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Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his memoirs that it was amongst God’s lowliest creatures and in his experience of jail that he felt closest to the Divine. While he may have been referring to a Hindu version of the Almighty, it appears his experience is being played out widely throughout Western jails.
The criminal and convert backgrounds of many terrorists who have affiliated with Islamic State, notably the Canadian shooter Micheal Zehaf-Bibeau or local versions such as Khaled Sharrouf, have elevated the trend of Islamic conversions in jail into a national security issue.
In NSW, nine percent of inmates are from a Muslim background and the figure is closer to six percent in Victoria, according to government figures. The numbers are significantly lower in other states. In my experience seeing clients for court psychiatric opinions, the vast majority are from either refugee or unskilled family backgrounds, primarily Lebanese but increasingly Afghan or Iraqi. These statistics do not take into account conversions within the correctional setting.
Jails are their own world, designed to provide an often conflicting mix of punitive payback and rehabilitation. The settings universally provoke the numbness of institutionalisation, induced by the repeated opening and shutting of thick, metal doors, the whisper like buzz of retinal scans and the calm demeanour of uniformed correctional workers fiddling with an overload of keys.
For at least a decade or more, the fastest growing religion among prisoners in Western countries is Islam. Studies in the US estimate a quarter of million prisoners converted to Islam in the decade after the 9/11 attacks, which was approximately eighty percent of religious conversions. There is currently a major civil rights case associated with a Muslim convert in Arkansas, Abdul Muhammad- formerly Greg Holt- who is demanding religious freedom to maintain what is considered an excessively long beard, a breach of security standards.
In France, in spite of Muslims comprising only eight percent of the overall population, more than half of all prisoners are Muslim and a significant proportion of them converts.
Numbers are unclear in Australia, but trends include a significant number of Aboriginal converts and prisoners from Muslim background who become more religiously minded while incarcerated.
Aboriginal converts often cite what they perceived a lack of colonial or racist stigma in Islam, as compared to Christianity, as well as a perception that it is a religion for the oppressed and downtrodden. It is given public voice through prominent converts like Anthony Mundine. The trend has reached a stage where a yellow crescented flag flies in Sydney’s Redfern denoting the Koori Muslim Association.
“Islam has a lot of appeal for the disenfranchised.” says psychiatrist Olav Nielssen, noting that Khaled Sharrouf’s family of origin was not especially religious. He said that while terrorists are not necessarily mentally ill, psychotic illness is a disorder of belief that increases the potential to adopt extreme religious views.
American criminologist Mark Hamm cites what he calls “Prison Islam”, in reference to small inmate cliques using gang methods of coercion and simplistic interpretations of the Koran to recruit new members. In this respect, Islam is an outlet for a new tribalism for old gangsters but can channel the same rage, resentment and need for belonging. Like no other religion, it seems to best allow a relatively blank canvas for the conflation of personal resentments with the political.
British social scientist Shadd Maruna, believes that the jail conversion from sinner to saint represents one of the best examples of a “second chance” in modern life. After field research in British prisons, Maruna argued that prison constituted a situation where the basic parameters of life are altered and individuals are rendered particularly open to new ways of perceiving themselves and organising their lives. Conversion in such an abnormal, confronting setting is a powerful way to regulate shame.
Dr Nielssen has observed that the rituals of Islam have helped some prisoners cope with the sensory deprivation of solitary confinement in high security settings such as the Super Max in Goulburn. Religious conversion can also be a way of giving meaning to an otherwise bleak prison experience. The Super Max facility is the highest security prison in Australia and one in three inmates is reportedly a Muslim convert or fundamentalist.
De-radicalisation expert and Syrian community leader Khaled Al Medyan believes jail provides fertile not just for conversions, but for the fostering of extremist views. “ the very close contact, the very few prisoners…. it is easy to influence people I think.” Khaled believes the correctional setting magnifies the influence of persuasive and charismatic individuals, particularly in combination with the widely available Islamic literature in such settings, and says imams or religious leaders have little input into the process.
In my experience, greater religiosity can communicate several things. It can be a marker of worsening or new mental illness, for paranoid or grandiose delusions often incorporate God and spiritual themes. Repeated prayer can be a way to channel obsessional thoughts. This can mask mental illness in ethnic groups where religiosity is more socially acceptable.
Religious conversion can also be a false front for inmates wanting to show good character. It is often a new, more socially acceptable tribalism for people who have only ever associated through criminal gangs. This is particularly apparent in some correctional settings where prisoners are grouped into particular ethnic groups for the purposes of segregation and control. Evangelical and Pentecostal forms of Christianity can also hold appeal in such settings to communicate a reformation of character.
A 2010 British study by academic Dame Ann Dowers, titled Muslim Prisoners’ Experiences, found the most common reason cited by converts to Islam was a sense of brotherhood and protection that belonging to the burgeoning Muslim population afforded. This has implications if the proportion of Muslim prisoners continues to increase in Australia.
Several prisoners have even alluded to the dietary benefits of conversions, given Halal or Buddhist, vegetarian food has a reputation for being better than standard prison fare.
Islam is particularly attractive to prisoners because it incorporates an element of oppositionality to the dominant society. It can signal a purification of character but still retain a confrontational, anti-establishment flavour. The vast majority of prisoners, even if they openly admit to the crimes they have committed and many more, still feel they have been wronged. Converting to Islam is a kind of revenge on a society that has treated them unfairly.
There is scant information or statistics to appropriately quantify the scale of conversions taking place in our jails, which in itself is a problem given its growing importance. But the anecdotal and international evidence suggests Islam is far and away the most attractive conversion faith amongst prisoners. The vast majority of such converts are not terrorists. Many adopt a strict code of respectability after their conversion. Others merely revert back to committing crimes in spite of their outward conversion. But the terrorism industry requires only a tiny proportion of recruits to wreak havoc and have catastrophic consequences.
The caverns and recesses of jail are largely unseen and and attract only a macabre interest to the public, usually in relation to disturbed killers. But the nexus of prison, Islamic conversion and terrorism potentially represents a unique threat to national security.