I was told: ‘No one messes with the Muslims in here’

by Maajid Nawaz

 

January 11 2012 12:01AM

 

Over the past 20 years, the number of Muslims in Britain’s jails has hugely increased. They make up more than 10,000 of the 80,000 prison population. This should worry us greatly — especially as British prisons have been the forcing houses of Islamist extremism.

This week we had a reminder of the danger. Tomorrow Jermaine Grant, a 29-year-old Briton who converted to Islam inside Feltham Young Offender Institution, will appear in court in Kenya charged with being behind a terrorist plot. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, also converted while doing time in Feltham.

Few young Muslims go to prison because of their faith but a spell inside can forge a one-dimensional, angry and exclusive identity. I have interviewed young Muslims in Belmarsh’s high-security zone on many occasions and learnt a lot from them about what creates an extremist.

Young men, plunged into prison, find that safety lies in adopting an aggressive Muslim identity. I was told that “no one messes with the Muslims in here. The brothers run things.” Of course, some who are keen to correct the errors of their ways convert to Islam or rediscover the faith of their fathers. But for vulnerable new convicts, joining the “brothers” offers physical, if not spiritual, protection from the dangers of prison life. Someone who has gone to prison as a car thief suddenly finds no other choice but to categorise himself as a “Muslim” car thief.

The system inadvertently reinforces this outsider identity and the control of the Muslim gangs by catering for the communal needs of these prisoners. A special diet and collective prayer breaks are provided and very conservative Muslim chaplains are bought in.

None of this is bad in itself. None of these religious dispensations should be stopped — everyone’s faith should be respected. But I fear that the Government underestimates the explosive potential of young criminals seeking protection in a Muslim identity that rejects the mainstream.

The Prison Service needs to wake up. While many of the current Muslim chaplains are devout men who may be able to teach young convicts how to pray, they are not the men to combat the perversion of Muslim identity. We need a serious national counter-radicalisation strategy that stops angry young men from finding purpose in fanaticism.

If we don’t act, we may find that this burgeoning population of 10,000 prisoners harbours many more Richard Reids.

 

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Response from the Prisons and Probation Minister, Crispin Blunt MP, to the article ‘Prison is turning angry young men into fanatics’ by Maajid Nawaz

 

January 12 2012

 

To describe our prisons as “forcing houses of Islamist extremism” is sensationalist and not backed by evidence’

 

Sir, Maajid Nawaz, of the Quilliam Foundation, (Thunderer, Jan 11) takes a partial approach to extremism and radicalisation in prisons. The National Offender Management Service is not blind to the risks and is working hard to tackle extremism and prevent radicalisation within prisons.

 

Muslim chaplains are vital to our programme. As the NOMS Muslim adviser said in your columns (Jan 10), we have some of the best of imams in our prisons. Along with their spiritual and pastoral responsibilities, they play a crucial role in our strategy to combat extremism and radicalisation.

 

This is a complex area. Many prisoners who are Muslims in prison are Muslims because they are looking for fellowship, safety, belonging and all of the things that bring people to faith. That is equally true for Christians in prison. Conversion to Islam does not equal radicalisation.

 

I am not complacent about the risks, but to describe our prisons as “forcing houses of Islamist extremism” is sensationalist and not backed by evidence. If we were to follow the kind of confrontational prescription proposed by Mr Nawaz we could no doubt create that very situation, which a great deal of impressive operational and analytical talent is working very hard to avoid on behalf of us all.

 

Crispin Blunt

Prisons and Probation Minister

 

 

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