France faces growing Muslim inmate problem - Seattle Post-Intelligencer, USA
- France faces growing Muslim inmate problem
Meeting needs is balanced against extremist threat
By CRAIG S. SMITH
THE NEW YORK TIMES
NANTERRE DETENTION CENTER, France -- Abdullah, tall
and muscular, with a shaved head and closely cropped
goatee, sat on a metal bunk in his cell and described
how he got religion.
"When I was in La Sante, 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.
France's prison population has risen by 20 percent in
the past three years, largely because of aggressive
pursuit of lower-level crimes. The proportion of
Muslims in prison has been growing even faster,
reflecting the relative youth of Europe's largely
While there are no official data on issues of race and
ethnicity in much of Europe -- it is in fact illegal
in many places -- experts on prison populations agree
on the new disproportion of Muslims here and
Two months ago Pierre Raffin, the director of La Sante
detention center, warned officials looking into the
role of religion in France that extremist
proselytizing in prisons was growing.
Other countries face the same problem. Most famously,
Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a Miami-bound
airliner in December 2001 using a bomb in his shoe,
converted to radical Islam while in a British jail.
Those who are detained or convicted of
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 there are few
mainstream Muslim chaplains.
Farhad Khosrokhavar, an Iranian-French scholar who has
written on Islam in prisons, says an Islamic
underclass is developing across Europe and, at its
margins, is increasingly sympathetic to the coalescing
ideologies of political Islam.
"Islam is becoming in Europe, especially France, the
religion of the repressed, what Marxism was in Europe
at one time," he said.
More about Muslims in France at:
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