We Must Stop Extremists in Prison Spreading Their Hate
17 Mar 2016
The history of jihadism tells us that extremists thrive in prisons. Their arguments must be challenged behind bars to counter the danger they pose in the long-term
Today Britain's jails provide fertile soil for extremism to grow. In 2002, there were 5,502 inmates who said they were Muslim. By 2014 the number had more than doubled, with more than 12,000 prisoners in England and Wales who claimed to be Muslim.
As terrorism-related convictions increase, radical ideas risk taking root. From al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamist extremists earn prestige and new contacts in prison. Radical ideas incubate in jail and across the world prisons are ripe breeding grounds for extremists.
In Syria, President Assad knew this when he released terrorists from prison in 2011, knowing full well that, together with Iraq's former prisoners, they would create an organisation such as Islamic State.
The vulnerability of prisoners make them targets for recruiters.
The seclusion of prison and the vulnerability of other prisoners to a "life-changing" experience, to seeking redemption, make them targets for recruiters. Gang violence and intimidation are yesterday's problems: now, the new cool kids who provide protection in prisons are international terrorists and their networks.
The rise of radicalism in prisons is not an isolated problem but a reflection of the type of Islam that is on the increase in our midst. It is a political Islam of confrontation, destruction and anger — not the soft Islam of reflection, compassion and peace. Reports of forced conversions to Islam in British prisons therefore must not be taken lightly. The Koran explicitly states that "there is to be no compulsion in religion". The bullying of non-Muslims by bigots must end.
This new, modern Islam of fury that is connected to the fires of the Middle East cannot be ignored. Our Government would be mistaken "to leave Islam to Muslims". The brand of Islam that spreads in our universities, mosques, schools and prisons has an impact on our country's security. Whether in prisons or elsewhere, we cannot turn a blind eye to Saudi-style Wahhabi intolerance.
Instead, we must take sides in this battle of ideas within Islam. The mainstream majority is backed by more than 1,000 years of scholarship. They are the Muslims who gave us the beauty of the Taj Mahal in India and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. It is by summoning this strain of art, beauty and spirituality in Islam that we will overcome the ugliness and anger.
Prison authorities should protect vulnerable non-Muslim prisoners by adopting a zero-tolerance attitude towards the brainwashing efforts of extremists. Where such measures do not work, Salafist Jihadists should be placed in separate units where they only bicker among themselves. Amid their own arguments, they often see the flaws of their ways. They do not possess the unquestioned truth — theirs is a man-made worldview full of holes.
This article was originally published in the London Evening Standard.