Tag Archives: Quilliam Foundation

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 Ahtsham 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.

Update One: In mid-March, Middle Eastern Eye reported that Sir Michael Spurr, Head of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS)  wrote a letter to prison governors, responding to the newspaper stories, describing allegations of extremism as ‘disgraceful’. While he would await the recommendations of the MOJ report, he defended the existing vetting and recruitment process for Muslim chaplains and commended their service, and praised the ‘characteristic resilience and dignity’ of Ahtsham Ali in response to the pressure he had been put under.

A month later, some of the MOJ’s report’s findings were leaked in the Times (19 April 2016, pp.1, 6, 29 (£, paywall)), although it had not been cleared for release by Number 10. Apparently the report ‘pulled no punches’ and offers 69 recommendations, stating that NOMS suffered from managerial weaknesses when it comes to tackling extremism.  The headline conclusions leaked to the Times were:

(i) Extremist literature was found in more than ten prisons, and there was ‘little or no assessment of the suitability of Islamic literature before it was distributed to “impressionable minds”.’

(ii) Chaplains at several jails were found to have encouraged prisoners to raise monies for Islamic charities that had links to international terrorism.

(iii) Prison chaplains were judged to be under-prepared for counter-radicalisation responsibilities: ‘sometimes they lacked the capability, but often because they didn’t have the will.’

(iv) The report claims to have found evidence that chaplains from other persuasions felt ‘marginalised, bullied and intimidated’ by the dominant Deobandi viewpoint in prison chaplaincies.

Sir Michael Spurr and Ahtsham Ali as well as the Bury Dar al-Ulum came under renewed criticism in these Times articles.

Whatever the merit of these serious allegations, only minimal details have been leaked, so it is too soon to know how substantive they are. That said, it should be noted that the MOJ has again demonstrated its predilection for politically-motivated leaks, and that the political focus has intensified in the last month with the BBC’s two-part investigation ‘The Deobandis‘ on Radio 4.

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This Dance between “Extremists” and “Formers” is Past Its Sell-By Date: A Review of ITV’s “Jihad” Documentary

A lot of British Muslims who watched the Exposure documentary “Jihad: A British Story” on ITV last night probably did so with a powerful sense of déjà vu. But not for the emotional reasons one might think, not with feelings of collective guilt or shame. Rather I would hazard a guess that feelings of jadedness and ennui predominated instead. That sounds shockingly cynical, uncaring, even delusional, given that we have a very frightening and real problem of some British teens and even families going over the Turkish borders to join ISIS.

So why is there such a reaction? Well, we have been here before. Former extremists dramatize their personal stories to overshadow all of our community’s multifarious and untold human stories to feed a dominant meme of the post-9/11 world: namely, that this complex geopolitical crisis is really all about maladjusted Muslim men. The stories about the marginal Hizb ut-Tahrir and the minority Salafi movement have cast such a large shadow that almost nothing else about British Muslims in the eighties and nineties gets through into popular culture or the public debate nowadays, except perhaps the Satanic Verses Affair, which is problematic for different reasons.

Imagine for a moment that the retelling of Britain’s recent past is dominated by tales of splits on the hard left during the Cold War or the Militant Tendency and entryism, these being the only stories that get attention in popular culture and public life. Imagine even that parts of it were ghost-written by the Kremlin and sold as gospel truth to the British. It would be ridiculed and called out immediately. Let us at least pause therefore to consider why it is so much more difficult for a beleaguered minority community to call out a similar level of misrepresentation in any sort of impactful way. Its impotence at challenging this myth effectively explains why many British Muslims are jaded and bored by a documentary like this. Pretty much everyone I speak to in the community feels irritated and exasperated: these stories are not our stories and the resentment at being misrepresented by them is palpable.

The everyday Muslim is hidden in these narratives: she who never ran to answer the call for the caliphate or  jihad, or took up the condemnations of traditional Muslim piety as false innovation, polytheistic and the like, who never had to grow up and later regret a misspent youth. She is an invisible cipher, present yet absent, a cardboard cut-out, an intangible rhetorical device used to gloss over the serious ramifications of putting marginal stories on the centre stage rather than in their proper context. She who has to put up with endless reiterations of the stale dance between the “extremists” and the “formers”. No wonder she is less than impressed.

