Muslim chaplains in prison, “formidable” work lacking direction

“Formidable work, but not encouraged.” Thirty year-old Ammar Maireche is training in Nièvre to become an imam and chaplain and would like to work in France’s prisons to combat the problem of radicalization. However, the lack of available resources has severely limited his ability to achieve his goal. The European Institute of Human Sciences (IESH) hosts some 220 students, men and women, who come from all over Europe to learn Arabic and Islamic theology. Throughout the course of seven years, each year around a dozen of graduates become imams and among them several become chaplains.

“The chaplaincy has not been supported and people are discouraged because there are not enough people. There is the financial aspect (only the costs are reimbursed,) and the prison does not provide enough resources so that the imam can help where it is needed,” explained Maireche.

“Everyone knows it’s impossible to support yourself from only this work,” he said. Radicalization of certain prisoners is for him “a real problem,” of which responsibility is “shared” between the Muslim community, who must portray a peaceful Islam, the politicians who must create more jobs, and the media.”

Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, who launched terror attacks January 7 and 9 in Paris, were radicalized in prison. To combat this phenomenon, the government announced they would hire an additional 60 Muslim chaplains, and promised the creation of five “ living quarters” to isolate radicalized detainees.

There are several problems involved in ameliorating the problem. The Institute’s director Zuhair Mahmood stated: “we can only produce five to ten imams each year, we can’t do more.” As well as the fact that “a chaplain must be better formed than an imam because prison, it’s the hardest area, it’s where there is the most need for pacification.”

The days at the school consist of both classes and daily prayer. Some women wear the veil, and several men are dressed in traditional garb. Jean-Jacques Pierre-Joseph, a 42-year-old convert who is an administrator at IESH and a prison chaplain, deplores the job’s “crisis of direction,” due in particular to its volunteer nature and the lack of personnel. In France, 182 Muslim chaplains are available for more than 200 prisons.

In prison, the chaplain plays “a theological role, but also has a social dominance as well, an ear for listening like a psychologist,” said Pierre-Joseph. Because “among the roots of radicalization, there are underlying elements such as instruction, the economy, frustrations and stigmatizations. Radicalization, it’s more about taking a position against the system, more than conveying religious ideas.”

Faced with this, “there shouldn’t be fear of confrontation, we must promote dialogue. We must work hard and sometimes ask anger-provoking questions in order to regulate them,” he said.

However Pierre-Joseph remains “completely opposed” to the prison living quarters dedicated, which would be even more of a “stigmatization,” for Muslims. “We can’t say that we want to reinsert these people into society while putting them at the margins,” he argued.

Following a visit to the United Nations on February 10, Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, believed that prison was “one of the breeding-grounds” of extremism but “not the principal site of radicalization,” stating that only sixteen percent of people charged with terrorism had a criminal background.