Prisons are practically inevitable today

Radicalization Prevention Information Service

Husamuddin Meyer

Husamuddin Meyer is a prison chaplain and imam in the Wiesbaden correctional facility. He also carries out projects in schools and mosques for VIBIS e.V., heads the Salafism hotline in Wiesbaden and works for the Violence Prevention Network (VPN) in the Hessen advice center in Frankfurt am Main. He studied ethnology, Islamic studies and geography in Freiburg, Dakar (Senegal) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso).

Prisons can set the course for the future of prisoners. The attacks of recent years have shown that prisons can be breeding grounds for radicalization processes. Prevention work must therefore be intensified, especially in prison. Can Muslim pastors contribute to this? Husamuddin Meyer is a prison chaplain and imam in the Wiesbaden correctional facility. He describes his experiences and outlines the measures that would be necessary to establish more Muslim pastors in German prisons.

Husamuddin Meyer is a prison chaplain and imam in the Wiesbaden correctional facility. (& copy dpa)

"If you hate yourself, then nothing matters. Then you are capable of anything." This is what an inmate told me in retrospect after four years in prison. He had regularly taken part in the religious offer, we had countless one-on-one conversations about his personal worries and the recurring conflicts in the prison. In this retrospect, he was impressively reflected on his change, including his very restless state when he started his sentence. He had grown up in a home, had not been able to develop the self-esteem that was so central to life, carried out several robberies, accepted Islam at one of the rallies of the Salafist preacher Pierre Vogel, sought connection, self-affirmation, self-esteem. He didn't go very far into the scene, otherwise he could have become a typical Syria emigrant or even a homegrown terrorist. Instead, he returned to the robberies and was sentenced to more than five years in prison - when he was 19. He was very lucky that there was a pastoral offer in the correctional facility (JVA) in which he was imprisoned. That changed him a lot and turned him from a self-hating person to a reflective young man who taps his potential and seems satisfied, was finally able to develop a sense of self-worth, and feels loved. "I now understand what Islam is about," he later told me.

If he had met a highly ideologized Islamist in prison instead of a pastor, his life could have continued quite differently. Terrorist attacks are often carried out - for example in Madrid in 2004, in Toulouse in 2012, in Paris in 2015 or in December 2016 in Berlin - by released criminals, [1] for whom, similar to the example mentioned above, unfavorable biographical conditions, criminal energy and an inhuman ideology form an explosive mixture. The radicalization, the imparting of ideology, often took place in prison. After the attack in Copenhagen in 2015, in which two people were shot, companions of the perpetrator said that the perpetrator was a different person when he was released from prison about two weeks earlier. Instead of talking about cars and women, he monologized about religion, about the victims in the Gaza Strip and paradise. [2]

Strangely enough, the realization that prisons could become breeding grounds for radicalization processes only prevailed after the attack on the editors of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015. Of the two assassins, the Kouachi brothers, who had also grown up in the home, one met an al-Qaeda recruiter and followers of Osama bin Laden in prison, who had a decisive influence on his radicalization process. [3] Amedy Coulibaly, the third assassin who attacked the Jewish supermarket shortly after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, had also belonged to this recruiter's circle in prison. He was imprisoned for robbery and drug trafficking. [4]

In prisons in particular, prevention work must take place more intensively [5] if one wants to prevent radicalization. Can Muslim pastors contribute to this?


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Muslim pastoral care as a contribution to preventing radicalization

The actual pastoral care
The main task of pastoral care is derived from the word itself: caring for the soul. A healthy soul makes a happy person. This has no reason for criminal acts, extremist aspirations or destructive acts. Self-hatred, on the other hand, is a dangerous state.

Pastoral care is particularly important in crisis situations, e.g. in prison. In many cases, the prisoners are left to their own devices, are only allowed to have limited visitors and make phone calls, and have no internet. Many prisoners think about their past and future life in and because of this situation and want to change something. Many deal with religious questions such as forgiveness, but also with the meaning of life.

Not least because of this, there have been Christian ministerial chaplains paid by the state for decades (mostly even a Catholic and a Protestant) in all prisons, who hold church services, take care of the personal problems of the detainees and are available around the clock.

