Playing the sectarian card: Britain’s Ministry of Justice is unfairly targeting Muslim prison chaplains
Yesterday, news came of a soon-to-be-released Ministry of Justice (MOJ) report, which will argue that Muslim chaplains are part of the problem of radicalisation in UK prisons. Given that the government has trailed the report in the Sunday Times (“Most jail imams teach anti-western values”, 07/02/2016, p.7) and the Mail on Sunday (“Majority of prison imams are ‘teaching anti-western’ values that promote gender segregation, study claims”, 07/02/2016) and played the sectarian card, it is a highly premeditated political intervention. Pointing fingers at chaplains of the Deobandi Sunni persuasion, who are said to make up 140 of 200 Muslim prison chaplains, a senior Whitehall official is quoted as saying that, “It is of great concern that the majority of Muslim chaplains in prisons propagate a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic scripture which is contrary to British values and human rights. Such imams are unlikely to aid the deradicalisation of Islamists in prisons and could potentially even make them more firm in their beliefs.” And in his major speech on prison reform today, the Prime Minister promised that he was prepared to make major changes if necessary on the basis of the recommendations of the MOJ report. The appointment of Peter Clarke as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons this month, Scotland Yard’s former head of counter-terrorism whom the government has previously deployed as a counter-extremism troubleshooter in the education and the charity sectors, signals the MOJ’s intent to construe prisons in the same light: as a hotbed of “extremist entryism”, with the potential to look at Muslim inmates without terrorism offences and Muslim chaplains in the same light as convicted terrorist offenders.
The Quilliam Foundation has stepped in to support the MOJ in identifying Deobandi prison chaplains as a particular problem. Usama Hasan, a senior researcher there, is reported by the Sunday Times as saying that “[t]he Deobandi movement is generally anti-western and anti-integration in its spirit … Imams in the prison system have to be more progressive and open-minded in terms of being supportive of modern, multicultural and cosmopolitan Britain.” The Foundation has prior form in this regard: its 2009 report on prisons, Unlocking Al-Qaeda, made essentially the same claims about Deobandi prison chaplains (pp. 33, 42, 101) and recommended a reduction in their numbers (p.108).
Reading between the lines, it seems as if Ahtesham Ali, the current Muslim Advisor to the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), is being set up as the fall guy for appointing many of these Deobandi chaplains. A damage limitation exercise on behalf of Ali is already under way to argue that he is neither an extremist nor of a particular sectarian persuasion by anonymous sources quoted in the Sunday Times. That is all very well, but what about some damage limitation on behalf of these Muslim chaplains who have rendered a great deal of public service in prisons for many years? Who is going to speak up for them?
It is naïve to expect fair play and even-handedness, or a reliance on evidence or the measured conclusions of academic research, especially where the incumbent minister, Michael Gove, is concerned. The news reporting and, one must surmise, the forthcoming MOJ report rely on the fallacious idea that the Deoband school is stuck in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, in the context of its original anti-colonial foundations (ignoring massive transformations since, both in the Subcontinent and the diaspora). It also seems to have discounted the findings of the three-year AHRC/ESRC ‘Religion and Society’ research study on Muslim chaplaincy in Britain (2008–2011) carried out by the University of Cardiff. That study acknowledged the conservative orientation of Deobandi chaplains but also found that pastoral practice in the challenging prison environment and working within a multi-faith chaplaincy team had a transformative effect:
Muslim chaplains working across most sectors learn new attitudes from their experiences. While they often tend to start with normative, didactic approaches that are directed towards their co-religionists, their experiences of working with all kinds of people in a multi-faith environment seem to inculcate within them attitudes of empathy, person-centredness, equality, broad-mindedness, openness, approachability, supportiveness, tolerance, non-judgementalism, non-directedness, compassion, patience and humility. (Gilliat-Ray, Ali and Pattison, Understanding Muslim Chaplaincy, p.175)
The Cardiff team also found that, when called to do so, Muslim chaplains provided genuine pastoral care for non-Muslim inmates. Furthermore, the study established that Muslim chaplains’ pastoral training and experience was having an impact on the mosque imamate in Britain, giving more profile and credence to the pastoral dimension in serving local communities. It also argued that the preponderance of Deobandi seminarians among Muslim prison chaplains was largely due to the huge investment in imam training that this denomination has made in Britain, more so than any other Sunni or Shia group.
Another factor that the Cardiff research team did not mention was that, after 7/7, the government wanted Muslim prison chaplains to have theological training as part of the professionalization of the sector and for them to possess the wherewithal to tackle the arguments of violent extremists. Again, this policy shift favoured Deobandi applicants who already had the necessary qualifications to hand. That said, the main formal role of Muslim chaplains remains pastoral and aimed at the spiritual welfare of the general Muslim prison population, yet they have made informal efforts to tackle extremist ideas within this primary remit, and have facilitated greater cultural awareness and understanding of prison staff about mainstream Muslim beliefs in the context of radicalisation (Gilliat-Ray et al, p.110). Overall, however, they have not been formally involved in theological deradicalisation efforts aimed at inmates with terrorist offences, for which outside specialists have been brought in with the collaboration of the authorities (HM Prison Service, Muslim Prisoners’ Experiences, 2010, p.35, Para 7.12).
For all those who agree that Muslim prison chaplaincy in Britain has been a growing and largely successful sector over the last two decades with a solid track record of public service and professional development, now is the time to make your voices heard. There is genuine fear that the government is now going to smear this sector as “extremist Muslim entryism”. Is the government going to brush aside all this dedicated public service and experience and start getting rid of people on the basis of lazy and pernicious sectarian labels? Where is the due process? Where is the expectation that professionals should be treated in a meritocratic way on the basis of their individual performances?
From my sources, I am hearing that many Muslim prison chaplains are feeling resigned to losing their jobs, and that, as public servants, they have no right to speak out if Mr Gove — who is ultimately their boss — is going to sack them. How terrible it is that even high-achieving Muslim professionals feel so isolated and demoralised that they cannot defend themselves against such baseless smears? And more importantly where will that leave the pastoral and spiritual care of Muslim inmates who sadly now make up 12% of the prison population? It is hard not to see this as anything other than institutional Islamophobia being sanctioned at the highest level, which could have really damaging and deleterious effects. Now is the time to speak up and set the record straight.