Tag Archives: radicalisation

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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Channel referrals are shrouded in too much secrecy – we need better figures, and more transparency and accountability

Yesterday Richard Wheatstone of the Daily Mirror offered some new and alarming statistics about referrals under the government’s Channel policy, the government’s main counter-terrorism instrument. It is officially described as a multiagency approach to identify and then support individuals being drawn into terrorism, in which the police play a central role. From April 2012 to April 2015, the article “More than 900 British children identified as potential extremists at risk of radicalisation from ISIS and terror groups” (16 July 2015) revealed that 912 children have been referred to Channel.

An easily missable word in the article’s title is the qualifying adjective “potential”, but it is crucial not to skip over it. The official Channel guidance advises that, if in doubt about the merits of a case of “extremism”, the designated professional in a statutory public body (e.g. a school or a hospital) should refer it to a Channel Panel as a matter of precaution and not refer the case to another agency, e.g. social services, in the first instance. An earlier set of Channel referral figures from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) that covers the early years of the policy (2006-13) shows that four-fifths of referrals were rejected by Channel Panels (analysed here). Assuming that this proportion has not changed radically in the last two years, it is therefore fair to conclude that this article is scaremongering. Of course we all have legitimate concerns about how we could best stop serious cases like those of Talha Asmal (Dewsbury) or Zahra and Salma Halane (Manchester) happening again in future but Wheatstone’s failure to mention that 80% of referrals are rejected because they do not raise any serious concerns means that this piece is grossly misleading.

Secondly, the piece features a regional breakdown for referrals and uses these figures to provide a macabre “extremism” league table of sorts. (Channel Referrals 2012-15 (Under 18s*): North West 191, South East 151, London 126, North East 120, West Midlands 117, East Midlands 106, Wales 41, East of England 53, South West 13.) However, keeping the principles of transparency and public accountability in mind, I think they tell us very little unless these gross figures are accompanied by the referrals rejection rate in each region, or, better still, for each Channel Panel. It is also important to know what kinds of extremism we are looking at in each region: Daesh (ISIS, ISIL, or IS), far right, etc., to put this regional breakdown into a proper context; otherwise, it is erroneous to make a quick assumption about Muslim terror hotspots as Wheatstone does. This alarmist theme of local terror hotspots has been picked up and run in similar terms by regional outlets such as the Birmingham MailWales Online or the Chronicle (Newcastle).

Thirdly, Wheatstone says that “the majority of the cases” relate to what he refers to as “Islamic extremism”. He does not provide a figure. In the most recent figures in the public domain for 2012-13, 57% of those referred were Muslim. Has this figure changed substantially or not? Are we still looking at a simple majority in the average rate for the last three years or not?

Finally, some broad trends can be discerned by comparing the aggregated sets of figures, although they are awkward to work with. The two sets of figures overlap by a year and the age breakdown also differs between them. For the period 2006-13, children aged 13-16 accounted for 645 referrals out of 2653 or 24% of all cases. For the period 2012-15, children aged 12-17* accounted for 834 referrals out of 2335 or 36% of all cases. For the period 2006-13, children aged 12 or under made up 4% of all cases (113 out of 2653); for 2012-15, children under 12 also made up 4% of all cases (84 out of 2335).

Despite the awkwardness in comparing these two sets of figures, perhaps a few tentative observations are in order. In the last few years, the numbers of teenagers being referred has increased somewhat, while the numbers of under-12s being referred has remained roughly the same. Between 2006-13, a fifth of referrals came from schools, so It is reasonable to assume that, with the growing number of teenage cases, the percentage of school referrals is likely to have increased in the last two years. Since the introduction of the statutory Prevent duty in July 2015 it is likely to climb higher still, particularly when our kids go back to school in September after the summer holidays.

To conclude, whatever one’s overall assessment of Channel, I would hope that everyone might agree that it is shrouded in far too much secrecy, something that becomes ever more apparent as it grows in size, reach and impact. It is in the public interest therefore that proper information about referrals, that includes a detailed breakdown of rejction rates, region, age, religious affiliation, gender, and kinds of “extremism”, is regularly released into the public domain in the interests of transparency and public accountability. (Comparing “apples” and “oranges”, as this exercise in analysing sporadic information released under Freedom of Information requests shows, is obviously limited and unsatisfactory.) Clear and comprehensive information would allow for the proper democratic scrutiny of Prevent’s impact and performance from civil society groups, academia, the Home Office Affairs Select Committee or the still-to-be-initiated (according to one appointed member, Lord Carlyle, on the radio the other week) Prevent Oversight Board, the government’s own internal monitoring mechanism. Otherwise, how else are we to know for sure that referrals under Channel are either proportionate, fair, effective, non-prejudicial, or (ultimately) justified? Bland assurances from politicians, the police and Prevent industry insiders will not suffice. In a democracy, one rightfully expects much more.

* Assuming that Wheatstone is referring to the legal definition of a child in England and Wales as being someone under 18 years of age, when he uses terms like “children” and “kids”.

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Filed under Education, Ghuluw, Terrorism, UK Politics