The proportion of Muslims in prisons in Germany is now around 20 percent, and in some cases over 50 percent in juvenile prisons. [6] They often have more worries than the local offenders due to their mostly existing migration background. Sometimes the crimes are a direct or indirect consequence of the migrant background, for example if they can be traced back to identity conflicts, a strong urge for validity or the clash of different educational concepts of the parents and the majority society or if experiences of discrimination have been made. For others (such as those who were apprehended without a valid residence permit, who cannot even communicate in German and have no relatives here), staying in a foreign country far from their homeland increases the problems; Crime and jail time can ensue. However, in many prisons there is no Muslim pastor; In some of them there are occasional visits by DITIB [7] imams who, however, mostly cannot speak German and therefore bring a translator with them.

When I started working in the Wiesbaden correctional facility (JVA) in 2008, the JVA management asked me to offer a Friday prayer in German, in which "honor crimes" such as honor killing should also be explicitly discussed. This type of crime was, then, as now, part of the religion-based crime. The great response - the participation rate was 60 to 70 percent of the Muslim prisoners from the start - showed how high the need for religious offers was (and still is). The great need for pastoral care also became clear when after the Friday prayer there were many requests for a personal interview. Many said to me: "Finally one of us who understands us!"

Mediation of knowledge of Islam
At that time there was almost no religious knowledge among the prisoners. Since there is no official religious support in the form of an imam in most prisons, this function is not infrequently taken over by dubious to dangerous fellow inmates - in the worst case by highly radicalized people. They give the impression that they know Islam very well, but in reality they have often only memorized phrases and certain Quranic verses and put together a simplified interpretation from them. They quasi teach "the" Islam in prison and explain the duty of jihad to their fellow prisoners. Jihad, they instruct their fellow prisoners, among other things, allow them to do so Fatwas (Legal opinion), e.g. by Anwar al-Awlaki [8], recently also attacks on civilians and even suicide bombings. In this way one could do one's best for "Islam", for "Allah" and "finally give one's life a meaning". [9] Violence is interpreted and legitimized in the sense of religion.

In prison - to put it simply - two types meet: radicals and angry manipulators. A radicalized person can quickly win many followers who are capable of many - sometimes dire - crimes as a result, if they believe they are on the right track. [10] Most of them are at war with the authorities, many have experience in acquiring weapons and appropriate contacts, and are trained in conspiratorial operations. The already low inhibition thresholds with regard to acts of violence disappear completely due to the now existing ideological superstructure. Acts of violence and other crimes are sacralized: From now on, the former criminals work for a big cause, get, unlike before, a lot of prestige and become famous. They become "lions of the Umma (of the Muslim community) ”or“ Lions of Allah. ”In extreme cases, even drug trafficking with the kuffar[11] ("Unbelievers"), rape of "unbelievers" or break-ins, even in schools and even in churches [12], justified religiously by the extremists. Everything that was previously illegal and what one was at least somewhat ashamed of now becomes a good deed.

In addition, when recruiting radical Islamists in prison, a particularly perfidious argument is used: The recruits are made afraid of hell, which, due to their many sins, they could only avoid by "martyrdom" [13], because one could go through he would be guaranteed to go to (highest) paradise. Many inmates told me about this type of argumentation.

From 2011, more and more recruiters tried to convince young people in gyms, in schools, in mosques, wherever young people could be found, with videos of atrocities committed by Syrian soldiers of the Assad regime and simple answers to difficult questions bring to join the fight in Syria. They also quickly discovered the criminal scene as an ideal pool for the increasingly needed fighters against the regime of Syrian President Assad. They were explicitly looking for people with little knowledge of Islam, whom one could "shape" and whom one could bring closer to a certain understanding of Islam. [14]

Between 2011 and 2016 in particular, it was therefore noticeable in prison that newly arriving criminals were increasingly uttering "religious" slogans or quoting verses from the Koran about violence, such as those used by anti-Muslim agitators, for example, to show that violence is an inherent part of Islam . Obviously, they had come into contact with recruits before they were arrested or in other prisons. More and more young prisoners were talking about Sharia law [15], were unsure and were looking for answers to questions about their religion - such as those I was regularly confronted with after the Friday prayer in the JVA Weiterstadt: "Is the emigration (hijra) In an Islamic country or the caliphate is a duty? "," Isn't everyone who does not emigrate an infidel and thus a legitimate target for an attack? "or" Is the fight in Syria a jihad that makes it mandatory for everyone to fight? "," Do Muslims who do not pray have to be killed? "- questions that indicated that there was lively discussion among the inmates and to which radicalized inmates had their own answers. Only every two weeks, if I did Friday prayers, I was able to try in the few minutes left after the sermon to refute their arguments - a drop in the ocean.

