To Fight Extremism, Should Muslims in French Prisons Receive More State-Sponsored Religious Services? January 27, 2015

To Fight Extremism, Should Muslims in French Prisons Receive More State-Sponsored Religious Services?

Farhad Khosrokhavar, a French-Iranian sociologist and author who is an expert on Muslim radicalization, has long scrutinized the role that French prisons play in breeding extremism.

In a piece in the New York Times, he says he believes that while Muslims in France comprise just seven to ten percent of the French population, half of French prisoners are Muslims. He isn’t quite sure, because

laïcité, France’s strict form of secularism, prohibits officially asking and collecting data about people’s religious preferences. These estimates are based on research I conducted in French prisons in 2000-3 and again in 2011-3, when I interviewed some 160 inmates.

That’s a relatively tiny sample, but if Khosrokhavar’s extrapolation is remotely true, that’s a pretty shocking state of affairs.

And Khosrokhavar (pictured below) is just getting started. Imprisoned Muslims believe — sometimes falsely, often not, says the sociologist — that they’re being treated unjustly overall. An inmate of Algerian origin complained

“If I try to take my prayer carpet to the courtyard, they prohibit it. If I grow a beard, the guards call me Bin Laden, smiling and mocking me. They hate Islam. But Islam can take revenge!

Others complain that halal meals are rarer than kosher ones, and that some prison authorities do not allow Muslims to join in weekly communal prayer.

Khosrokhavar is worried.

Radical preaching catches on because it offers young Muslim prisoners a way to escape their predicament and develop a fantasy of omnipotence by declaring death onto their oppressors. During my research in 2000-3, the prisoners idolized Khaled Kelkal, whose network killed eight people in a Paris subway station in 1995 to punish the French government for backing a military coup against an Islamist party in Algeria. A decade later their new icon was Mohammed Merah, who in 2012 shot down seven people, including soldiers and Jewish children, in the name of radical Islam; some inmates even impersonated him. Now the new celebrities will be the Kouachi brothers and [Amedy] Coulibaly.

In order to fight radicalization, Khosrokhavar proposes these measures:

Seasoned jihadists must be separated from untested radicals and the returnees from, say, Syria and Iraq, who may have been traumatized or disappointed by their experience of jihad and still stand a chance of being reintegrated into mainstream society. …

Collective Friday prayers should be allowed in all French prisons. … The government announced last week that 60 Muslim ministers would be trained to supplement the 182 or so currently in service. This is a welcome proposal. But at least three times as many ministers are needed, and they must be more uniformly distributed throughout the prisons. Above all, they will need to be coached to better understand and address the concerns of disaffected young Muslim prisoners.

He believes that first and foremost, respect for Islam is needed.

[R]eform must begin with respect. For if French prisons have become a breeding ground for radicalism, it is partly because they mistreat the Islamic faith itself.

I am skeptical that providing Islamic religious services, more halal food, and more Muslim prison guards will make a measurable dent (but read on). As for “more respect,” that’s always been a two-way street. Most of the inmates, by dint of the fact that they’ve been convicted of crimes, seem not to have given much respect to French society.

There’s something that goes beyond mere irritation when people who cheer on mass murders demand respect for their beliefs.

But what else can be done? If the alternative is business as usual (that is, continuing radicalization), I can see how Khosrokhavar’s approach is worth implementing.

(Image via Wikipedia)

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