New book: Faith, Ideology and Fear-Muslim Identities Within and Beyond Prisons

I am pleased to inform you that my book ‘Faith, Ideology, and Fear: Muslim Identities Within and Beyond Prisons‘, published by Continuum, is now available. This book is based on my 4-year-research both within UK prisons as well as outside them. I have written about the research itself before. You can find the book both in bookstores as well as Internet sellers such as Unfortunately, as many academic books today, the publisher has decided to issue first the hardback and consider a paperback only in the case that, after one year, the book has sold enough. So, if you are interested in reading it, and you cannot afford the price, ask the librarian at your university or public library to acquire it (there is also an electronic copy which is cheeper). Below I shall offer a summary of the chapters. If you wish, you can read the full Introduction on my personal website.

In this book I have aimed to offer an understanding of the reasons for which today more Muslims are detained in prison (Chapter 3); how Muslim prisoners experience prison (Chapter 4); how such experience influences their ‘making sense’ of Islam in prison, and the consequent development of a prison Islam (Chapter 5); the process through which some Muslim prisoners may adhere to unorthodox and emotional interpretations of Islam that are based on spontaneous exegetical reflections (Chapter 6); and finally the difficulties, isolation and the lack of support that former Muslim prisoners experience and the risks that they, and consequently our societies, may face as far as reoffending and terrorism are concerned (Chapter 7).

In Chapter 2  I have discussed the risk involved in solely focusing on religion, seen as a powerful cultural system of symbols. In this book, I have adopted a different view, and as an anthropologist advocating in my work that anthropology must rediscover the ‘anthropos’, and suggested that we should start not from Islam (or even ethnicity or culture), but rather from those individuals whom I have met, interacted with, observed and tried to understand. They are not symbols or made by symbols. They have bones, flesh, veins and brains. They are alive and interact with not only others but also the surrounding environment, and are thus affected by it. They can laugh, cry, blush, or display many other emotions, consciously or unconsciously, remember events and express their identities.

For this reason, in this book we will start our journey outside prison (Chapter 3) by discussing the difficult socio-economic, yet also emotional, environment in which many Muslims in the United Kingdom, live today. Geographically, Muslim communities tend to live in the most deprived areas of the most densely populated cities in the United Kingdom. Although reading prison statistics may give the impression that there exists an increase of ‘Muslim crimes’, in reality an attentive comparative statistical approach reveals that the higher proportion of Muslims incarcerated are the result of independent, rather than dependent, variables.

As I have explained in Chapter 3, Muslims in the United Kingdom have a young population, and criminological research has demonstrated that the young age of a population has a great impact upon offenses and incarceration rates . Leaving aside national statistics concerning Muslims in prison and examining some British locations in which the Muslim and non-Muslim population are nearly equal, we may observe that the imprisonment rate (see Chapter 3) is virtually the same for both the groups. Therefore, we can only reject suggestions, such as that which Macey (2002) proposed, that ‘believing in Islam’ exposes Muslims to social and economic disadvantage as well as increases the risk of their committing crimes.

In reality, as I have explained in Chapter 3, British Muslims born of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian or Arab origins are, despite numerous political and journalistic claims, ‘integrating’ within British society. Integration is local, and in many cases this means that these young people integrate into troubled areas which are affected by drugs, gang culture, prostitution and so forth. Difficult urban spaces have an impact upon the levels of criminal behaviour among the general population. Muslims tend, however, to be more vulnerable because of the rejection that they often receive from mainstream society because of their ethnic, or religious, identities.

In Chapter 4, we start to observe the lives of Muslim prisoners from their first steps inside. As in the rest of this book, we observe them as human beings, whom in this case ‘feel to be Muslims’ (Marranci 2008). The prison environment affects them in the same way that it would any other person, as many elements of psychology, emotions and neurocognitive factors are universal. For this reason, in Chapter 4, I have first discussed the process of adaptation to prison and the difficulties involved.

I  have explained how Islamic rituals and practices acquire an extra layer of meaning that helps Muslim prisoners to survive within the prison environment as well as manage psychological changes. Many variables affect the relationship between prisoners, and ethnicity is surely one of the most powerful. Yet we have noticed that Islam has been used by prisoners to cross such ethnic boundaries, especially in the case of real or perceived threats.

