A top British official recently dismissed false media claims suggesting an inquiry into religious extremism within jails across the United Kingdom. Rejecting accusations of prison imams promoting beliefs contrary to British values, the head of the United Kingdom prison service put an end to speculation that a chief Muslim adviser could lose his job for allegedly recruiting imams from the conservative Deobandi tradition as a result of an investigation into growing religious radicalism within jails.
Writing to senior prison officials last month, Michael Spurr, head of National Management Offenders Service (NOMS), quashed media reports that had quoted anonymous government sources, suggesting Deobandi chaplains held views that contradicted human rights and British values.
In his report, Spurr pointed out in particular one article published by Sunday Times on March 6, which claimed Ahtsham Ali, NOMS’ Muslim adviser in charge of selecting imams in the prison service, was being scrutinized after 70 percent of all chaplains were found to hail from Deobandi backgrounds.
“This is inaccurate, misleading and disgraceful coverage,” Spurr wrote in the letter dated March 14.
Spurr explained that it was only natural that most Muslim chaplains across the British prison system were Deobandis, as a majority of mosques, seminaries and Muslims in the United Kingdom have their roots in the Deobandi tradition, which was born in Southeast Asia in the 19th century. He also said what did not make any sense was the notion that Deobandis would reject British values, citing a report by school inspectors in which a Deobandi seminary was lauded for advocating tolerance and respect towards other religions and cultures as well as striving to create “exemplary British citizens”.
“Our Chaplaincy teams cater for a diverse prisoner congregation, and are enriched by their diverse denominational backgrounds,” he wrote.
British values have played an important role in the current government’s campaign against non-violent extremism, which critics fear could alienate a certain section of Muslims, who abide by comparatively conservative religious beliefs.
An inquiry into extremism within British prisons, sanctioned by Justice Secretary Michael Gove in 2015, still due to be published, had an anonymous “senior Whitehall official”, as reported by Sunday Times, suggesting that the report would raise questions about several Deobandi chaplains, who could be considered a threat to national security.
“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,” the anonymous official had apparently said to Sunday Times.
In February this year, Prime Minister David Cameron indicated that the government was contemplating changes to the chaplaincy system. Speaking about prison reform, Cameron said countering extremism in prisons has emerged as a new challenge since approximately 1,000 prisoners have been identified as either radical or vulnerable to radicalism.
“I want to be clear: I am prepared to consider major changes: from the imams we allow to preach in prison to changing the locations and methods for dealing with prisoners convicted of terrorism offences, if that is what is required,” Cameron had said.
In January, the government also appointed Peter Clarke, former counterterrorism police chief, as the chief inspector of prisons.
Spurr said NOMS was still awaiting the review on extremism within British prisons and would carefully consider its recommendations and conclusions in due course. But he could not stress enough that all chaplains had come through a rigorous recruitment process after being cleared by several rounds of counter-terrorism checks.
“NOMS is committed to tackling both violent and nonviolent extremism, in accordance with Government strategy. Our Muslim Chaplains and Ahtsham Ali play vital roles in this effort,” he wrote.
He also commended Ali’s inherent sense of resilience and dignity, speaking highly of how NOMS’ senior leadership team still had a lot of trust and confidence in the chaplain’s work.
The number of Muslim inmates in British prisons has evidently increased by close to three times since the 1990s, with at least 200 Muslim chaplains working full time at the moment in the prison system. According to data published by the Ministry of Justice last year, over 12,000 Muslim inmates constitute 14 percent of the entire prison population compared to less than five percent of the total population in England and Wales.
A report by the interfaith organization, Faith Matters, defined the existing prison chaplaincy system as the best model that has significantly improved services for inmates since its introduction in 2003 however.
Fiyaz Mughal, director of Faith Matters, said that the Muslim chaplaincy system in jails had proved to be of trailblazing service and also been emulated in other sectors, including healthcare and education.
“If you start to untangle the basis of chaplaincy in the prison service then you are going to have to rip out the wiring in other sectors as well,” he said. “You are talking about a system that has been heavily implemented and invested in and that is actually helping the most vulnerable and the angriest prisoners. In many instances it has been a bulwark providing resilience to prisoners. This is a system that actually works because you are looking eyeball to eyeball at the perpetrator and you are saying, ‘Look, I am here to support you but also to try to change your behavior’, and that is fundamental to the whole extremism agenda.”
Atheist Republic attempted to contact Ali for comments but he was not available at the time.
Photo Credits: Guim.co.uk