Liz Truss announced recently the creation of special units in prisons to isolate hate preachers, so they could not “peddle poisonous ideology across the mainstream prison population.” Let us acknowledge that radicalisation in prisons has been a real problem for over a decade now, especially at the hands of Anjem Choudary and his minions, most commonly known as Al-Muhajirun. The basis of the measure, which is based on the Acheson Review, is sound and valid: reducing contact with prominent members and disrupting their social interactions can play a role in diminishing reach and influence in radicalising other inmates.
However the situation and policy responses are far from straight forward. Liz Truss would do well to take heed of the nuances and complexities of the situation in order to understand, if the policy should be modified or even pursued given the potential risks. The view of the Director of the Prison Reform Trust, Peter Dawson, was certainly that the strategy could only be effective as a short-term measure and dealt with half the problem, with lower security prisons hit hard by prison cuts, overlooked.
The most significant risk of creating separate units for high risk ‘extremist’ prisoners is to prevent contact with other prisoners, but at the cost of increasing their appeal due to the importance given to them as serious threats. Unfortunately for a group whose ideology and beliefs are incredibly primitive and only superficially religious, and whose members are largely made up of the socially deprived, they have garnered huge attention, initially from the media, who for a period could not believe how the imagined epitome of an Islamist extremist bogeyman actually existed.
So it is no wonder that Choudary was paraded out to cameras like a circus freak, while he saw himself as an emissary from a caliphate that exists only in his head. Interest in hearing his outlandish and grotesque views was immense and watching him spout hatred and admiration for terrorists was addictive viewing, even attracting media interest from far beyond Britain to Australia and the US. James O’Brien of LBC questioned after his arrest as to why the media had given him oxygen and increased his profile. His media profile may have grown his appeal amongst a small cross section of naïve disillusioned youth living in deprived and ghettoised communities, but more so, it contributed to increased Islamophobia and religious hatred owing to inevitably and wrongly being perceived as a representative of British Islam and Muslims.
Cameron’s clumsy and tokenistic Counter Extremism Strategy in its desperate attempt to define non-violent extremism as devoid of any connection with prevention of actual terrorism is also a response to Choudary’s views and ideology, which were frustratingly seen by Ministers as being despicable and intolerable, but falling short of the law. As it was his freedom of expression they sought to stem, they resorted to an incredibly vague and arbitrary notion of ‘extremism’ defined as opposition to fundamental British values of democracy, rule of law and tolerance of others.
And now in prisons, the announcement of specialist units coinciding with Choudary’s conviction suggests anxiety around the influence he may gain and status he may acquire within the prison population. If all this attention works to raise his profile and stature in prisons as an incarcerated hero of the oppressed and subjugated, Truss may be contributing to the very thing she seeks to avoid at all cost. Ultimately, and in order to be effective and sustainable in the long term, ideological threats must be fought with ideological responses. The Counter-narrative must come from within the Muslim prison population. However government policy has long failed to realise the importance of this, let alone have an idea of how to go about it.
Having spoken to a former Muslim prisoner, who observed first-hand the social dynamics and how Al Muhajirun operates within prisons, one of the reasons behind their appeal is tapping into a powerful undercurrent, shared by almost all prisoners, of being anti-authority. Additionally their twisted pseudo-religious world view creates a stark division between Islam and disbelief attaching a sense of derogatory dirtiness and filth to the latter. This in turn facilitates an easy blame mentality for all problems in the world including their own criminality at times, scapegoating the establishment, state and society for all ills. Prisons being highly tribal settings where those associations determine levels of safety, privilege and status, does not help readily to turn Muslim inmates against extremists. In fact they operate and exist within the larger body of Muslim inmates and seek out vulnerable individuals for potential radicalisation and membership.
As for the options for Muslim inmates to seek religious guidance as a route to rehabilitation, their choice is often limited, having to choose between Muslim chaplains or Imams, who are ethno-culturally conditioned, studied abroad and lack decent English proficiency. If interventions for those who are seen as extremists or at risk of radicalisation are provided through self-styled deradicalisation think tanks like Quilliam, who carry no religious authority or credibility, then it may be understandable why some may turn to the extremists.
Religious intervention in prisons should not only be employed for deradicalisation purposes, but in the provision of classes and ample opportunities for inmates to be exposed to mainstream Islamic teachings, which emphasise working towards the common good, as well as entrenching a religiously anchored aversion to criminality and an eagerness to enter civilian life. Such religious instruction should be by those who can relate to the predicament, identity and gang-cultures that inmates often emanate from. This approach would not only address potential risks of radicalisation far upstream but also lead to higher levels of rehabilitated and reintegrated prisoners, rather than those who become more hardened criminals following their sentences.