Prisoners have also, consciously or unconsciously depending upon the case, capitalised upon Islam to reform links with family, or to reduce the impact  that the lack of family contact has on their lives. In the case of female Muslim prisoners, the majority of whom are mothers, separation from children adds a great burden to their imprisonment. Through rediscovering or converting to Islam, some of the female prisoners I met wished to express their intention of becoming ‘good mothers’ or ‘good examples’ for their children. Islam has surely helped these women, as also the young offenders, to socialise and to survive the process of adaptation to prison.

My research has highlighted serious problems of discrimination based mainly upon religious and political victimisation. Adopting visibly religious behavior or converting to Islam can mean an increase in distrust from some sectors of the prison and especially from fellow inmates. This has, as we have seen, a serious impact on how Islam, as religion, is understood and practiced within prison and this increases the risk of certain radical groups exploiting former Muslim prisoners’ resentment.

However, mostly concealed from the eyes of both prison authorities and scholars is the Muslim-to-Muslim bullying that affects some prisons. I have, among the other forms of bullying, discussed the often-unheard case of Shi‘a Muslim prisoners. Although few in number, these prisoners suffer not only from the same problems as any other  prisoner, but also from in-group discrimination and bullying – especially since the majority of Muslim prisoners are Sunni and the Prison Service employs Sunni imams and, though indirectly, ‘sponsors’ Sunni Islam.

In Chapter 5, starting from Damasio’s distinction between emotions and feelings, I have explained how feelings are essential to maintain an autobiographical-self and that what we call ‘faith’ is part of such a process. The most common emotion found in prison is certainly fear, which of course induces powerful feelings.Faith can be experienced in different ways, and I have suggested that the emotion of fear, so common among prisoners, has facilitated the experience of ‘wonder’ for some. It is through wonder that some Muslim prisoners rediscover Islam. However, many more, through the shocking experience of prison, rediscover Islam through a cognitive opening that, as discussed in Chapter 6.

In Chapter 5, I have also demonstrated how social restrictions, the forced contact with others and the need to control a challenging environment facilitate simplifications, so that stereotypes, as dualistic thinking, are extremely common. I have then explained how this common way of making sense of reality can, in certain circumstances, become particularly radical. Radical dualism is dogmatic and aggressive in its expression. I have discussed how this forma mentis can develop without an actual indoctrination or external influence, such as radical literature or  other material.

The question of whether Muslim prisoners are radicalising in prison is one that journalists, politicians, the police and the Prison Services have asked during my research. As I have explained in the Introduction, the question in itself has little meaning because it demands a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. The reason for this may be found in the widespread idea that ‘extremism’, fundamentalism’ and ‘radicalism’ are a sort of virus that can infect and spread. The etiology and the epidemiology are also simple: this ‘virus’ spreads through exposure to cultural objects (books, cassettes with sermons, pamphlets and so forth) and ideas transmitted by the various ‘carriers’. Although cultural objects and ideas may play a role, this is, contrary to expectations, secondary. Indeed, ‘radicalisation’ is a process, not a ‘virus’.

As with any processes, several variables are at stake and I have analyzed them in Chapter 6 I have discussed how some Muslim prisoners develop during their incarceration, as a reaction to the prison environment and the perception that they are victims of social injustice, what I have called a ‘feeling of dignity’ and an ‘ethos of justice’.Indeed, as Toch (2003) has explained, all prisoners, to preserve their identity, in one way or another reject their presence in prison as unjust. In the case of some Muslim prisoners (though certainly not the majority), this also means to reject the ‘authority’ of the prison over them. All Muslim prisoners, of course, consider themselves to be Allah’s slaves.

However, some extend this reasoning beyond the theological domain and conclude that they have only one master, Allah, and thus reject any human authority, including that of the prison imam. Indeed, they would argue that since authority within prison is based on human rules for the benefi t of humans, it is ‘a-moral’ and should be rejected. Therefore, tawhid, the main pillar of Islam declaring the oneness of God and the essence of faith for any Muslim, is here transformed from a theological tenet into an ideological tool of survival and a mechanism of maintaining one’s own autobiographical-self and sense of dignity.

The ideology of tawhid is the result, in this case, of prison dynamics rather than indoctrination or reading material. It is also interesting to note that, in a majority of cases, it was not the most vulnerable of prisoners to adopt an ideology of tawhid, but rather those whose expectations of how they should be treated (especially in reference to their religious identity) were most violated by the prison environment. It is the contradiction, between a prisoner’s expectations and the reality of prison that nourishes the ‘defensive’ mechanism that I have referred to as the ideology of tawhid.

