Wednesday, December 08, 2004


Al Qaeda: The Next Generation

Only this time they'll be homegrown. Europe is eventually going to need to deal with this.
Islam in Jail: Europe's Neglect Breeds Angry Radicals


NANTERRE DETENTION CENTER, France - Abdullah, tall and muscular, with a shaved head and closely cropped goatee, sat on a metal bunk in the cramped cell here and described how he got religion. "When I was in La Santé, I read books about the Prophet," he said, referring to a notorious Parisian detention center, the third of five jails where he has spent time during the past two years for dealing drugs and stealing cars.

When he arrived at the fourth, Fleury-Merogis, Europe's largest, another inmate gave him a DVD about the life of Muhammad and later, while enduring a three-week stint in solitary confinement, he vowed to devote himself to Islam. "People here find God," he said.

In less than a decade, there has been a radical shift in France's prison population, a shift that officials and experts say poses a monumental challenge. Despite making up only 10 percent of the population, Muslims account for most of the country's inmates and a growing percentage of the prison populations in many other European countries, an indication of their place at the bottom of the Continent's hierarchy.

With radical strains of Islam percolating through Europe, authorities are unsure how to address the spiritual needs of the prisoners while guarding against the potentially toxic mix of extremist ideology and a criminal past. One result is often neglect, which officials say can be a still greater force for radicalization.

While there are no official data on issues of race and ethnicity in much of Europe - it is in fact illegal to keep such data in many places - experts on prison populations agree on the new disproportion of Muslims here and elsewhere.

Two months ago Pierre Raffin, the director of La Santé detention center, warned officials looking into the role of religion in France that extremist proselytizing in prisons was growing. Other countries are facing the same problem. Spain's chief counterterrorism magistrate, Baltazar Garzón, said recently that the men accused of plotting to blow up the country's main counterterrorism court were recruited from among fellow inmates by an Islamic militant serving time for credit card fraud. Most famously, Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a Miami-bound airliner in December 2001 using a bomb in his shoe, converted to Islam while in a British jail.

Those who are detained or convicted for terrorist-related crimes are not always separated from the larger prison population and are often ready to act as spiritual guides at a time when mainstream Muslim chaplains are in severely short supply.

Abdullah (prison rules prevented him from giving his last name) said that while he was at Fleury-Merogis, militants were active in the prison yard, preaching that Christians and Jews are enemy infidels. In May, the militants defied prison rules by organizing a prayer meeting during an exercise break. Several prisoners were disciplined as a result.

"Islam is becoming in Europe, especially France, the religion of the repressed, what Marxism was in Europe at one time," said Farhad Khosrokhavar, an Iranian-French scholar who has written a book on Islam in prisons. He says the growing Muslim prison population is evidence of an Islamic underclass that is developing across Europe and, at its margins, is increasingly sympathetic to the coalescing ideologies of political Islam.

Europe has been slow to adjust to the changing ethnic and religious makeup of its prison inmates. France, in particular, has resisted approving Muslim prison chaplains, worried that inadequate screening could unleash potential militants into the system.

Missoum Abdelmadjid Chaoui, the imam responsible for the Nanterre institution, says there are only eight Muslim chaplains for the nearly 20,000 Muslim inmates in the Paris region alone. He handles 9 of the area's 25 prisons himself, but works as a chaplain only part time.

Many people warn that neglecting the needs of Muslim prisoners breeds resentment and leaves them open for more radical interpretations of Islam.

Muslim inmates in France, which has Europe's largest Islamic community, complain that they are ignored in a system devised for a Christian population. Few of the country's prisons provide halal meat, butchered according to Islamic dietary laws, and fewer still hold regular religious services for Muslims, even though most Catholic inmates can attend Mass once a week.

In the French prison system, many prisoners spend as much as 21 hours a day locked behind windowless steel doors in their small cells. Meals are delivered to the cells and there is little opportunity to socialize with anyone but cellmates, except during the twice-daily exercise breaks in the small concrete prison yard.

The prisons' shifting demographics are engraved in the small brick- walled exercise yard in Fresnes, a detention center that acts as a hub in transferring inmates around the national prison system. Names carved into the bricks a century ago are all French. "Maurice Barbes, 1909," reads one. But those carved by the young men filling the yard these days are predominantly North African names like Oulmana, Chebbabi and Karim.

Many countries are making adjustments for their sizable Muslim prison populations. Britain now has more than 20 full-time, salaried chaplains and hundreds of volunteer imams who go into the prisons every week, while prisons in England and Wales hold regular Friday Prayer and provide halal food in the daily diet.

But at Nanterre, a model compared with many other French prisons, halal food is available only through the prison commissary. Bandjougou pointed to boxes of dates, halal ravioli and chicken sausage piled on a shelf in the cramped cell. "We have family that gives us money so that we can buy food," he said in the fading light from the cell's small window, "but if you have no money, you're out of luck."

The men cook the food over homemade stoves, illegal but widely tolerated, that they cobble together from tin cans, tissue paper and cooking oil. Muslims have the option of ordering vegetarian meals from the regular food service, but they say that the diet, like the missing imams, leaves them hungry.
Look, I can ridicule Bush's "war on terra" as much as any other leftblogger. And stigmatizing all Muslims is counterproductive not to mention wrong.

But the fact is, even if only a small percentage of Muslims are dangerous, that makes for a lot of nasty Muslims. I don't know what the solution is to integrating them into European society. I only know that if they aren't integrated, there is going to be serious trouble. In a world where you can get from Europe to North America in 6 hours, that's bad for everyone.
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