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Radicalization In European Prisons Between Prevention And Instrumentalization Of Religion – OpEd


While forms of radicalisation have been on the rise worldwide, some young Muslims, especially in European prisons, seem to get caught up in religious fundamentalism, and increasingly become entangled in Jihadist ideologies such as that of ISIS.

Among other things, the increase of terrorist attacks and populism in Europe have made it more necessary to understand the ideological currents leading to extremism, as well as the political discourse around strategies of preventing radicalisation.

This article addresses the following four points: The definition of radicalisation as a phenomenon, the definition of instrumentlisation of religion, religiously framed countermeasures to radicalisation, and the dangers thereof.

Radicalisation as a Phenomenon

While radicalisation is a process that can lead to both violent and non-violent extremism, it can be seen on the level of individuals, groups, communities, societies and even states. Radicalisation represents a contemporary phenomenon, which cannot be limited to a specific ideology or region.

Under violent extremism, the following forms can be identified: global Jihadism such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, right-wing extremism (neo-Nazi and skinheads), and left-wing extremism (communist and anarchic currents).

Under non-violent extremism, we can identify, for example, anti-democratic activism. However, there are ideological forms that apply to both classifications such as Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since there are various reasons for extremism such as frustration, discrimination, humiliation, compartmentalisation, alienation and feeling of injustice, it is not helpful to discuss these socio-political issues from a religious perspective.

In a television interview, “Islamic spiritual carer” Ramazan Demir in Austria said: “Most [prisoners] have really had problems – social problems. They are people who have experienced discrimination in the past.

In Austria, we – Islamic spiritual carers and Islamic religious teachers – want to tell the Muslim youth: ‘you are Austrians. You are at home’”.

When we scrutinise this Islamic pastor’s statement, we immediately understand that the problem does not seem to be religious. Perhaps social workers or psychologists would better cover this area. It is necessary to discuss how the prisoners are socialised and why they were imprisoned. The problem seems to lie somewhere else. While it could be religious in very few cases, it is primarily social, political, economic or psychological.

Political Instrumentalisation of Islam

Political Instrumentalisation of Islam means that ‘Islam’ serves as a means of pursuing a political aim or relating to Islam’s function and organisational power structures and networks as a means to a political end. Thus the process of political Instrumentalisation of Islam raises the issue of the genuineness of someone’s belief when using religion intentionally and unintentionally, especially that the end goal is political or has a political impact.

Religion, as a system of beliefs and a process of production of ideas and values in social life, manifests itself through discourses, which might be ambiguous. Ambiguity arises from a lack of distinction between two levels of discourse:

On the one level, these discourses are instrumental in conveying religious meanings. On the other level, these discourses reflect interests of individuals, communities, organisations and governments.

This ambiguity leaves a space for political actors to “positively or negatively” instrumentlise religion to accomplish distinctive political aims. This interest in religion as such emerges from ideology’s distinctive form of social organisation to legitimatise specific forms of authority and to solve contradictions in a specific society.

When politicians resort to religious distinctive functions, they are mainly borrowing authenticity, legitimacy, and credibility. Thus, the categorisation of a positive or negative instrumentalisation of religion in politics primarily depends on the actors, who are actually exercising it. “Political instrumentalisation of religion” as a practice in one specific domain or issue such as “preventing radicalisation” could extend to other domains or issues. Where should the lines be drawn and who has the right to do so?

In this concern, a pressing question begs for an answer: Why do we always keep excavating in religious symbols, rituals and elements, when advancing a socio-political discourse around radicalisation, which is supposed to be purely about political or economic interests? Clearly scientifically researched arguments remain lacking in this discourse.

Religiously Framed Prevention Strategies

Obviously prisons could be incubators for radicalisation. According to media reports, two of the French, who perpetrated the terrorist attacks against the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, had become radicalised behind bars. The EU Anti-Terrorism Commissioner Gilles De Kerchove confirmed in 2015, “Prisons are a breeding ground for radicalisation”.

As a countermeasure to radicalisation, politicians in Germany and elsewhere in Europe tend to resort to a so-called “positive” instrumentalisation of religion. This precisely means that politicians feel confortable to rely on imams’ monopoly of meaning to prevent radicalisation processes in prisons. Therefore, more federal states in Germany have started sending “Islamic spiritual carers” to detention centres for that purpose, as if there is a potential extremist hidden within every prisoner hails from a Muslim background. By employing “Islamic spiritual carers” in prisons, many politicians are hoping to render radicalisation efforts neutral. This countermeasure is a religiously framed prevention strategy because it is an extension of the function of the imam over the political domain.

