Islam and Prison: America Vs. Europe

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An inmate in a French prison votes in European elections (Photo: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
An inmate in a French prison votes in European elections (Photo: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

An estimated 40,000 inmates in U.S. prisons are converting to Islam every year. At the outset, it is important to note that religious conversion to Islam, or any religion, is not by itself an indicator of future extremism, violent or otherwise.

In the U.S., it should be noted that inmates that convert to Islam have lower recidivism rates than average (in most states, over half of all released inmates recidivate within three years).

Of course, there are instances where conversion to Islam in prison was part of an inmate’s radicalization process.

However, one very noticeable factor is that Islamist radicalization in prison in the U.S. is not nearly as prevalent as it is in Europe.

In Part I of our three-part series on Islam in U.S. Prisons, we explored the question: Why are prisoners converting to Islam?

In Part II, we discussed the problem of prison radicalization – both with Islamist and other forms of extremism.

In Part III of our series (below), we explore the differences between U.S. and European prisons – what the U.S. is doing right and what Europe is doing wrong, specifically, why the problem of radicalization is much greater in Europe than the U.S.


Q: Why is the problem of Islamist radicalization in European prisons so much greater than in the U.S.?

A: The experts point to a number of key factors. First, we can talk about sheer numbers. Although we do not know the percentage of Muslim inmates that are extremists, we do know that the percentage of Muslims in U.S. prisons are much less than the percentage of Muslims in European prisons.

In the U.S., nine percent of all inmates are Muslim. In France, an estimated 70 percent of prisoners are Muslim, in parts of Germany, more than 50 percent of inmates are Muslim, in Belgium, upwards of 35 percent are Muslims and in the UK, 15 percent are Muslims.

Even if the percentage of extremist Muslims in U.S. prisons and European prisons were the same, we can still say that there are less extremist Muslims by percentage in the U.S. prison system.


Q: But it is also generally believed that the percentage of Muslim offenders who are radical are also less in the U.S. Why is this so?

A: Muslims in the U.S. are generally less extreme than their European counterparts. This is most likely due to a number of factors. Firstly, in the U.S., Muslims are more integrated into society.

This is because, for starters, in the U.S., religion in and of itself is generally not seen as a threat to American identity. (The hostility that does exist to Islam is largely focused on security issues.)

Americans are considerably more religious than their European counterparts. Contrast that to Europe, where a religious identity can be seen as endangering national identity.

America also has the concept of a “melting pot.” This is very different from European multiculturalism, which has served to isolate immigrant communities and cause feelings of alienation.

In addition, America does not have a class system like many European countries.

These factors all contribute to the fact that Muslims in America are more integrated into American society. They are more educated, they have a better relationship with government and they are not as hostile to law enforcement agencies.

In addition, there hasn’t been an unprecedented and overwhelming flow of unvetted immigrants into the U.S. as there has been in Europe.

The enormous numbers of immigrants have contributed to a criminality-terror nexus in Europe. There is a lot of research connecting criminality and radicalization in Europe. A 2017 report by the European Union Institute for Security Studies said between 50-80 percent of Europeans that joined ISIS had been convicted of more than one crime.


Q: What are the other factors that make radicalization so much more prevalent in European prisons than in the U.S.?

A: In U.S. prisons, literature and chaplains are now highly vetted so there is less possibility that extremist literature and chaplains can influence prisoners.

Contrast this to the situation in the state of North-Rhine Westphaliain in Germany, for example. Out of 114 prison chaplains, 97 of them were fired after German authorities carried out security checks on them and found out they were actually Turkish civil servants whose salaries were paid for by the Turkish government! (Germany fired the imams after Turkey refused to let them be vetted by German officials.)

Overcrowding is another contributing factor. Because there is less overcrowding in U.S. prisons, chaplains are more involved with individual prisoners. Chaplains are able to follow-up with prisoners, even once they get out of prison.

In Europe, there are fewer chaplains per prisoner, and once inmates are released from European prisons, authorities are overwhelmed and can’t follow-up properly.


Q: Are there other issues with European prisons that contribute to greater levels of radicalization?

A: Yes. European prisons are much more lenient and allow much more socializing between prisoners. In Europe, the concept of a “jailhouse imam” from within the prison population is much more prevalent than in the U.S. Radical Islamists in particular seek these leadership roles among Muslims in prisons.

In the U.S., security restrictions placed on known extremist recruiters in U.S. prisons are severe.

Another leniency in Europe which contributes to radicalization is the length of prison terms. Jail sentences in Europe are much shorter than in the U.S.  (That’s why many European politicians don’t want foreign ISIS fighters tried in their native European countries because they know that they will be back on the streets in just a few short years.)

So, for example, a Muslim criminal can enter a prison and easily become exposed to extremist ideology and become radicalized. Because jail sentences are much generally much shorter, he will be released and free to wreak havoc.

Shorter prison sentences also mean there is essentially not enough time to run effective deradicalization programs as well. Coupled with improper vetting of chaplains, overcrowding and no follow-up once the former inmate is on the outside, it’s a recipe for disaster.


Q: What’s the difference in the U.S. when a Muslim or Muslim convert leaves prison?

A: In the U.S., moderate Muslims largely controlled the narrative of Islam in American prisons and have taken a lot of responsibility for the reintegration of Muslims back into society.

For example, Muslim organizations have launched programs like Link Outside to help former convicts lead productive, crime-free lives.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons also maintains a standalone counter-terrorism unit and a liaison to the Joint Terrorism Task Force. This allows the unit to effectively communicate with law enforcement and intelligence agencies at the federal, state and local levels.

U.S. officials have said that the lack of intelligence sharing among European countries has exacerbated the problem of keeping track of radicalized individuals once they are released from prison.


Q: In a high profile case, John Walker Lindh, an American convicted of terror offenses with the Taliban in Afghanistan, was released last Thursday, May 23, 2019, after serving 17 years of his 20-year sentence.

Johnny Spann, father of Michael Johnny Spann, the U.S. soldier killed in the operation in which Lindh was captured, petitioned for an investigation, claiming that Lindh ignored conditions of a plea agreement he reached in 2002.

Has Lindh been rehabilitated?

A: Lindh is reportedly not rehabilitated and is said to have made comments expressing support for ISIS and his intentions to resume jihadi activities once released.

You can expect that the impact Lindh may have had on fellow prisoners and his influence once outside of prison will be monitored closely.



Why Extremist Chaplains Have Access to U.S. Prisons

UK Islamic Prison Chaplains Propagating Radicalization

French Prisons: Universities of Jihad 


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