What to do about Islamic extremism in prisons?

24 August 2016

Christian Concern’s Director of Islamic Affairs, Tim Dieppe, discusses findings from the government’s review into Islamic extremism in UK prisons.

The Government commissioned a review into Islamic Extremism in British Prisons last year and a summary of the findings has now been published. The full report remains classified. Aspects of the findings had been leaked to the press earlier this year, and therefore come as no surprise. The review concludes that Islamic extremism is a growing problem in British prisons. It highlights Muslim gang cultures, aggressive encouragement of conversion to Islam, support for Islamic State, staff being pressured to leave Friday prayers unsupervised, and extremist literature being readily available, amongst other problems.

The review also concluded that “cultural sensitivity” among staff towards Muslim prisoners “has extended beyond the basic requirements of faith observance and could inhibit the effective confrontation of extremist views.” It also states that Islamic extremists were “exploiting the staff fear of being labelled racist.” This shows the confidence and boldness of these Islamic prisoners who are able to intimidate and pressurise, not just other prisoners, but prison officers and staff too.

The review accepts the government’s problematic definition of extremism which includes “mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs” in the list of “fundamental British values.” An extremist, then, is anyone who vocally or actively opposes these values. The problem is that this is a very vague definition. If I criticise another religion, then I could be seen to be disrespectful of that faith and therefore be classified as an extremist. This definition of extremism has been widely criticised for limiting free speech. The criticism has forced the government to re-think how to define extremism.

The report states that “Islamism – a politicised, expansionist version of Islam – is more ideology than faith, and is driven by intolerance and anti-Western sentiment.” This is mistaken. Islamists are much more motivated by faith than by politics. It is only a narrow secular worldview that fails to appreciate the extent to which faith motivates most people in the world today. Islamists are basing their actions and beliefs solidly on the Qur’an and the life and example of Muhammad. They are following the traditional texts and interpretations. Fundamentalist Islam is a political religion; faith is not separated from politics.

The government has announced that it will take various actions in response to this review. These include removal of extremist literature, improved vetting of prison imams, better staff training and recording of violent behaviour, and setting up specialist units to separate Islamic extremists from other prisoners. These are all steps in the right direction.

To really deal with Islamic extremism, the government needs to be willing to criticise Islam itself. The way extremism is defined shows the government’s unwillingness to reference Islam as the root of the problem. This particular review, at least, was focussed on Islamic extremism. However, the government needs to target and reference Islamic extremism in more of its policies.

We need Christian prison chaplains to have full freedom to openly criticise the claims of Islam and proclaim the redemptive truths of Christianity. We know that Muslim chaplains and prisoners are not afraid to criticise Christianity. Prison staff are intimidated by the confidence of the Muslims. The government should be funding training for chaplains and prison officers to be able to effectively respond to the claims of radical Islam which are being unashamedly preached inside our prisons.

Instead, political correctness rules which means that prison staff and Christian chaplains will continue to be intimidated by Muslims who boldly assert their rights. A Christian prison chaplain offering a message of forgiveness was disciplined for reading verses of the Bible that could be deemed offensive. He was supported by the Christian Legal Centre. How many Muslim chaplains have been disciplined for reading offensive verses from the Qur’an?

It is encouraging that the government is taking the actions they have proposed in response to this review. However, more needs to be done. Until we abandon the pervasive culture of political correctness that refuses to recognise any problem with the Qur’an or Islam itself, and that inhibits criticism of all religions other than Christianity, Islamists will continue to grow in strength and numbers. Christians need to be bold and assertive about the truth claims of Christianity without fear of offending others. The government should be promoting free speech so that people have no fear of being disciplined for quoting the Bible or criticising Islam. The claims of radical Islam will only be effectively countered by the stronger claims of radical Christianity. Islam is the root of the problem and we need to be able to say so, and to proclaim Christianity with confidence and boldness as the answer.

God loves prisoners and wants to offer them forgiveness and reconciliation. This is the message that should be being proclaimed in our prisons. Instead of being training and recruitment centres for radical Islam we should be seeing radical conversions to Christianity and changed and transformed lives as a result. Let us pray for prison chaplains and for Christian prison officers and prisoners to be bold and unashamed in their faith as they work in a very challenging environment.

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