These stories get marketed heavily through the publishing giants or the media companies. Such high-level exposure of one’s personal story remarketed as everyone else’s story too is the golden ticket for a now well-trodden and lucrative path towards a future career as a wealthy and feted “former”. The pitch to government is the same: we have a unique psychological insight into extremism and we know best how to counteract it. That proposition might even be tolerable if such work were done quietly and sensibly, but these “formers” (with no scholarly credentials) often then take on the mantle of great “reformers”, tasked with dragging Islam kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. The message may have changed but the modus operandi often has not: it is often hectoring criticism from the margins of community, oddly distant from the very people it seeks to transform and save from their benighted condition. Such a transition from “extremist” to “former” does not appear to be informed by repentance. For the most part, the “formers” are still angry with themselves and contemptuous and detached from their community. They do not forgive their community its many failings and weaknesses or love it despite its human frailties: they want to break it and transform it in their image, an image that is itself prey to their own nomadic, confused and tortuous journeying in search of belonging and a home.

However, the striking thing about Abu Muntasir in the documentary was that he has not forgiven himself. I know that there will be cynics out there but for me his tears were unquestionably real, and not staged. His sorrow about his role in the jihad is not new: it has been well-known for the last ten years in the community and was reported in the national press. And, publicly at least, this is rare among “formers”. They are for the most part still self-righteous, vocal and angry, and not repentant, humbled and happy to work quietly to make a better world.

My biggest objection to the narrative of the programme is that it provided no context for Abu Muntasir and his erstwhile camp followers. In the story of the British jihad, it is true that he was a pioneering figure and that he was not a minor character. He did have influence but only precariously so in the setting of a complex and disaggregated scene of small jihadi peer groups and networks in ferocious competition with each other. But it is a gross exaggeration to describe him as the “godfather of the British jihad”, as the filmmaker Deeyah Khan did. The British jihad was never centralised. It did not have a pyramidal mafia-style power structure. Yet this is the moniker for Abu Muntasir that the British and the international press has now run with. The mobster overtones were reinforced by filming these middle-aged British Muslim men with lighting and backdrops strongly redolent of how former gangsters lamenting their misspent youth are shot on camera. The ex-criminal visual tropes were all there. One has to ask why Abu Muntasir should acquiesce to this rebranding. This is a critical point, just as it was when the ex-Hizb ut-Tahrir members who formed the Quilliam Foundation sold themselves as central to the story of radicalization when their group was in reality quite distant and distinct from the various strands of Salafi jihadism.

In the documentary, another student of Abu Muntasir’s Alyas Karmani (disclaimer: an old school-friend of mine) did a lot to frame these stories as ones primarily about psychological maladjustment, for instance, sexual frustration (again, a theme that has cropped up over many decades to belittle all kinds of Muslim political agency, violent or non-violent, and discounted by terrorism experts such as Marc Sageman). I would not want to deny there are psychological issues but that these should not be assessed in such a way as to preclude politics, whether that is micro-, organisational, community, national or global. And it seems to me that to preclude (or even disparage) a political sensibility is one of the tacit preconditions for becoming a “former”. Yet such an apolitical stance fails to recognise let alone negotiate a complex multipolar world of clashing interests and conflict, a world after American hegemony. It not only infantilises “extremists” and “formers” but is also a roundabout way of occluding Muslim political agency in general. It absolves “the West” by removing it from the story entirely. Indeed, the psychodrama played out in the documentary between “extremists” and “formers” perpetuates a fiction that this story is only about a clash within the House of Islam.

The documentary went one step further in decontextualizing and depoliticising the story of the British jihad. It used the eighties and the nineties, the years before the al-Qaeda network became politically significant, to talk to our contemporary situation where a younger generation of jihadi millennials is being drawn to ISIS, which itself is in deadly competition with an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. However, Da‘esh, unlike al-Qaeda, is a highly centralised organisation that runs a proto-state the size of Britain. ISIS is offering an alternate society not just endless armed struggle like al-Qaeda did. It is neither smart nor wise to preclude politics and historical context to such an extent that we miss what is new and important about this generation or the appeal of ISIS.

So if we Britons care about our shared future we cannot therefore allow the stale waltz between “formers” and “extremists” to predominate, especially if it precludes any sort of intelligible political analysis or historical context. We need to be less tribal about narrow causes and narrow solutions, but that is easier said than done when big forces have become entrenched and self-interested in perpetuating and propagandizing one narrow solution or another. We all really need to step back and have a more honest and searching debate if we are to have any chance of getting purchase on the perplexing and frightening problem of ISIS’s current success and appeal.

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