According to Rauf Ceylan, professor of religion sociology at the University of Osnabrueck, “The concept of pastoral care does not occur in the Quran, but comes from a Christian tradition.”

The use of concept of “Islamic spiritual care” in Christianity in contemporary Europe is different from the way it is used in Islam. The main task of an Islamic spiritual carer seems to be concentrating on preventing radicalisation.

Dangers Lying Ahead

Western orientalists tend to propagate two views: First, cutting through the debate by deciding for Muslims which interpretation of religion is the right one for them. Second, accepting one specific aspect of Islamic thought, while ignoring all others. Based on this view, conceptual confusion persists, highlighting dividing lines not only among people of different beliefs, but also among Muslims themselves.

There are several dangers of political instrumentalisation of religion, which do not emerge from religions themselves, but rather from the cynical “use” by secular actors. Here I will concentrate on the above-mentioned example of “Islamic spiritual carers” in political discourse in Europe.

The hypothesis that prisoners with an Islamic background need Islamic spiritual carers is misleading. This shifts the political discourse from analysing radicalisation to analysing Islam.

Instead of focusing on social and political issues, discourses around radicalisation become primarily centred on religious issues. While religion could be a reason for radicalisation, the main reasons – social, political, economic and psychological – become on the periphery of the discourse. Moreover, such a discourse might risk abusing prisoners’ honest feelings. Here lies an instrumentalisation of religion that shifts the attention of prisoners to religion rather than to the reasons of why they are in prison in the first place. Thus, the lack of separation, between the political and social domains on one hand and the religious on the other, crumbles into a distorted worldview.

The hypothesis that political instrumentalisation of religion prevents radicalisation is not sustainable as a prevention strategy because it is true enough in what it asserts but false in what it denies.

The allocation of “Islamic spiritual carers” to prisons, it can be assumed, is a good concept for those Muslims who would like to practise their religion, but it is not enough to prevent radicalisation processes because according to different studies many other reasons besides religion are at play.

The tasks of “Islamic spiritual carers” are various and include, for example, enlightening, informing and de-radicalising. Therefore, the people who work as Islamic spiritual carers in these prisons are not professionally qualified. Therefore, assigning these tasks to the religious domain remains questionable.

The hypothesis that Muslim prisoners need to know more about their religion to be peaceful is illogical. This utterance is true in terms of syntax but false in terms of semantics. Many Muslims do not know much about their religion or maybe nothing at all but they remain peaceful.

This argument also implies a rather awkward proposition and that is: There is a lack of religion and religiosity among Muslim inmates. How does this hypothesis serve the process of de-radicalisation? Perhaps nothing.

But this hypothesis contributes to reinforcing the narrative that Muslims are disadvantaged in European countries because they are not allowed to practise their religion. Therefore, the proposition that Muslim criminals have become so because they didn’t follow the teachings of Islam is also dismissible.

The hypothesis that the state, any state in Europe, is guilty if some Muslim prisoners slip into radicalisation in prison due to the lack of Islamic spiritual carers is not only a polemic but also a false proposition.

It is an instance of false consciousness. While it is true as a piece of language, it is false as piece of discourse. What if they had “Islamic spiritual carers”, but nevertheless, slipped into radicalisation? Would the “Islamic spiritual carers” be guilty? The sate? Islam?

On the one hand, when religion is strengthened in the political sphere, it could increase the dogmatic understanding of the political constructs.
On the other hand, politics destroys religion by making compromises and making concessions. In conclusion, it can be said that further prevention strategies are necessary, which are not only focused on the religious sphere.

This article appeared on MPC Journal.

Hakim Khatib

Hakim Khatib is a political scientist and analyst works as a lecturer for politics and culture of the Middle East, intercultural communication and journalism at Fulda and Darmstadt Universities of Applied Sciences and Phillips University Marburg. Hakim is a PhD candidate in political science on political instrumentalisation of Islam in the Middle East and its implications on political development at the University of Duisburg-Essen and the editor-in-chief of the Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal (MPC Journal).

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