Terrorism was also an issue in Wiesbaden JVA from the beginning, for example when young Afghan prisoners asked during my weekly visits how the engagement of their relatives in the Taliban should be judged religiously or how Osama bin Laden justified his actions, since he was optically or, in terms of clothing, resembled a religious person and referred to religion.

Knowledge of Islam must therefore be imparted in order to fill the Muslim identity of these imprisoned people with positive content and to "immunize" the large majority against the attempts at proselytizing the extremists or to give them the appropriate tools to deal with the various people To critically examine and question interpretations of Islam.

An imam working in prison can already achieve a great deal in this regard if, for example, he addresses issues that concern the prisoners in a Friday sermon. The Friday sermon is usually well attended and is an excellent opportunity for address. Young inmates often said to me after the Friday sermon, in which we also talked about the so-called Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS): "It's good that you mentioned that! Here behind bars there is a lot of discussion about whether ISIS is good or not. If the Imam says that is convincing! "

"Anger prophylaxis"
However, imparting knowledge about Islam is not enough, because there are many reasons for turning to violence. When Mohamed Merah shot and killed French people of Jewish faith and French Muslims in military clothing over several days in Toulouse in 2012, rather he himself was shot by police a few days later, the prisoners' comments made it clear to me for the first time that attacks were often more with anger than with Religion or fanaticism have to do with. At that time, after the Friday prayer, a North African prisoner said about the perpetrator: "He did it right!" Shortly before his act, Merah had given a journalist on France 24 as a motive to protest against the ban on veiling, the French army's mission in Afghanistan and the situation in Palestine. The anger against "the system", "the West", America, and again and again "the Jews" or Israel is also great among many prisoners. World politics is perceived as generally anti-Islamic. Jihadism and the war in Syria and Iraq are therefore seen by many as a consequence of the interventions of Western countries in the Middle East. [16]

The fact that young radicalized people think that with their struggle in Syria and Iraq they have joined a kind of international resistance movement to defend Muslims around the world also has to do with the ideological background work: e.g. the 1,600-page work was published in 2005 Call for global Islamic resistance alleged al-Qaeda member Abu Musab al-Suri; it found widespread use on the Internet, particularly YouTube. [17] The German Salafists also made heavy use of YouTube from the start to distribute videos produced for the purpose of proselytizing.

While the Western media often show atrocities by Islamist terrorists and thus unconsciously promote Islamophobia in society, young Muslims send each other videos of the abuse of the Palestinians by Israeli settlers and soldiers, reports on Guantanamo, photos from the American torture prison Abu Ghraib of the torture and execution of Muslims in Myanmar by radical extremist Buddhists or of the massacres of Muslims by Christian militias in the Central African Republic. The strategy of dividing society, explicitly pursued by the extremists, is thus continuously advanced.

An example from my work of how much prisoners can be manipulated through unreflective media consumption: A prisoner of Palestinian descent once said at a group meeting: "Enough now! They are eating us! We have to do something now!" I asked, "What do you mean?" He said: "In Central Africa! I saw a video in which Christians run after Muslims, chop them up with a machete, grill the body parts, season them and then bite into them!" I said, "Yes, that's terrible, I saw the video too. But what should we do now? Do you want to attack the law enforcement officer because he may be a Christian? As an act of revenge?"

The anger that boils up in prison after such events must be cooled down and reflected on regularly in group discussions. Because anger - in connection with an ideological framework like Islamism - can turn an ordinary criminal into a jihadist. Pious, God-fearing believers very rarely do so.It is always a great challenge to find suitable words in the large group that address the prisoners at their level, so that they benefit from it and at the same time learn how to deal with such situations as a religious person.

Another aspect is added to the juvenile prison system that causes anger and frustration to boil up again and again: Most Muslims in juvenile prison systems here in Germany grew up as "people with a migration background" and speak better German than any other language. Their ancestors were regarded as (temporary) "guest workers", later (depending on nationality) e.g. as "Turkish migrants", who often cultivated their Turkish identity in Turkish cultural associations. The descendants of the labor migrants from Turkey, but also, for example, newcomers from Morocco or refugees from Afghanistan [18] are caught between two stools in terms of identity: when they are on vacation in their country of origin - if they can travel there at all - they are perceived as Germans. They neither know the local language nor the cultural codes well enough not to attract attention as "foreigners". In Germany, on the other hand, they are not viewed as Germans, but optically and culturally, increasingly away from the nationality of their parents, assigned to a homogeneous group, namely "the Muslims" - and thus a group that has been increasingly discriminated against since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA and enemy constructions is confronted.

