Editor’s Note: As French Muslims are anxiously waiting for outcome of the French presidential elections, with Islam being put at the center of the political debate, we find it a good opportunity to highlight some of the social challenges French Muslims go through.
In the case of French Muslims, it may be a variety of factors such as chronic poverty, lack of opportunities, isolation, humiliation, stigma, racism, bans on religious freedoms and rights such as niqab/burka, double standards in society, rejection, as well as hopelessness and chronic incarceration.
Additionally, provocation – blatant as well as subliminal messages – about one’s religion, culture or familial lifestyle, played over and over again in media messages can serve to lead an otherwise grounded individual towards a radical start. The messages we hear from society about us or our beliefs can cause irreparable damage in some individuals. As integration is sought and often denied, radical thoughts sadly appear to be an only option for some.
The situation of incarceration in France is a unique one, although similar to the USA’s incarceration rate of black Americans. In comparison, according to MSNBC, in 2011 there were more African-Americans in prison or “under the watch” of the justice system than were enslaved in the United States in 1850.”
Further, “the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world–about 1.6 million people in 2010.” Mass incarceration in the U.S. is a problem, one that too often serves to line the pockets of or profit prisons while tearing families apart and targeting people of color disproportionately.
While the U.S. targets blacks or people of color, France appears to be targeting Muslims, with statistics showing that 50 to 60% of the prison population is Muslim. According to the National Post, “The radicalization of incarcerated young men is a recognized problem in a country where Muslims make up a disproportionate share of the prison population.”
The Washington Post interviewed Samia El Alaoui Talibi, who is one of only four women allowed to minister to the women’s block at Lille-Sequedin Detention Center in far northern France. She states that when entering the prison, most of the guards look at her with contempt and view her as a prisoner as well. Talibi states that “This prison is majority Muslim — as is virtually every house of incarceration in France.”
But Why Too Many Muslims Are in French Prisons?
Moussa Khedimellah, a sociologist who has spent several years conducting research on Muslims in the French penal system states that “the high percentage of Muslims in prisons is a direct consequence of the failure of the integration of minorities in France.”
In France’s prisons, religious rights are minimal, if at all.
According to Talibi’s husband Hassan, who works with her in the prison ministry, “Muslim inmates said they sense other religious snubs. Christians are allowed packages containing gifts and special treats from their families at Christmas, but Muslims do not receive the same privilege for the Ramadan holy days.”
“We’re careful not to call them Christmas packages because Muslims would ask for Ramadan packages,” said Aurélie Leclerq, 33, director of the Lille-Sequedin Detention Center. “We call them end-of-the-year packages. We can’t use a religious term or some people get tense.”
Hassan Talibi told the Washington Post that the French prison system had made progress since he began his ministry a decade ago. Last year, the government set guidelines for all prisons to follow on religious practices, rather than allowing directors to arbitrarily set their own rules, he said.
The problem of radicalization of prisoners is not surprising, given the lack of Islamic guidance they receive once they are incarcerated, as well as previously living in a society that marginalizes and ostracizes them. Vice News addresses the case of a prison in France that is doing an “experiment” where they are isolating radicalized prisoners.
Prison officials feel this will prevent the radicalization of other inmates. However, they seem not to understand that, in part, it is isolation, rejection, lack of acceptance and loss of hope that may have got them there in the first place. This may only serve to further radicalize them.
Radicals or Victims?
French sociologist and author Olivier Bobineau told Vice News, “The radicals are victims of three types of frustration: political and religious, economic, and the lack of social recognition. For those who radicalize, religion brings hope, equality, and self-esteem. Isolation is only a short- or medium-term measure. If you really want to tackle radicalization, you have to provide solutions to those three frustrations.”
First published: January 2016