For a long time now, the overwhelming presence of Muslims in the French carceral system has been vividly criticized. Today, in light of recent terrorist attacks and fear of growing radicalization, this issue raised by this observation becomes more vital than ever.
The high rate of Muslim incarceration constitutes a larger European problem: in Great Britain they represent 15% of the carceral population while only 5% at the national level, and numbers are similar in Belgium and The Netherlands. France, however, has 50% of its prisoners of Muslim confession compared with 12% of the population. Such high numbers cannot be solely explained by the social and economic precarity, which most families of Maghrebi descent are facing in France, but clearly points to the failure on the part of the French government to integrate in France’s society.
The failings of the French government can partially be attributed to a belief that Islam is not only foreign to French society but also incompatible with it. The recent and controversial evolution of the principle of laïcité (secularism) from the guarantor of religious freedom to the justification for Islamophobic laws, demonstrates the desire of a certain fringe of the French political class (and of the French electorate) to keep Islam at bay.
In the case of the prison system, such discriminatory policies have taken their toll on Muslims inmates. Not only are prisoners not allowed to have halal meal options or wear religious clothing under the principle of laïcité, but since 2003, the French government has not been able – or willing – to steadily increase the number of Muslim prison chaplains. In 2008, they were 100, today there are only 178, compared with 683 Catholic ones for a total prison population of 68.000. This is because the vetting process – although necessary – is tedious and complicated and Muslim chaplains require the approval of the Ministry of Interior, the General Intelligence Office, the Penitentiary Administration and the Director of the prison. According to Samia El Alaoui Talibi, an approved chaplain who works alongside her husband who is an imam, “everyone has the same prejudices and negative image of Muslims and Islam. When some guards see you, they see an Arab; they see you the same as if you were a prisoner.”
Because of the recent terrorist attacks, the problem of the surpopulation of prisons, the overrepresentation of Muslims in them, and the lack of initiatives taken by the government to address or redress these problems has left the prisons system with a worrying risk of internal Islamic radicalization. The French government has thus recently decided to adopt a segregation of prisoners accused of terrorism or jihadism and to put them through a program of “deradicalization.”
According to the Justice Ministry, it is too soon to evaluate the policy. But a recent attack in such a segregated prison is not a good omen. Earlier this September, Bilal Taghi, a French national caught by Turkish police at the border trying to cross to Syria to join the Islamic State, had been incarcerated in the special unit of the prison of Osny for six months when he attacked two prison guards with a sharp metal rod made out of pieces from his cell window. He stabbed one officer nine times and slashed the other’s arms and throat. Both guards survived, A French newspaper reported that, following the attack, Taghi drew a heart on the wall with one of his victim’s blood and started praying…
This attack, which drew little coverage in the French press, may be symptomatic of the failures of the French government in proposing an adequate alternative to the radicalization of their inmates. Although Mr Taghi was already radicalized before his imprisonment, many Muslim and non-Muslim inmates constitute vulnerable targets for Islamic radicals. Moreover, French prisons might have turned into jihadi recruitment camps had the government not pushed for the segregation of already radicalized individuals. Yet, the French government must not only try to better accommodate its prisoners on religious grounds, but it should also attempt to treat the root cause of the problem – namely, the lack of social and economic integration of its Muslim minorities – in order to reduce the conditions, which are conducive to their higher prison rates and greater radicalization.