Many of them do not even know what being a Muslim actually means, especially if they come from a family that is not very religious, for example. Nevertheless, they often take up this attribution of identity and the question of whether they are German is usually denied (by the prisoners) in a bitter way, even if they were born here and often have a German passport. Identity conflicts are therefore almost inevitable.

The externally ascribed identity as a Muslim with simultaneous widespread hostility towards Muslims in their social environment, the media and society as a whole then lead to a lack of roots that is far more difficult to bear than one thinks. If you give young people the feeling that you don't really want them here, that you don't want to see their religion, their culture and even their skin color here, then it creates a counter-hatred, hatred of society. When I once asked the inmates where the hatred was coming from, they said: "We feel undesirable!" Another said: "Just as one calls into the forest, so it rings out!"

Many try to fill this void by informing themselves about Islam and often end up with the Salafists, who still dominate the German-language offer and apparently live the Islamic identity most consistently. In doing so, the Salafists reverse the discrimination - and this is also an important factor: non-Salafists are despised kuffar called.

It is clear that pent-up anger, frustration and factors of discrimination alone cannot explain why young people become radicalized in prisons. There are individually different ways and factors that influence this process. But it is also clear: a person who sees his home here, feels accepted and accepted and has the feeling of having the same opportunities to participate as everyone else, will not turn against society, but rather see how he can contribute can. Young people with a Muslim background need to feel that they belong to this society, that they, their culture and their religion are accepted. Injustice and unequal treatment should be avoided. Participation must be possible, the benefits of it must be visible. It must be worthwhile to stand up for this community. Should they get this impression, then they do not need to emigrate to any "Islamic State" or sabotage the local one.

For this reason, too, the acceptance of the Islamic religion within the prison and the establishment of an equivalent pastoral care (compared to the already existing Christian offers) is an important step. Because the prisoners see very well that prisoners of Christian faith are available around the clock.

When the first solemn prayers and Friday prayers, as well as time for Muslim pastoral care in general, were set up in prison, it had an astonishing effect. Many of the detainees felt that their identity had been accepted and said to themselves: "I am recognized here and I give the recognition back."

Dealing with returnees in prisons
But now there is a new problem: More and more returnees from the Syrian war are being imprisoned. Returnees are not necessarily dangerous; many are disaffected, had expected something completely different, were shocked by the cruelty and the "un-Islamic" nature of the "IS" system. Many other returnees are traumatized. One said to me: "If I had known what was going on down there and how they were thinking, then I would never have gone there!" Nevertheless, some are still ideologized or were sometimes only really "trimmed" there, militarily and ideologically.

One question that has to be asked in this context is: Should radicalized people and returnees, who are now increasingly sentenced, be isolated from the other prisoners or housed together with other inmates? In England the radicals are housed in a separate wing. They want to prevent any contact with other prisoners. [19] In France, too, for a time all radicals should be accommodated in one wing. [20] The advantage of this measure is that their misanthropic ideology does not spread to the rest of the prison - a danger that should not be underestimated, because Syria returnees and other jihadists with combat experience are often revered almost as heroes. The disadvantage of separate accommodation for radicalized prisoners is that they form a strong group, feel valued and see their importance confirmed. That makes de-radicalization extremely difficult. Therefore, at least in France, they moved away from it again.

In the Wiesbaden JVA, attempts are also made to rehabilitate radicalized people: They separate returnees from Syria and other ideologized people from one another and place them individually in residential groups within the prison, in which people who are as uncontrollable as possible live. This way, they don't get any feedback for their ideas and have a lot of contact with other people. This is intended to soften the ideology.

Structural observers [21] are also trained in the prisons who are supposed to recognize radicalized persons on the basis of certain characteristics ("IS" flags, special symbols, war music) and uncover networks. Telephone calls and mail are monitored, cells are checked more frequently. In fact, cassettes with chants in praise of the "caliph" of the "Islamic State" were already circulating in prison in 2014. At that time I listened to entire tapes in order to distinguish harmless from harmful chants, which were often combined on one cassette.