In Chapter 6, I shall explain that an ideology of tawhid can become part of a more complex process: the shift from a doctrinal mode of Islamic religiosity to an imagistic one. Whitehouse (2004) has explained religious transmission through a cognitive theory known as ‘modes of religiosity’. Doctrinal modes of religiosity, such as the main monotheistic religions, are based upon repetition in their rituals and are structured around complex theological teachings that induce a low level of arousal.

By contrast, religions based on an imagistic mode (e.g. some African tribal religions or Cargo rituals in Papua New Guinea) have a low transmissive frequency, a high level of arousal and are based on episodic memory, meaning in this case that the meaning of rituals are derived from personal, and often traumatic, experiences (e.g. initiations). Surely, even for those who have been in prison before, imprisonment is a distressing event marked by several, more or less traumatic, rituals.

In some cases this facilitates not only cognitive openings as discussed in Chapter 5, but also spontaneous exegetical reflection in which the individual is able to extrapolate, as an effect of episodic memory, meaningful personal eschatology which however, as far as Islam is concerned, can antagonise the orthodox doctrinal mode of Islamic religiosity.

An imagistic mode of religiosity may not only display characteristics that others might define as ‘fanaticism’ or ‘extremism’, but because of its particular nature, it may also incline towards violence. Imams, including the prison imam, are used to operating within the ‘doctrinal mode’ and the Prison Service tends to sponsor an even more ‘orthodox’, controlled and structured version of Islam than what exists outside.

As discussed in the Introduction, unfortunately instead of taking the right steps to modify those elements that can facilitate the development of an imagistic mode of Islamic religiosity in prison, the English and Welsh Prison Service is employing counterproductive security policies. The British government, with plans such as that of isolating some Muslim prisoners in special prisons, can provide an even more fertile ground for new and more powerful imagistic modes of Islamic religiosity.

In Chapter 7, we follow the post-incarceration experiences of some of my respondents. While the government, and consequently the Prison Service, displays ardent concern about security and extremism within prison, the destiny of former Muslim prisoners seems to be of no interest, and this indifference has possible unfortunate consequences. Indeed, if the effects of the prison environment and the related issues we have discussed in this book are to become a potential threat, it will be so outside prison rather than in it.

Of course, the danger is limited, as I have explained, but as we also know, it takes only a few committed individuals to endanger the lives of many. Former Muslim prisoners lacking much needed support from relatives or the State will rarely find it within their own Muslim community, which today, as my research has shown, is still prone to reject them rather than address their needs. However, other groups, politicised and radical in their interpretation of Islam, are likely to sometimes offer what the mainstream community and the State fail to provide.

Though many of the Muslim prisoners who enter radical organisations voluntarily, by chance, or because of being actively recruited, later go on to reject them. Yet a small number, depending upon their experience of prison, how they developed their ‘prison Islam’ and the degree of isolation they endured, may join and possibly even be persuaded to commit worse crimes than before, including terrorism.

This book attempts to demonstrate that the high rate of Muslims detained is a clear result of political failure to address those socioeconomic and educational problems that an increasing number of young Muslims face. The increasingly common trend of adducing the disadvantaged condition of many UK Muslims to ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamic culture’ only adds to distrust of political power.

Muslims are integrated – but of course, they are integrated within the poorest and most disadvantaged suburbs in the nation. More Muslims, if problems are not addressed (or continue to be addressed through  patronizing instead of empowering means), will end in prison. As this book strongly reaffirms, Muslim prisoners are human beings and are thus affected by the environment, in this case prison, through emotions.

I have tried to make explicit the dynamics that exist within prison as far as Islam is concerned, and today, indeed, we can speak of the existence of a ‘prison Islam’. Some of the processes, such as faith, ideology and fear, are inevitable in prison – and not just in the case of Muslim prisoners – but they can be understood and managed in a positive way. I hope that this book may contribute to such a challenging aim.

7 thoughts on “New book: Faith, Ideology and Fear-Muslim Identities Within and Beyond Prisons

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  1. Your overview makes the book sound incredible – and a must read for any discussion of Muslim minorities – all the best with it and I hope it is re-released in paperback sometime soon! Keep up the good work! 🙂

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