Muslim prison chaplains: radicalisation threats or convenient scapegoats?

Muslim prison chaplains: radicalisation threats or convenient scapegoats?
6 min read
30 Mar, 2017
Blog: Reports that the Westminster attacker converted to Islam in prison reopens the question on radicalisation in British prisons.

Khalid Masood, a 52-year-old Muslim convert originally named Adrian Russell, killed five people and injured 50 in an attack on London's Westminster Bridge last Wednesday. A childhood friend indicated that Masood converted to Islam in prison.

Masood first went to jail at the age of 18, and continued to get in trouble for petty crimes throughout his young adulthood. His most serious conviction came as a result of a racially-motivated knife attack.

Masood later spent four years in Saudi Arabia teaching English as a foreign language.

But it is his time in jail that is being scrutinised as the possible source of his radicalisation. And the notion that British prisons are a breeding ground for radical Islam is not a novel one.

Muslim prison chaplains have come under fire for being the source of radicalisation of inmates - however, according to various NGOs working in partnership with HM Prison Service, this blame is nothing more than repressed Islamophobia and another example of the chronic suppression of British Muslims both inside and outside prison.

A Ministry of Justice report last year concluded that, while most of the 69 full time, 65 part-time and 110 sessional Muslim prison chaplains "were dedicated members of staff and did good and useful work, there is also evidence of a weak understanding and effective approach to [Islamist Extremism]".

Around two-thirds of Muslim chaplains are thought to belong to the conservative Deobandi denomination, which follows an Orthodox Sunni theology that has its roots in South Asia as a reaction to British colonialism. The majority of Islamic literature available in prison libraries was also provided by the Deobandi tradition.

When the report was leaked to The Sunday Times, right-wing pundits blasted the prison service for recruiting chaplains promoting "fundamentalist interpretations... contrary to British values and human rights".

But who are these Muslim chaplains? How can the British government employ so many without any red flags being raised? 

Chaplains are easy to brand as radical because they preach religious narratives. The reality is, chaplains are very heavily vetted

Training to become a Muslim chaplain is a two-part process. First is an eight-month theory course that does not include any teaching of Islamic theology, but focuses on counselling and interfaith relations.

The second is a placement scheme that allows future chaplains to train with already qualified chaplains.

Adam Nezar, CEO of VIP Minds, a community outreach organisation, has worked with Muslim prisoners for more than a decade. Nezar strongly disputes the notion that chaplains are the source of radicalisation, dismissing such claims as an oversimplification of many complex issues.

"Chaplains are easy to brand as radical because they preach religious narratives," Nazar explained. "The reality is, chaplains are very heavily vetted: they must pass the strict criminal background check (DBS), and they are sometimes even asked to undergo psychometric tests."

Gang culture

Abdul was sentenced to life in prison on terrorism-related charges at the age of 23.

Suffering from mental health issues, he was admitted for psychological evaluation on multiple occasions. Due to his age and fragile mental state he kept to himself for much of the time, which meant he stayed away from the prison's Muslim gang.

The fact that Abdul was Muslim did not protect him, in fact it was the very reason he faced bullying from fellow Muslim inmates.

They were angry that he refused to join their gang or even socialise with them. They constantly pressured him, saying he was "not a good Muslim" for distancing himself from his Muslim "brothers".

With time, the verbal pressure turned to physical harassment.

It was his Jewish cellmate that offered Abdul protection and saved him from the bullying of his fellow Muslims. His friendship with the man that defended him did not only ensure that he was not physically harmed, it also changed the way Abdul saw the world and those different from him.

He was released on probation at the age of 36. 

Muslim inmates, like many other inmates, often come from troubled backgrounds that are sometimes violent. Also like other inmates, gang activity among Muslim inmates is commonplace.

Community activist Ismael Lea South knows from first-hand experience that the issue of radicalisation in prisons is not the fault of Muslim chaplains but Muslim gangs.

"The chaplains are stuck between a rock and a hard place," South explains. "Gangsters appoint themselves as Imams. Other inmates relate to these gangster Imams more than they relate to prison chaplains - because most chaplains are not UK-born and come from a culture different from one that inmates relate to, so they are seen as outsiders."

Like other racial groups, Muslims in prison use their shared identity to create a sense of fraternity.

These prison cliques often seem essential for survival while incarcerated. According to South, Muslim prisoners rely on one another for protection and for connections and networks once they are released from prison.

The majority of chaplains are moderate and peaceful, the true problem is the gangs

London's Muslim gang culture is unique because of an open territory.

This means that a member of a Muslim gang in Wembley, for example, can easily to do business in Hackney - with the blessing and protection of local Muslim gang members, says Lea South.

Other race-based gangs seem not to have this form of comradery, and often fight among themselves over territory, he adds.

This makes Muslim gangs very appealing to prisoners, reportedly becoming a leading cause of conversions to Islam in prison.

"The majority of chaplains are moderate and peaceful, the true problem is the gangs," he says. "The government stops funding youth clubs, and when they are forced to shut down these young people have no place to go but the streets. There isn't a problem with Islamic extremism, the problems are social and economic."

These problems are magnified when they are labelled and treated as issues of Islamic radicalisation.

It has become common and acceptable to think that Muslim criminals are some special type of criminal, that they don't have the same motivations in their lives or are somehow more inclined to commit certain types of crime.

This image of Muslims leaves little space for Muslim prisoners to reform themselves, and even moves them towards the radicalisation narratives they are continuously branded with anyway.

"Many of the prisoners feel victimised and marginalised. There is little or no diversity training so the guards are constantly saying the wrong thing - it creates a very dangerous us-vs-them mentality," said Lea South, himself a convert to Islam and a consultant to Islamic urban projects as well as inner-city youth groups fighting drug use and anti-social behaviour.

Islamophobia and radicalisation may in fact be two faces of the same coin.

It took less than an hour for the Muslim Council of Britain to condemn the Westminster attack, while Tommy Robinson ranted about Muslims at the scene of the tragedy - all before it was announced that the attacker was a Muslim.

But it is important to remember that Khalid Masood was a criminal first, long before he became a Muslim.  

Gehad Quisay is a history and politics researcher, having graduated from SOAS and Georgetown University. She has also worked as a researcher at a London based think-tank focusing on post-Arab Spring nation building.