Post from radical groups such as "Ansarul Aseer", the "prisoner's aid association" by Bernhard Falk, who converted to Islam while imprisoned for left-wing terrorist activities and who is now a supporter of al-Qaeda, or the now banned movement "Die Wahre" Religion "by Ibrahim Abou-Nagie, who through the Koran distribution campaign" Lies! " becomes known is blocked, even if they only send harmless material in order to prevent the establishment of contact from the outset.

Another measure of some federal states [22] is of an educational nature: Employees of the Violence Prevention Network e.V. (VPN) conduct anti-violence and competence training (AKT®) with extremists. Muslim educators and Islamic scholars have been hired specifically to work with religiously motivated extremists and trained as AKT® trainers. [23] Access to the prisoners is greatly facilitated by the common religious affiliation. In group and individual sessions, manipulative mechanisms are made visible to the prisoners and the ideology is deconstructed.

Finally, care after imprisonment is also important, which is also guaranteed by VPN and is part of the measure. [24] Since the prison chaplains cannot be active in this form after imprisonment due to the limited resources and also cannot be ordered as a "measure" during imprisonment, the offer of VPN is an important addition.

Where can you find enough pastors?

Where do you get the pastors you need for the prisons? Is a mediocre candidate better than none, because radical fellow prisoners otherwise take over the prisoners' religious "education"?

Experience from Great Britain, where in some cases Salafists or Wahhabis took over the job of prison chaplain, shows that imams with a "questionable" understanding of Islam can under certain circumstances exacerbate the problem with radicalized prisoners in prison. [25] The choice of pastors must therefore be made with the greatest care. So should one introduce a "mind test"?

The University of Tübingen now offers a course "Practical Islamic Theology for Pastoral Care and Social Work" [26] and in Osnabrück you can choose the focus "Congregational Education and Pastoral Care" [27] as part of the course in Islamic theology. However, university graduates often lack practical experience.

The association VIBIS e.V. (Association for Islamic Education, Pastoral Care and Integration) has therefore developed a modular training concept that consists of mandatory and individually additive modules, depending on the area in which the respective candidate has some catching up to do. In this way, you can deploy staff as quickly as possible and train them alongside your job.

The most important basic requirement for a sufficient commitment of Muslim pastors in prison is sufficient financial means: for a good education, for continuous further education, for a mutual exchange, for supervision. And: properly paid pastoral care posts must be created, based on those of the Christian churches, so that the pastors can take care of the prisoners intensively, in the sense of social coexistence and peace. The federal states have progressed to different degrees in their efforts in this regard. [28]


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Prisons can set the course for the future of prisoners, which can lead in very different directions. The returnees from Syria, for example, whose number is increasing in prisons, are seen by many Muslim prisoners as heroes and role models, whom one likes to listen to. If they are not traumatized and disillusioned by their experiences, but hold on to their fanaticism, the danger can multiply quickly. In addition, there are those radicalized prisoners who were not in Syria or Iraq, but still hold radical views and agitate in prison.

If their manipulative agitations and simplified interpretations of Islam are not countered with plausible, Islamic theological arguments, but rather remain unchanged, then there is a great danger that even more young people will become radicalized in prisons.

Hate ideologies, however, cannot be dealt with with naive voluntary work - and unfortunately this includes the underfunded Muslim pastoral care in prisons so far. Professionally organized pastoral care as a contribution to the prevention of radicalization can therefore only be in the interests of all of us.

At the same time, however, the following applies: Pastoral care is neither a deradicalization measure nor intended as such. And: Even the best pastoral care cannot save everyone. In addition, only those who contact the pastor can be reached.

There are several "construction sites" that can be worked on with the help of pastoral care offers, including:
  1. Identity issues,
  2. the understanding of Islam,
  3. world political events (Middle East, Syria, "the West" vs. "the Muslims"),
  4. own emotional or psychological problems.
The importance of such a pastoral offer of help becomes clear to me again and again from the fact that prisoners who are released almost every day speak to me on the street, write me e-mails or call me. Some tell me that one or the other book that I gave them in custody armed them against attempts at indoctrination and saved them from radicalization. Others say thank you and tell me how the pastoral care events and the discussions have helped them and what a good situation they are now. Many also remember one or the other piece of advice or a learned strategy, such as how to deal better with anger. Prison chaplaincy therefore goes far beyond preventing extremism in the narrower sense and can serve society in many ways.

This article first appeared in the anthology "Sie haben kein Plan B", edited by Jana Kärgel. The anthology can be ordered in the bpb shop.