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Ministry of Justice looks set to target Muslim prison chaplains

26th Feb 2016

Yahya Birt

A forthcoming Ministry of Justice report will argue that Muslim chaplains are part of the radicalisation problem in UK prisons. Quoted in the Sunday Times, an anonymous Whitehall official has described Deobandi Sunni chaplains as holding views “contrary to British values and human rights” and as “unlikely to aid [in] deradicalisation”, with the potential to make “radical Islamists” firmer in their beliefs.

The Prime Minister has signalled his willingness to implement the report, and the appointment of Peter Clarke, Scotland Yard’s former head of counter-terrorism, as the Chief Inspector of Prisons, demonstrates the Ministry’s determination to tackle “extremism”. The spotlight will widen beyond terrorist offenders to include Muslim inmates without terrorism offences and Muslim chaplains.

The Ministry’s leaks to the Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday play the sectarian card and ignore sober academic research, and leave British Muslims with little optimism that the report will be fair. The Deoband school is portrayed as stuck in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, in the context of its anti-colonial origins, ignoring massive changes since. And the findings of a major study on Muslim chaplaincy carried out by the University of Cardiff have also been ignored.

That study acknowledged the conservative orientation of Deobandi chaplains but found that pastoral practice and working within a multi-faith chaplaincy team had a transformative effect. Muslim chaplains learnt new attitudes in the workplace, leaving aside a focus on rigid orthodoxy and their own faith community for empathy and open-mindedness, while working in a multi-faith environment.

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 had an impact on the mosque imamate in Britain, giving more profile and credence to the pastoral dimension in serving local communities.

The Government leaks indicate that the preponderance of Deobandis among Muslim prison chaplains is seen as a bad thing, with questions being asked about their appointment. However, their domination is largely due to the huge investment in imam training Deobandis have made in Britain, more than any other group. Secondly, after 7/7, the government sought Muslim prison chaplains with theological training to encourage more professionalization of the sector, which favoured Deobandi applicants who already had the necessary qualifications to hand.

The main role of Muslim chaplains is pastoral and deals with spiritual welfare of the general Muslim prison population. Some informal efforts tackle extremist ideas, and facilitate the greater understanding of prison staff about mainstream Muslim beliefs. However, it is outside specialists not Muslim chaplains who have been brought in by the authorities to de-radicalise inmates with terrorist offences.

Over the last two decades, Muslim prison chaplaincy in Britain has been widely seen as a growing and successful sector with a solid track record of public service and professional development. But there is widespread concern among Muslim prison chaplains that they are going to be smeared as “Muslim extremist entryists”, repeating the pattern seen in education and the third sector. Many are fearful that unfair dismissals on the basis of lazy and pernicious stereotyping will be the order of the day rather than fair assessment on the basis of individual performances. They feel isolated and fearful of defending themselves in case they are labelled as troublemakers.

It is hard not to see this attack on Muslim chaplains as anything other than institutional Islamophobia, which could have very damaging effects. Getting rid of this experienced cohort of chaplains will place the pastoral care of Muslim inmates, who sadly now make up nearly 15% of the prison population, in peril.

Yahya Birt is a PhD candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. He is researching the history of post-war Muslim political activism in Britain. He writes in a personal capacity.

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