority of former Muslim prisoners become disinterested or do not want to be directly involved. Yet a small minority, which possesses a strong ideology of Islam as a result of the prison experience, express more interest."

On a positive note, Dr Marranci praised a Muslim Community Chaplain Project at HMP Leeds, in which a Muslim chaplain works as a liaison officer between the prison and wider community in an effort to follow the lives of former Muslim prisoners during resettlement.

"I strongly suggest that this is the best available solution to avoid the isolation, and its consequences, of former Muslim prisoners," he added.

Dr Marranci will give a public lecture on his findings, entitled Faith, Ideology and Fear: Muslim Prisoners and Former Muslim Prisoners in the UK, at 5pm on April 27, King's College, Room F7 at the University of Aberdeen.

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