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Muslim chaplains and ‘prison radicalisation’

Muslim chaplains and ‘prison radicalisation’

Categories: Latest News

Wednesday April 20 2016

The Times (£) today returns to the topic of ‘prison radicalisation’, weeks after an article which claimed “Most jail imams teach anti-western values” (published on 7 February).

The paper seems quite taken with a pending Ministry of Justice report written by former Home Office official Ian Acheson, referring to aspects of it in yet another published article on 3 April, “1,000 Muslim inmates may be recruited in ‘terror academy’ jails.”

Today’s front page article repeats the same statistics about 1000 Muslim prisoners being “deemed vulnerable to radicalisation” but gives no further detail from the “leaked report” about how the figure was calculated and on what metrics “vulnerability” was assessed. If it does rely, as it quite probably does, on the ERG22+ risk assessment guidance which was developed by the National Offender Management System before being rolled out further afield into the Channel programme, then the fact that 80% of Channel referrals are found to be without basis would cast doubt over the claims that “1000” prisoners are feared to be at risk of radicalisation in UK prisons.

The Times article claims that “Muslim chaplains appointed by the Ministry of Justice routinely distribute Islamist hate literature in British prisons, a leaked report has found”, but provides only this bit of detail in relation to the claim: “The review…found extremist pamphlets and CDs in more than 10 jails…The material some of it published in Saudi Arabia, was kept on bookshelves in prison chaplaincy rooms where it was available for anybody to come in and pick up.”

The availability of such literature in chaplaincy rooms would raise questions about how it got there but it would be a stretch to argue it was Muslim chaplains who were placing it there or indeed that they were “routinely distributing” the material.

While The Times has published several articles now from the leaked report, only fragments of information is presented, all of which are intended to suggest Muslim chaplaincy in prisons is putting prisoners at risk and failing in its new statutory duty.

One has to wonder at the persistence of news articles drawing on Acheson’s report that merely invite further questions on the subject when a publication date for the full report has not yet been announced. It is certainly difficult to formulate a fair assessment of the report’s findings when alarmist headlines appear in the papers but the report itself is unavailable for public scrutiny.

The Times today claims that “chaplains at several jails encouraged prisoners to raise funds for Islamic charities with links to international terrorism” although the profligate use of such allegations again, only begs the question which charities and how credible are claims of “links to international terrorism”?

The paper also goes on to repeat claims about the role of Deobandi imams in prisons stating: “Of the 200 full-time and part-time Muslim chaplains working in jails, 70 per cent were taught in Deobandi institutions.”

It also, in contrast to the article published in February, includes a minor mention of the research by Professor Sophie Gilliat-Ray on prison chaplaincy. Yahya Birt has already covered the omission of more nuanced coverage of prison chaplaincy services in the UK drawing on peer-reviewed research in this area and so it is useful to note the single sentence in the article referencing Professor Gilliat-Ray’s work.

Given the front page headline in The Times, a half page article on page 6, “Prison chief praises Islamic sect that warns of repulsive Christian women”, and an editorial, “Inside Job: Britain’s prisons are breeding extremism when they should be stamping it out”, one might fairly ask if the newspaper is particularly interested in presenting a balanced portrayal of the subject drawing on not only Gilliat-Ray’s work but also the Home Affairs select committee report on The Roots of Violent Radicalisation (2012).

The select committee in its report in 2012, noted the difficulty of claiming a role for prisons in the radicalisation of prisoners stating: “The role of prisons and universities was less obvious. Much of the uncertainty relates to the fact that a number of convicted terrorists have attended prisons and universities, but there is seldom concrete evidence to confirm that this is where they were radicalised.”

The report also drew attention to the dynamics of prisons where “recruitment to gangs” can have some bearing on the problem of radicalisation, shifting the “causes” away from a preoccupation with religion and chaplaincy services and more onto the naked realities of the prison environment.

The lack of evidence about prisons being “universities of terror” and the consequences for faith groups resulting from an over-emphasis prisons as “terrorist incubators” is examined by Sarah Marsden of Lancaster University who argues, “Conflating religiosity and radicalisation also overlooks religion’s role as a protective factor. A commitment to Islam has actually been found to offer a moral framework through which the individual can turn their life around, as well as enabling them to deal with prison life more effectively and reduce aggression.”

The preoccupation with “religious ideology” in discussion about radicalisation in prisons, as with much of the counter-terrorism strategy, raises the distinct problem of “false positives” where increased religious practice can be mistaken for “signs of radicalisation”.

It is indicative of the articles published to date and the reliance on parts of the Acheson report to paint the worst possible picture, that nothing so far has been “leaked” about the positive facets of Muslim chaplains in the prison service and the work done to challenge separatist narratives among prisoners, or on supporting prisoner disengagement from extremist ideologies and rehabilitation.


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