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Meet Mohamed Loueslati – the imam trying to deradicalise French extremists

Deradicalisation, does it work? We meet one French-Tunisian imam who tries to convince prisoners to abandon militancy.
Brussels residents hold a candlelight vigil on November 18 for victims of the Paris attacks, in the suburb of Molenbeek where some of the attackers and suspect Salah Abdeslam lived. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP.
Brussels residents hold a candlelight vigil on November 18 for victims of the Paris attacks, in the suburb of Molenbeek where some of the attackers and suspect Salah Abdeslam lived. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP.

The prison gates slam shut as the Muslim prisoner, typically a young man with a record of petty crime, enters. What happens next is a source of deep concern to authorities engaged in the battle to defeat terrorism.

History shows there is no single path taken by Muslim men and much less often, women, to make them so drawn to extremist causes they are willing to kill and die for in their name. There is the raw example of Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, Tunisian perpetrator of the July 14 Nice massacre, who had no known history of radicalisation. But in one classic route, young prisoners fall under the influence of charismatic fellow inmates who present jihad as a somehow appealing alternative to a feckless, dead-end life.

And it is to men like Mohamed Loueslati, a French-Tunisian imam in the western French city of Rennes, that society then turns to for help. Loueslati, a softly-spoken moderate who has written a book on his experiences, Islam in Prison, leads a group of 25 Muslim prison chaplains who devote many hours each week to visiting prisoners in 20 jails. The aim is to stop impressionable young convicts being radicalised.

These chaplains’ rounds do not extend to the huge jail of Fleury-Mérogis in the southern suburbs of Paris, Europe’s biggest, housing 4,500 prisoners. Had Loueslati been there on April 27, he might have heard the cheers that greeted the arrival of Salah Abdeslam, the only known survivor of the gang that attacked Paris last November, killing 130.

In fairness, they were reportedly outnumbered by other inmates who jeered. But those responsible for the disturbing show of solidarity with a man, newly extradited from Belgium (he lived in Molenbeek neighbourhood which has a high number of migrants from North Africa) and suspected of involvement in the mass slaughter of innocent people, are probably beyond the reach of reasonable argument.

The same limitations apply to the better-educated of those lured by ISIL and other terrorist groups, young people who did not grow up in poverty but enjoyed good backgrounds with the prospect of professional careers they willingly sacrificed in favour of a version of Islam flatly rejected by respected scholars. The most recent example was the Bangladesh outrage of July 1, when 20 people were killed at the Holey Artisan Bakery restaurant in Dhaka, an attack carried out by five men – some of whom came from affluent families.

And while several of the attackers behind the French and Belgian assaults of last November and March this year had criminal pasts, others did not.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the delinquent mass murderer of Bastille night in Nice, had a minor police record (theft, domestic violence and road rage) but had never been jailed. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a supposed ringleader of the Paris killings, was the product of a relatively privileged childhood, sent by his middle-class Moroccan parents to one of the best schools in Brussels, Saint-Pierre à Uccle. Long before those atrocities, Omar Sheikh, a schoolboy chess champion who attended good schools in Britain and his family’s native Pakistan, and briefly the London School of Economics, was sentenced to death for his disputed part in the kidnapping and murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002. An appeal is long-delayed but pending.

One British intelligence report found that two-thirds of UK terror suspects were from middle-class backgrounds, about half were married with or without children, and 90 per cent – far from being loners – were categorised as sociable people with large circles of friends. The report dates from 2011 and may be out of date. But from the court reports about those committing or planning terrorist attacks, or travelling to the conflict zones of Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, there is ample evidence of “good” homes as well as dysfunctional ones producing young adults capable of turning to extremism.

And it is stretching belief to suggest that many such recruits to terrorism would respond to a 66-year-old imam who embraces the values of peace and tolerance they despise.

But Loueslati sees his role as one of prevention. “There are some, a small minority, who do not want to talk and the danger is that they will eventually leave jail without jobs or the means of support and fall back into delinquency or even be lured into terrorism. What I am sure of is that without the work of prison chaplains, we would see a serious growth in the radicalisation of young detainees.”

It is a bone of contention for Loueslati that his group works as volunteers. In the UK, prison chaplains of all faiths are paid. “There is only so much time the volunteers can spend on visits,” he says. “If deradicalisation is a matter for the state, it is also one for civic society. The government has no choice but to professionalise the work we do as chaplains.”

The dangers of radicalisation in prison have been highlighted again this month with publication of extracts from a British government-commissioned report by Ian Acheson, a former prison governor. He concludes that a small number of proselytising extremists among inmates are so dangerous they should be isolated in special units.

Acheson complains of “institutional timidity” and complacency in confronting the problem. He talks of training sessions covering Al Qaeda without even mentioning ISIL. “The problem is serious,” he states.

Acheson was concentrating on British jails but the issue crosses western borders. When the French news magazine L’Express asked Loueslati about men of extremist views acting as “self-appointed imams” within the French prison system, he replied: “Their cobbled, adulterated and war-like Islam, as a sub-culture of violence, causes havoc in jails as it does in the banlieues [immigrant-dominated city suburbs].

“These imams who reduce the Quran to a message of hate exploit the aura of religion to impressionable and vulnerable young people, to encourage them to make war on unbelievers in the West. Fortunately, for most of them, this desire for war is very blurred. And I manage to take them under my wing and calm them.”

France has a prison population of about 68,000, an estimated 60 per cent of them Muslims. Between 1,000 and 2,000 are unofficially considered potential security threats and experimental anti-radicalisation units have been introduced in a number of jails. There are visits from sociologists, psychologists and historians; a range of educational courses from basic literacy to foreign languages; opportunities for artistic expression and discussion groups.If it works, the initiative may begin to make a gradual impact on a major problem.

But these deradicaliation programmes stand little chance of success until society tackles the root causes of disaffection: the discrimination, unemployment and poverty that drive so many young Muslims into a criminal subculture. How to counter the radicalisation of the highly-educated sons or daughters of wealthy or middle-class parents presents a tougher problem. A few have even sent defiant messages home from conflict zones urging their parents to respect their choices and abandon hope of bringing them back.

Studies in Europe and the United States have found that there is no single profile to define those at risk of being influenced.

Perhaps there is one ray of optimism from Loueslati’s dealings with young convicts who might otherwise be lost, if not in every case to extremism, to a cycle of crime and imprisonment. “Between four walls, his world in disarray,” he says, “an offender may reflect on the meaning of life and ask, ‘Why am I here?’. Young people often say, ‘Show us the true values to get out of delinquency, redeem us, make us good citizens’.”

His responses to such questions might have had the ability to change the lives of the men who set out with murder – and self-destruction – in their minds in Paris, Brussels, Nice and beyond.

Colin Randall is a freelance journalist based in France.

Updated: July 21, 2016 04:00 AM